Since the National Book Foundation announced the long list to its annual awards back in early September, speculation of who might (and who deserved) to win has been hotly debated in literary circles. The one thing people cheered for was the diversity of the list, a balanced consideration of work by women, men, black, latino, asian, and caucasian writers. This inclusivity continued once the long list whittled to a short one and up until last night, no one could argue that there was any bias in the type of writer up for the awards.
At a dinner and ceremony hosted by Emmy- and Tony-award winner Cynthia Nixon, two lifetime achievements honorees and four winners writing in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, were finally unveiled. They were novelist Jesmyn Ward, journalist Masha Gessen, poet Frank Bidart, and YA author Robin Benway. Ward’s win is especially notable as it makes her the first women to receive the NBA award for fiction twice, having previously won in 2011 for her book Salvage the Bones.
Ward’s winning novel this year, Sing, Unburied, Sing, gives an intense and heartfelt account of three generations of a New Orleans family, right up through Hurricane Katrina. “I still find myself having uncomfortable conversations with reluctant readers who initially didn’t want to read my work, “Ward said during her brief acceptance speech. “They said, ‘What do I have in common with a pregnant 15-year-old?’ They said, ‘Why should I read about a 13-year-old poor black boy? Or his neglectful, drug-addicted mother? What do they have to say to me?’ And you, my fellow writers and editors and publishing people and National Book Foundation folks, read my work and you answered, ‘plenty.’ You looked at me, and the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women, and men, and you saw yourself.”
The selection of Gessen’s non-fiction work The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, surprised even the writer herself who said as much during her acceptance speech, even noting that she was “rooting for someone else.” Gessen’s remarkable book provides an overview to Russia’s failed attempt at democracy and the rise and Putinism. “I had never thought a Russia book could be a finalist for the National Book Award,” she said during her acceptance speech, “but things have changed, [so] it ended up being a book about the nature of a country’s turn away from democracy, about opportunities not taken, and things that didn’t happen.”
As the most elderly winner of the evening, poet Frank Bidart scored the poetry award for his Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965–2017, a gathering of over 100 poems, spanning over 700 pages, from the last 50 years of Bidart’s career. As he said during his acceptance speech: “I realized during the past month that I’m almost twice as old as any of the other finalists. Writing the poems was how I survived.” Bidart also stated that “one premise of art is that anything personal, seen deeply enough, becomes general, becomes impersonal. I hope that the journeys these poems go on will help others to survive as well.”
Other honorees of the evening included Robin Benway’s young adult novel Far From the Tree, which follows the story of an adopted teen mother who is forced to put her own baby up for adoption. Novelist Annie Proulx and Scholastic president Richard Robinson were both honored with lifetime achievement awards.