At Wednesday night’s National Book Awards, people of color took home the top prizes. We also saw three Latinas honored in one night.
Since March 16, 1950, the National Book Awards has awarded literary talent in the United States. Though it has undergone changes since then, the awards now recognize five authors and books each year in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature, and young people’s literature. At the 69th edition of the awards, Elizabeth Acevedo, Sigrid Nunez, and Isabel Allende all accepted awards.
With her debut novel, The Poet X, Acevedo, a Dominican-American poet, won for young people’s literature. The book follows 15-year-old Xiomara Batista, an Afro-Dominican teen who begins rebelling against her strict, religious household. To cope with the issues at home and the questions she has about religion, she turns to writing, something she originally does for just herself.
The story is for Afro-Latina teens who never saw themselves seen before. “I think Young People’s Literature will continue to become a landing place for young people to see themselves, perhaps when they’ve never seen themselves before,” Acevedo told Literary Hub. “A beacon that calls them home—whatever class, race, gender, etc. they might be. But I also hope that YPL will continue being a springboard where young people arrive with their own notions of this country and world and when they arrive to the page they are flung into a different understanding of who we are and can be as a society. At its best, YPL honors the voices and experiences of young people and also challenges them to confront the most difficult issues of our times, the ones that they have the imagination and wherewithal to conquer where we adults have failed.”
Sigrid Nunez, who has a Panamanian-Chinese dad and a German mom, won the fiction award for her novel, The Friend. The book tells the story of a woman who is mourning the death of a mentor and ends up bonding with his dog.
While she received one of literature’s most important awards on Wednesday, Nunez said she didn’t expect to build a community through her writing. “I thought it was something I could do alone and hidden, in the privacy of my own room,” she said in her acceptance speech. “How lucky to have discovered that writing books made the miraculous possible, to be removed from the world and be part of the world at the same time. And tonight how happy I am to feel a part of the world.”
And Isabel Allende accepted a lifetime achievement award. In the last 40 years, Allende has written more than 20 works, including The House of the Spirits, Daughter of Fortune, and Paula. On Wednesday, she became the first Spanish-language writer to receive the honor. She accepted the award on “behalf of millions of people like myself who have come to this country in search of a new life.”
In her speech, she said she’s thankful for the opportunities the US has brought her, but she remained critical of the rise of nationalism and racism that have taken over politics. And she offered advice on how to move forward. “The values and principles that sustain our civilization are under siege,” she said. “If we listen to another person’s story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred.”
The other winners of the night include Jeffrey C. Stewart, who won the nonfiction award for The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke; Justin Phillip Reed, the poetry award recipient for his book Indecency; and Yoko Tawada and Margaret Mitsutani won the translated literature award for The Emissary.