On Wednesday night, under the cavernous dome of Cipriani’s ballroom in New York, women dominated the National Book Awards. As noted by host Cynthia Nixon, 15 out of the 20 finalists this year were women. The sole man who won was Frank Bidart—a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist—whose collection Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 is, as Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker, “a poetic ur-text about how homophobia, doubt, and a parent’s confusing love can shape a gay child.” But across the fiction, non-fiction, and young people’s categories, women cleaned up.
During Robin Benway’s acceptance speech for her win in the Young People’s Literature category (for her book Far From the Tree), she thanked her grandmother for teaching her a valuable lesson about creativity. It’s not that “bolt of lightning,” she said, nor is it inspiration. “It’s about getting up and making the coffee and getting to work to find the room that the lightning lit up for them at that one moment.” Her book deals with adoption and the meaning of family; in it, an adopted teen searches for her biological family and interrogates what it even means to be related to someone by blood or by circumstance or both.
Masha Gessen, winner of the prize for Non-Fiction for her book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Claimed Russia, seemed surprised during her speech. “I never thought a Russia book could actually be longlisted or shortlisted for the National Book Award,” she said wryly. “But of course things have, um, changed.”
Fiction, the final award of the night, went to Jesmyn Ward, author of the luminous Sing, Unburied, Sing and one-time National Book Award winner for her 2011 debut, Salvage the Bones. Though she’s won the award twice now, her acceptance speech touched on the occasionally infuriating attitude in the publishing industry that literature about marginalized communities does not sell. “Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories,” she said. “I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners. As my career progressed and I got some affirmations, I still encountered that mindset every now and again.”
Her novel is an odyssey: Jojo, a 13-year-old biracial boy, and his mother Leonie, a black woman, take a trip to see Jojo’s father, a white man named Michael, as he is released from prison. It’s a story about their family and the ghosts that haunt them—a narrative with larger themes that are universal, despite the specificity of the subject matter.
“You looked at me, at the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women and men — and you saw yourself,” Ward said to the audience. “You saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regrets, your joy, your hope.”