This article titled “National Book Awards: Jesmyn Ward wins major prize for Sing, Unburied, Sing” was written by Lanre Bakare and Steph Harmon, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th November 2017 09.09 Asia/Kolkata
Jesmyn Ward has won one of the highest awards in American literature for the second time, taking home the National Book Award’s top prize for fiction for her critically lauded novel about race, poverty, loss and family in America’s south: Sing, Unburied, Sing.
At the ceremony, held in New York and hosted by actor Cynthia Nixon, Ward saw off competition from Elliot Ackerman (Dark at the Crossing), Lisa Ko (The Leavers), Min Jin Lee (Pachinko) and Carmen Maria Machado (Her Body and Other Parties: Stories).
Ward, 40, won the same award in 2011 for her novel Salvage the Bones. Sing, Unburied, Sing is half road novel and half ghost story, following a family that lives in a fictional Mississippi town, post–Hurricane Katrina.
“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: ‘People will not read your work because these are not universal stories,’ ” Ward said.
“I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people, or black people, or southerners, but as my career progressed … I still encountered that mindset, time and time again.”
Ward spoke of people who would contact her asking what her characters had to offer them, and praised the judges and her readers for seeing themselves in her writing. “You looked at me and at the people I love and write about – my poor, my black; my Southern children, women and men – and you saw yourself. You saw your grief, your love, your losses; your regrets, your joy, your hope.”
The nonfiction category was won by the Russian and American journalist Masha Gessen, for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.
Facilitated by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, Gessen’s book weaves through four decades of Russian history, and the country’s turn away from democracy – a topic which becomes particularly timely in Donald Trump’s America.
“I never thought that a Russia book could ever be longlisted or shortlisted for the National Book Award but, of course, things have changed,” Gessen said, to laughs.
The night’s other major awards were for poetry and young people’s literature. In the poetry category, a three-time Pulitzer finalist, Frank Bidart, won for Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. “I’ve realised during the past month that I”m almost twice as old as any of the other finalists,” Bidart said. “Writing the poems was how I survived.”
The young people’s literary category was won by Robin Benway for Far from the Tree.
About 1,500 books were submitted for the awards, which are restricted to works published between 1 December 2016 and 30 November 2017. Of the 20 finalists this year, 15 were women. Each finalist receives $1,000, and the winners take home $10,000 each.
Established in 1950, and administrated by the National Book Foundation since 1988, the award’s former winners have included Ralph Ellison, Jonathan Franzen, Saul Bellow and more recently Ta-Nehisi Coates, who won in 2015 for his nonfiction book Between the World and Me.
Coates’s win signalled a shift in direction for the awards, whose judges tended to favour more obscure choices rather than well-known writers covering topical issues. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won last year and was published by Oprah Winfrey’s imprint.
Other award winners on Wednesday night included the former National Book Award winner Annie Proulx, who was given the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, and Dick Robinson, president and chief executive of Scholastic, who received the literarian award for outstanding service to the American literary community.
The former US president Bill Clinton gave Robinson his award, and Anne Hathaway (who featured in the adaptation of her short story Brokeback Mountain) gave a passionate introduction to Proulx, saying her work helped her to “welcome the tenderness of loss” and the “beauty and value of loss, which is to say life itself”.
Receiving the award, Proulx said: “I didn’t start writing until I was 58. So if you’ve been thinking about it and putting it off – go ahead.” She then launched into a searing critique of contemporary life.
She said that we’re living in a “Kafka-esque times” with “flicking threats of nuclear war” and that humans are stripping the Earth of its natural resources and urged the audience to get involved in citizen science projects to protect the natural environment.
The 2016 National Book Award finalists and winners
Dark at the Crossing, by Elliot Ackerman
The Leavers, by Lisa Ko
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, by Carmen Maria Machado
Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward
Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen
Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean
Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, by Frank Bidart
The Book of Endings, by Leslie Harrison
WHEREAS, by Layli Long Soldier
In the Language of My Captor, by Shane McCrae
Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems, by Danez Smith
Young people’s literature
What Girls Are Made Of, by Elana K Arnold
Far from the Tree, by Robin Benway
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika L Sánchez
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, by Rita Williams-Garcia
American Street, by Ibi Zoboi
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