Thursday, November 17, 2011

National Book Award Winners Announced!

Last night, the National Book Award Foundation announced the winners of the 2011 awards in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and young people's literature, while also honoring poet John Ashbery, who received the National Book Award in 1976 for his masterpiece, Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and Mitch Kaplan, founder of the Miami Book Festival, with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.  Actor John Lithgow served as the evening's MC.  For the second year in a row, the winners represented the diversity of American letters, a counterpoint to 2009's all-male, monochrome ceremony.  This year amazingly saw three women of color, two African Americans and an Asian American, take three of the top prizes.

Nikky Finney, a Cave Canem faculty member and professor at the University of Kentucky, received the National Book Award in Poetry for her powerful collection Head Off & Split, which was published by TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press. I have met and adore Nikky Finney and her work, and am incredibly happy for her, as I am for poet Parneshia Jones, who oversees the NUP poetry series and for the TriQuarterly imprint. Finney is the third African-American woman and the first out African-American lesbian to win the National Book Award for Poetry, and her acceptance speech noted not only her own trajectory as a poet and thinker, but the larger history in which she and all black writers in this country work. The finalists included a number of amazing writers, any of whom could also have been honored: Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, Adrienne Rich (who received the award in 1974 for her landmark collection Diving Into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972), and Bruce Smith.

Jesmyn Ward received the National Book Award for Fiction, for her beautiful second novel, Salvage the Bones, published by Bloomsbury USA. Ward's novel spans a 12-day period in which a Katrina-like hurricane is gathering over the Gulf of Mexico, and follows the experiences of a quartet of near-parentless children in Mississippi. In her acceptance speech, Ward spoke about why she began writing, and how her experiences have nurtured her work. She is a past Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and this year is the John and Renée Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is also professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. This year's other finalists were: Andrew Krivak, Julie Otsuka, Téa Obreht, and Edith Pearlman.

Stephen Greenblatt, one of the most acclaimed living Shakespearean and Renaissance scholars, the John Cogan University Professor at Harvard University, and one of the intellectual pioneers of "the New Historicism," received the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his critical book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this work, Greenblatt explores how Poggio Brancciolini's fortuitous discovery on a library shelf of Lucretius's De rerum naturum (On the Nature of Things) helped to precipitate the European Renaissance, and went on to inspire creative minds ranging from Galileo to Charles Darwin to Sigmund Freud.   Finalists included the late Manning Marable, Mary Gabriel, Lauren Redniss, and Deborah Baker.

In the Young People's Literature category, my former New York University classmate Thanhha Lai won for her young adult novel Inside Out and Back Again, published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.  In this poetic, autobiographical work of fiction, Lai tells the story of Hà, a young girl growing up in Vietnam who with her family must flee their native Saigon as the country falls to the North Vietnamese forces, and settle in Alabama, which feels like a foreign country within the new foreign country to which she slowly acclimates. Lai teaches at Parsons School of Design, at the New School.  Finalists included Franny Billingsley, Debbie Dahl Edwardson, Albert Marrin, and Gary D. Schmidt.

You can see the awards here, at I highly recommend the various acceptance speeches, especially Finney's, which is woven as artfully as one of her poems. As she concludes, "I am speechless." For true!

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