NEW YORK – Jason Mott’s Book of Hell, a surrealistic metaphor about an author’s promotional tour and his haunted past and present, has won the National Book Award for fiction – a plot twist Mott had not imagined himself.
Book of Hell is a satirical take on a black author’s adventure on the road to a promotional tour – Mott himself had his share of experiences while talking about previous works such as his debut novel They returned – and a sharp and disorienting tale of racial violence and identity that draws on the latest headlines and the author’s childhood.
“I want to dedicate this award to all the other crazy kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullies, the ones who are so weird that they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and those around them,” Mott , 43, said in his speech of thanks.
He also quoted “those who, despite this, refuse to grow out of their imagination, refuse to give up their dreams, refuse to deny, diminish their identity or their truths or their love – unlike so many others.”
Tiya Miles’ Everything she wore: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake was the winner for non-fiction.
Malinda Lo’s Last night in the Telegraph Club – a story of cross-cultural love of the same sex that takes place in the 1950s – won for youth literature.
The Poetry Prize was awarded to Martín Espadas Floats, and best translation went to Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.
Winners of the competition categories on Wednesday night will each receive $ 10,000.
Two honorary awards were presented: Author-playwright Karen Tei Yamashita received a Lifetime Achievement Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and author-librarian-NPR commentator Nancy Pearl received the Literary Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Society.
The 72nd annual awards were presented by the non-profit National Book Foundation. While other literary events such as PEN America’s annual gala were held in person in the fall, the foundation decided in September to hold a virtual ceremony for the second year in a row, citing the complications of organizing a gathering of “authors, publishers and guests traveling from All over the country.”
Yamashita and Pearl were among the honorary recipients who spoke of an insecure gift, worrying about the wave of efforts to censor books in schools and libraries and about violent attacks on racial minorities. Some finalists, fiction and non-fiction, searched for meaning in the distant past, regardless of Nicole Eustace’s historical work Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, or such novels as Lauren Groff’s narrative from the 12th-13th. century Matrix and Robert Jones, Jr.’s Slavery History The prophets.
Both Groff and Jones say that exploring a past is an inspiring way to understand the present. Groff’s novel is based in part on the medieval author Marie de France, an outcast from the French royal court who takes over a run-down monastery in England and helps build it into an economic and social force. Men are almost completely absent and unmentioned in Matrix, which centers on Marie’s flourishing of religious and other patriarchal institutions.
“I was deeply impressed with how the present moment and that period of history spoke to each other, from nearly a millennium apart,” Groff, a triple National Book Award finalist, said in a recent interview. “I saw at the time the germ of how we got there, where we are, and how we treat women – the way we still have a lot of ambivalence about female power.”
Jones invented – completely – a love story between two enslaved men in Mississippi, Isaiah and Samuel. While such famous slave novels as Toni Morrisons Beloved drawing on historical records for their plots, Jones admitted that he had no basis for Isaiah and Samuel beyond his certainty that men like them went undocumented. He recalled watching a video by British journalist Esther Armah, who said her Ghanaian father and great-grandfather and others in their community did not categorize relationships by sexuality.
“It was all considered natural and normal,” he said. “And it gave me the courage to write about people like Samuel and Isaiah. People like Samuel and Isaiah must have existed.”
The event hosted actress-writer-comedian Phoebe Robinson, who praised books as a “passport” to the wider world, though she joked that her own books did not bring her to the rare spot for award-winning finalists. Actor Dion Graham of The thread served as the main announcer, with Kerry Washington and Rita Moreno among those who helped introduce individual categories.
The National Book Awards were established in 1950 and have undergone numerous developments, with categories expanded over a period to more than 20 and reduced to as few as four. In recent years, the Book Fund has added a category for books in translation and began announcing long lists of 10 in each category before bringing them to five.
Judge panels reviewed more than 1,800 submitted books. This year’s judges included such acclaimed authors as Eula Biss, Ilya Kaminsky and Charles Yu, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction.