Yu Miri, Morgan Giles, Charles Yu Win 2020 US National Book Awards

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Yu Miri and translator Morgan Giles win the 2020 National Book Awards category for translated literature, and Charles Yu wins for fiction.

Audience members for the 2020 National Book Awards, asked to share their locations on camera. Image: National Book Foundation

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

‘The Power of Words’
Producers of the digitally rendered 71st National Book Awards in the United States this evening (November 18) delivered a gratifyingly unfussy, almost stately evocation of the National Book Foundation’s annual awards-gala fundraiser.

Always well-dressed but usually raucous with good cheer in its sea of spotlit tables in Cipriani Wall Street’s vast ballroom, the online edition of the awards this year settled quickly into a thoughtful, almost gentle grace that suited the difficult year 2020 has been. Only minutes before the ceremony began, the United States’ death total in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic passed 250,000 fatalities. There was welcome solace in the National Book Foundation’s perseverance.

We’ll go through the five category award winners first, and then review several other parts of tonight’s show. Regular readers of Publishing Perspectives will find that a welcome internationalist current ran through the show, and in more than the Translated Literature award with which we’ll start.

National Book Award Winner: Translated Literature

Translator Morgan Giles and author Yu Miri, learning of their 2020 National Book Award win for Translated Literature. Image: National Book Foundation

Tokyo Ueno Station
Penguin Random House / Riverhead
By Yu Miri
Translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles

In what may have been the most compelling winner’s comments of the evening, the author Yu Miri spoke carefully in English from her village in Japan. “It is a shame we can’t be onstage together now,” she said to Giles. “I’d like to give you a high-five and a hug.”

“I live,” Yu told the audience of thousands watching the show, “in the former exclusion zone, 16 kilometers from the nuclear zone that exploded in March 2011.” This is in the Fukushima prefecture, and Yu is a South Korean whose native language is Japanese; she was born in Yokohama to Korean parents. “I run a bookstore and write,” she said.

Yu has lived in Minamisōma since 2015, running her bookstore named Full House and a theater space called LaMaMa Odaka, which for some might recall Ellen Stewart’s La MaMA off-off Broadway house in New York.

In her comments, Yu complimented Giles on handling the book’s dialect, “very difficult to translate.” Giles, for her part, thanked translator Deborah Smith, who founded the UK’s Tilted Axis translation press.

Jurors for this category are Dinaw Mengestu (chair), Heather Cleary, John Darnielle, Anne Ishii, and Brad Johnson.

Also finalists in this category:

Author Translator Title Publisher, Imprint
Anja Kampmann Anne Posten High as the Waters Rise Catapult
Jonas Hassen Khemiri Alice Menzies The Family Clause Macmillan / Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pilar Quintana Lisa Dillman The Bitch World Editions
Adania Shibli Elisabeth Jaquette Minor Detail New Directions

National Book Award Winner: Fiction

Author Charles Yu in his comments on winning the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. Image: National Book Foundation

Interior Chinatown
Penguin Random House / Pantheon
Charles Yu

Gracious in his acceptance speech–and announcing that he was going to go “melt into a puddle” afterward–Yu’s gift for satire kicked in quickly as he learned he’d won the award. Confessing that he’d prepared nothing to say, demonstrating how long a shot he’d thought he was for the honor, he good-naturedly carried on to tell jury chair Roxane Gay, “It’s nice to meet you.”

When author Jeff VanderMeer reviewed the American writer Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown for The New York Times, he wrote that Yu “explores in devastating (and darkly hilarious) fashion Hollywood’s penchant for promoting clichés about Asians and Asian-Americans.

“Wu [the lead character in the book] has worked his way from ‘Background Oriental Male’ to ‘Dead Asian Man’ to ‘Generic Asian Man Number Three/Delivery Guy’ — a long way from ‘Kung Fu Guy,’ which is where he wants to be. Although the lacerating humor in Interior Chinatown never skips a beat, what makes the novel so compelling is its strong commitment to characterization, without which the pointed commentary would be less potent.”

The jurors for this category are Roxane Gay (chair), Cristina Henríquez, Laird Hunt, Rebecca Makkai, and Keaton Patterson.

Also finalists in this category:

Author Title Publisher, Imprint
Rumaan Alam Leave the World Behind HarperCollins / Ecco
Lydia Millet A Children’s Bible WW Norton
Deesha Philyaw The Secret Lives of Church Ladies West Virginia University Press
Douglas Stuart Shuggie Bain Grove Press / Grove Atlantic

National Book Award Winner: Nonfictiion

Tamara Payne in her comments on winning the 2020 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Image: National Book Foundation

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
WW Norton / Liveright
Les Payne and Tamara Payne

The unusual circumstance of this major new biography’s writing is well known. The 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne, an editor at Newsday, died in 2018, having spent almost three decades researching the life of Malcolm X through interviews with those who knew the civil rights figure.

Tamara Payne, Les’ daughter, finished the work, having served as the lead researcher on the project.

Talking about Malcolm X in her comments tonight, she said, “Today, we see the youth of the world continue to embrace him” amid the racial reckoning that charged the summer with protests, “because the message still rings true.” She thanked her father, “for bringing me on as his co-pilot.”

