“I know there’s so much going on in the world, but this is still our night, and it’s still a big deal,” host Jason Reynolds said at the top of the show, recalling how he soothed his nerves for the evening’s presentation by calling his mother.
Announced from the rectangles of individual livestreams rather than Cipriani Wall Street (where the ceremony is typically held), the awards were served with recurring reminders of why books matter.
“It’s hard to write when it feels like the world is falling apart, and it is even harder to write well,” said judge Roxane Gay, who announced the award for fiction. “We have a responsibility as writers to respond to this political moment. We have a responsibility to bear witness.”
The fiction prize went to Charles Yu for “Interior Chinatown,” which the National Book Awards described as a “bright, bold, gut-punch of a novel.”
“I prepared nothing, which tells you about how realistic I thought this was,” Yu said when the feed turned to him to accept the award for his book, which is written in the form of a screenplay. “I don’t know what is happening: this seems about right for 2020 because I’m pretty sure this is all a simulation.”
The honor for nonfiction went to “The Dead Are Rising: The Life of Malcolm X,” written and researched by father-daughter team Les Payne and Tamara Payne. In her speech, Payne described the moment as “bittersweet” as she accepted the award on behalf of her father, who died in 2018 before the book’s publication.
“I want to thank my father, Les Payne, for committing to this enormous work,” she said. “And for bringing me on as his co-pilot.”
Don Mee Choi took home the poetry award for “DMZ Colony.”
“Poetry and translation have changed my life,” she said. Centering voices from the Korean War, the poet’s collection gathers together stories, poems, photographs and drawings. “It is more important than ever that we engage in the non-predatory ideal labor of writing and reading poetry and translation and be on the side of the struggles of those sat upon here and abroad.”
Kacen Callender’s “King and the Dragonflies” won for young people’s literature. And “Tokyo Ueno Station,” written by Yu Miri and translated by Morgan Giles, was honored with the translated literature prize.
Carolyn Reidy, who was the president and chief executive of Simon and Schuster at the time of her death on May 12, was posthumously awarded the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Novelist Walter Mosley received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
“We writers speak to our readers, but at the same time, they receive our stories, applying them to their own unique experience,” Mosely said. “In this way, writing is political and democratic in the extreme. We are free in our minds to imagine, to conjure anything — anything at all.”
The award, given out at the start of the stream, marked the first time that a Black man was honored with the recognition in the organization’s 32-year history. Mosley noted this, stating: “There’s a great weight hanging over the reception of an award when the underlying subject is ‘the first Black man to receive.’”
“One might ask: ‘Can such a thing make a difference? Is this a dying gasp, or a first breath? Is today different from any other day over the past 400 years?’” he posited. “I prefer to believe that we are on the threshold of a new day — that this evening is but one of 10,000 steps being taken to recognize the potential of this nation.”
Like previous years, the evening served as a fundraiser for the National Book Foundation.
After a montage expressing why the institution needs support, executive director Lisa Lucas (who departs the Foundation in January for Pantheon and Shocken Books) quipped: “I’m just a girl standing here in a ball gown and a pair of Crocs in a library asking you to love books with money.”
A full list of the 2020 National Book Awards finalists and winners can be found here.
Top Image: Winners of the 2020 National Book Awards. Book covers courtesy the National Book Foundation.