On a rather frigid night in New York City, hours after sundown, a constellation of the U.S. publishing industry's bright lights gathered at the National Book Awards to honor their brightest this year — and to put forth a fiery defense of the possibilities of their medium.
"In our inexorable pursuit of freedom and human rights, books serve us as weapons and also as shields," declared the ceremony's MC, a shaggy-bearded and shaven-headed Nick Offerman. "They are perhaps the greatest creation of humankind."
Then — fittingly for a ceremony that swung comfortably between resolve and ribaldry — he cracked a few sex jokes.
But as always, the winners were the real stars of the evening. The National Book Foundation awarded laurels to works in five categories Wednesday night, including a new one honoring translated literature.
- Sigrid Nunez's The Friend won the honors in fiction.
- Jeffrey C. Stewart won the nonfiction prize for The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.
- Justin Phillip Reed's collection Indecency won for poetry.
- Yoko Tawada's The Emissary, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, won the inaugural award for translated literature.
- Elizabeth Acevedo's Poet X won for young people's literature.
Judges plucked the five works from a field of 1,637 books submitted by publishers. Now, they join a pantheon of National Book Award winners dating back to 1950 — including William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison and Flannery O'Connor.
But for all that tradition, the spotlight Wednesday fell partly on a fresh-faced newcomer: the translated literature category.
The focus was all the more accentuated by the National Book Foundation's choice for this year's lifetime achievement honors. Novelist Isabel Allende was the first Spanish-language author — and just the second born outside the U.S. — to receive the award.
Born in Peru, raised in Chile, Allende fled the country with her family when Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet took power in the 1970s. In the decades since, Allende has written about two dozen books, perhaps none more widely read than her debut novel, The House of the Spirits.
And all along, she said her sense of uprootedness has informed both her literature and her life. Appropriately enough, that led her to a sex joke of her own: "I dream, cook, make love and write in Spanish. Make love — I would feel ridiculous panting in English," she quipped.
But her point was broader than a single one-liner could contain. In a "time of nationalism and racism, of cruelty and fanaticism," she asserted that it's crucial to remember that — especially in the U.S. — "everybody descends from someone who came from another place."
In this respect, she said, writing and reading offer indispensable instruments.
"I write to preserve memory against the erosion of oblivion and to bring people together. I believe in the power of stories. If we listen to another person's story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred," Allende said, "because we realize that the similarities that bring us together are many more than the differences that separate us."
It was a sentiment echoed later in the night by Acevedo, whose Poet X won the National Book Award for young people's literature. The daughter of Dominican immigrants, she said she goes through the world "with a chip on my shoulder."
"As the child of immigrants, as a black woman, as a Latina, as someone whose accented voice holds certain neighborhoods, whose body holds certain stories, I always feel like I have to prove that I am worthy enough and there will never be an award or accolade that will take that away," she told the crowd.
"But every single time I meet a reader who looks at me and says, 'I have never seen my story until I read yours,' I'm reminded of why this matters. And that's not going to be an award and it's not going to be an accolade. It's going to be looking someone in the face and saying, 'I see you,' and in return being told that I am seen."
- Jamel Brinkley: A Lucky Man
- Lauren Groff: Florida
- Brandon Hobson: Where the Dead Sit Talking
- Rebecca Makkai: The Great Believers
- Sigrid Nunez: The Friend
- Colin G. Calloway: The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation
- Victoria Johnson: American Eden: David Hosack, Botany, and Medicine in the Garden of the Early Republic
- Sarah Smarsh: Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
- Jeffrey C. Stewart: The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke
- Adam Winkler: We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights
- Rae Armantrout: Wobble
- Terrance Hayes: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
- Diana Khoi Nguyen: Ghost Of
- Justin Phillip Reed: Indecency
- Jenny Xie: Eye Level
- Négar Djavadi: Disoriental
Translated by Tina Kover
- Hanne Ørstavik: Love
Translated by Martin Aitken
- Domenico Starnone: Trick
Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Yoko Tawada: The Emissary
Translated by Margaret Mitsutani
- Olga Tokarczuk: Flights
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Young People's Literature
- Elizabeth Acevedo: The Poet X
- M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
- Leslie Connor: The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle
- Christopher Paul Curtis: The Journey of Little Charlie
- Jarrett J. Krosoczka: Hey, Kiddo