After last year’s unfortunate National Book Awards ceremony, when the one winner of color Jacqueline Woodson suffered emcee Daniel Handler’s “monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist…attempts at humor,” this year’s awards honored the most diverse set of authors to grace the NBA stage. The heavily-favored, agenda-setting Ta-Nehisi Coates won the nonfiction award and provided a powerful testimonial to the slain friend who inspired his book and the climate that African Americans still face very day — and he was joined by two other authors of color in the winner’s circle.
In the biggest surprise of the evening, however, the one male fiction author in contention, Adam Johnson, claimed the award for his book of stories Fortune Smiles (to add to his Pulitzer Prize for The Orphan Master’s Son). He even acknowledged, “I was having a calm evening because this was not going to happen.”
In his acceptance speech, Coates noted how his book “comes out of a very real place” and paid tribute to the late Prince Jones: “I’ve never met an individual who was so filled with love and compassion” and he “was killed because he was mistaken for a criminal.” Coates turned the celebratory atmosphere quietly, powerfully serious when he noted that, “at the heart of our country is the presumption that black people somehow have a predisposition towards criminality.”
Coates observed, “I have waited for 15 years for this moment, because when Prince Jones was killed there were no cameras. There was nobody looking. The officer who killed him was not prosecuted…and was sent back out to work as if nothing happened. As if Prince Jones’s life didn’t matter at all.” Coates declared, “You won’t enroll me in this lie; you won’t make me part of it…. That was what we did with Between the World and Me.”
The first award winner to be named during the evening, Neal Shusterman, first joked, “I finally achieved my father’s dream for me, to be an NBA star.” But he moved on to a moving speech that thanked “every editor in my career who has really shaped me as a writer” and then told the story of how his book Challenger Deep was inspired by his son Brendan’s long but ultimately successful battle with mental illness. “We have to open up and talk about it more so we can understand it better,” Shusterman said, calling his adult son up to the podium to share the award with him.
A more casual Robin Coste Lewis came to the podium for the poetry award for Voyage of the Sable Venus and said with a little surprise, “I was totally chillin’ at my table with my buds.” She quickly added, “Thank you so much for this profound and unfathomable honor.”
Earlier in the evening, New York City Department of Education chancellor Carmen Farina presented the Literarian Award to James Patterson. “I am the elephant in the room, bull in china shop, the Big Mac at Cipriani,” Patterson quipped, after which he told several anecdotes about growing up in Newburgh, NY. As for his accomplishments and charitable donations, Patterson said, “I’m compelled to do the best I can, compelled to tell the best stories, especially for librarians and booksellers.” He added: “I feel that publishing needs to innovate much more. I want to help booksellers and school libraries in every way I can….Let’s all be Literarians, whatever the hell that means. Let’s find the next generation of readers out there, and bookstores, and libraries, and healthy flourishing libraries.”
Jennifer Egan presented Don DeLillo with the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. DeLillo requested in advance that his speech not be videotaped, so only the audio portion was broadcast on the livestream. After listing a number of books that evoked significant memories, he said, “I understand the power of memory that a book carries with me. Who I was, where I was, what these books meant to me when I read them for the first time.” DeLillo then paid tribute to peers who had recently passed away such as EL Doctorow and Robert Stone, after which he closed with:”When I visit the room I’m not the writer. That’s the guy who lives down the hall. Here I’m not the writer at all. I’m the grateful reader.”
The full roster of award winners:
Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson (Random House)
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau)
Young People’s Literature
Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman (Harper Children’s)
Voyage of the Sable Venus, by Robin Coste Lewis (Knopf)