National Book Awards Honor Isabel Allende: ‘I’ve Found a Place’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Even as five new National Book Award winners were named, Chilean-American author Isabel Allende captured the most moving moment with her lifetime achievement honor.

Isabel Allende speaks at Wednesday evening’s (November 14) National Book Awards, on receiving the 2018 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Allende: ‘Maybe I’m Not an Alien, After All’
In a deeply felt acceptance speech that focused on her status as an acclaimed Chilean-American author—in a time of rising hostility to immigrants in the Trumpian United States—Isabel Allende told a New York City audience Wednesday evening (November 14) that the National Book Award’s 2018 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters has special meaning for her.

“Although I am critical about many things in this country,” she said onstage at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan, “I am very proud to be an American citizen.

“This national award is an extraordinary gift to me. It means that maybe I’m not an alien after all. Maybe I’ve found a place I can belong. Maybe I’m not going anywhere anymore.”

Greeted with a standing ovation by several hundred publishing industry professionals and donors to the National Book Foundation, Allende said, “Most of my writing comes from nostalgia, loss, separation—from my curious desire to belong to a place.”

She was introduced by Luis Alberto Urrea, who pointed out that Allende is the first Spanish-language author to receive the Distinguished Contribution accolade. “For those of us who grew up dreaming in Spanish, including my sisters, she made it possible.”

2018 National Book Award Winners


The winner of each of the five categories awarded Wednesday receives US$10,000, and each finalist is given $1,000. The translation award is new this year, and its winning translator and author divide their category’s money evenly.

  • Young People’s Literature: Elizabeth AcevedoThe Poet X, HarperTeen/HarperCollins Publishers
  • Translated Literature: Yoko Tawada, The Emissary, translated by Margaret Mitsutani, New Directions Publishing 
  • Poetry: Justin Phillip ReedIndecency, Coffee House Press
  • Nonfiction: Jeffrey C. StewartThe New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, Oxford University Press
  • Fiction: Sigrid Nunez, The Friend, Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House

Publishing Perspectives’  announcement of the finalists in the program’s five categories is here.

As host Nick Offerman noted in his otherwise ribald, self-deprecating introductory remarks, 10 of 20 finalists are published by independent presses.

Five titles in play are their authors’ debuts.

2018 Literarian Award: Doron Weber

Doron Weber speaks at the National Book Awards on receiving the 2018 Literarian Award. Image: Porter Anderson

The first honor of the night went to Doron Weber, named winner of the 2018 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

Introduced by Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book Hidden Figures (HarperCollins, 2016), Weber’s work has directed support to many authors. Under Weber’s leadership, the program has supported the publication of books including Hedy’s Folly by National Book Award Winner Richard Rhodes; Shetterly’s Hidden Figures; Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter; Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus; Jared Diamond’s Collapse; Stuart Firestein’s Ignorance; and Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory.”

Refencing his specialization in science-related projects in his work (as in the NASA data aces of Shetterly’s book), Weber told the audience that “science cannot yet explain consciousness or even how memory works,” as part of a long list of things that the scientific community as yet hasn’t provided us.

“History, philosophy, art, music, language, and religion,” he said, “all play a part” in our efforts to fathom who and what we are. “Science and art are two parts of the same” need, drive, and potential.

First New Category in Decades: Translation

From left, the National Book Awards’ first Translated Literature prize is accepted by Monique Truong for author Yoko Tawada, translator Margaret Mitsutani, and jury chair Harold Augenbraum. Image: Porter Anderson

This is the awards event that, as Publishing Perspectives reported in January, has added a new honor this year, the National Book Award for Translated Literature, which recognizes both the winning author and translator.

“Translation gives a book wings to fly over national borders.”Yoko Tawada

In accepting the first-time prize, translator Margaret Mitsutani—”Translators are nothing without authors”—was joined by the writer Monique Truong (The Book of Salt), who read a statement of gratitude from Yoko Tawada, author of the winning The Emissary.

Tawada’s message, through her own emissary Truong, told us that she’d been unable to reschedule planned appearances in Japan to be in New York, but expressed her deep appreciation for the National Book Foundation’s new translation award: “Translation gives a book wings to fly over national borders.”

This new award, honoring a work of fiction or nonfiction, must have been translated into English and published in the States, but neither the translator nor author must be a US citizen.

In categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, authors must be US citizens.

Nunez: ‘Alone in My Room’

Sigrid Nunez accepts the National Book Award in fiction: ‘Tonight I feel lucky to be part of the world.’ Image: Porter Anderson

In accepting her award in fiction for the 2018 National Book Award for The Friend, the author Sigrid Nunez told the audience, “I became a writer not because I was seeking community but because I thought it was something I could do alone in my room.”

She discovered, she said, that in fact the work of an author makes her both in the world and removed from it at once as an observer of the context in which she lives.

“Tonight,” she said, “I feel lucky to be part of the world.’

The publication timeframe for eligibility this year was between December 1, 2017, and November 30. In the case of the translation award, the original text of the book need not have been published during that timeframe, although the translation must be. Books must reach the judges by June 29, earlier if possible.

Full details of the submissions process are here at the foundation’s site, with a useful FAQ here.

Judges are chosen from many walks of life in publishing, the organization noting in its press materials that they include “writers, booksellers, academics, editors, critics, and translators from across the country.

As organizational information reads, “Panelists include National Book Awards winners, finalists, and longlisted authors; a Pulitzer Prize winner and a finalist; a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award; Guggenheim, Cullman, and Fulbright fellows; founders of literary websites and organizations; professors, bookstore owners, and a librarian; two former presidents of the National Book Critics Circle and a former executive director of the National Book Foundation.”

National Book Award 2018 Judging Panels

Fiction Panel

Members of the 2018 National Book Award fiction panel of judges are, from left, Laila Lalami (chair), Chris Bachelder, Min Jin Lee, Laurie Muchnick, and Chinelo Okparanta

Nonfiction Panel

Members of the 2018 National Book Award nonfiction panel of judges are, from left, Annette Gordon-Reed (chair), Rachel Cass, John Freeman, Sarah Manguso, and Andrés Reséndez

Poetry Panel:

Members of the 2018 National Book Award poetry panel of judges are, from left, Mary Jo Bang (chair), Ken Chen, Elise Paschen, Danez Smith, and Stephen Sparks

Translated Literature

Members of the 2018 National Book Award translated literature panel of judges are, from left, Harold Augenbraum (chair), Karen Maeda Allman, Susan Bernofsky, Álvaro Enrigue

Young People’s Literature

Members of the 2018 National Book Award young people’s literature  panel of judges are, from left, Robin Benway (chair), Lamar Giles, Grace Worcester Greene, Valerie Koehler, and Mitali Perkins

In their comments to the audience after dinner, the National Book Foundation’s executive director, Lisa Lucas, and chairman, David Steinberger, announced that the evening had raised more than US$900,000 for the nonprofit foundation.

A part of the organization’s recently revised mission, Steinberger said, is “to ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.

Jeffrey C. Stewart accepts the National Book Award in nonfiction for his ‘The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke’ from Oxford University Press. Image: Porter Anderson

More from Publishing Perspectives on the National Book Awards is here, and on awards programs in general is here. More from us on translation is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.