The jurors for this category are Terry Tempest Williams (chair), James Goodman, Yunte Huang, Hannah Oliver Depp, and David Treuer.

Also finalists in this category:

Author Title Publisher, Imprint
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio The Undocumented Americans  Penguin Random House / One World
Claudio Saunt Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory WW Norton
Jenn Shapland My Autobiography of Carson McCullers Tin House
Jerald Walker How To Make a Slave and Other Essays Ohio State University / Mad Creek

National Book Award Winner: Poetry

Author Don Mee Choi in her acceptance comments for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry. Image: National Book Foundation

DMZ Colony
Wave Books
By Don Mee Choi

The Seattle-based Korean-American poet and translator Don Mee Choi’s third collection, Jed Munson writes for the Chicago Review of Books, positions the Korean Demilitarized Zone “as much an entity as it is a place, a meta-discursive domain wherein its throng of unlikely inhabitants—endangered birds, political prisoners, orphans, refugees, all colonized subjects and outcasts of empire—are alternately declared and concealed.”

The jurors for this category are  Layli Long Soldier (Chair), Rigoberto González, John Hennessy, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Elizabeth Willis.

Also finalists in this category:

Poet Title Publisher, Imprint
Mei-mei Berssenbrugge A Treatise on Stars New Directions
Tommye Blount Fantasia for the Man in Blue Four Way Books
Anthony Cody Borderland Apocrypha Omnidawn
Natalie Diaz Postcolonial Love Poem Graywolf

National Book Award Winner: Young People’s Literature

Author Karen Callender in her comments on winning the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Image: National Book Foundation

King and the Dragonflies
Kacen Callender

In her challenging book about 12-year-old Kingston’s journey of loss and identity, Callender talks, as she said in her remarks tonight, “about the necessary balance between pain and hope and joy. This has been a difficult year, but I’m grateful for this moment of joy.

“I know” she said, “that I’m not the only one who believes the next generation are the ones who are to change everything.”

The jurors for this category are Joan Trygg (chair), Randy Ribay, Neal Shusterman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Colleen AF Venable.

Also finalists in this category:

Author Title Publisher, Imprint
Traci Chee We Are Not Free Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Candice Iloh Every Body Looking Penguin Random House / Dutton for Young Readers
Victoria Jamieson, Omar Mohamed When Stars Are Scattered Penguin Random House / Dial for Young Readers
Gavriel Savit The Way Back Penguin Random House / Knopf for Young Readers
Lifetime Service Awards

The late Carolyn Reidy with Hillary Clinton in a shot from the 2020 National Book Awards’ Literarian Award sequence. Image: National Book Foundation

As in its New York City setting each year, the program opened tonight with two awards previously announced.

Image: National Book Foundation, Beowolf Sheehan

As Publishing Perspectives has reported, Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster who died on May 12 at age 71, reportedly of a heart attack, is this this year’s posthumous winner of the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. In the program, she was lovingly recalled in a montage of commentary from Walter Isaacson, Oren Teicher, Rachel Kushner, the show’s host Jason Reynolds, and Bob Woodward.

Reidy’s husband Stephen accepted the award, remembering discussing books with her. “I believe that life together is the real recipient of this award today. Because that shared life is testament to Carolyn’s conviction that reading is one of the greatest things that humans can do.”

The author Walter Mosley, the recipient of the foundation’s 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, was introduced by Edwidge Danticat,  and he in his acceptance speech, he said that he thought of this evening as “but one of 10,000 steps being taken to recognize the potential of this nation.”

Mosley’s closing references were to striving for equality, and they became a segue into a video montage that pointed up the National Book Foundation’s understanding of its mission to be “an institute that celebrates and represents the full scope of what we as a people have accomplished.”

Lisa Lucas: ‘Impact the World’

Image: National Book Foundation

Mosley’s comments referenced the impetus that has made the National Book Foundation’s programs, including the National Book Awards, distinctive for a determined reflection of a multicultural American vision that currently is not reliably reflected in the hallways and output of the American publishing industry. The National Book Awards have been ahead of this dynamic.

“At the National Book Foundation,” the voice-over for this section of the evening said, “we believe that Black lives matter.” And Lisa Lucas, the outgoing five-year executive director of the National Book Foundation, in her own comments, pressed her steadfast insistence on the foundation’s work as being intimately and urgently connected to the realities of the nation’s trends and struggles.

“We’re so glad to be with our community.” she said. “One book, we know, can change a life, and these books will impact the world, every single one of them.”

Closing out this year’s work with the foundation, Lucas next will move to Knopf to be the new senior vice-president and publisher of the prominent Pantheon and Schocken imprints. Here’s our interview with her, published shortly after the news of her impending departure was released.

“Leaving is bittersweet, and I’m not going to cry,” she said in her comments, which were fed live from the Los Angeles Public Library’s children’s reading room.

She recalled what has become the late John Lewis’ acceptance speech in 2016 on receiving a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That moment, in which Lewis recalled being told by an Alabama librarian that the library “was for whites only, and not for coloreds,” has become iconic for the foundation and its awards program with Lewis’ passing this year.

Lucas thanked the foundation’s board, and its staff–”my rocks and my friends and a team I’m so proud to work with every single day”–and handed off to David Steinberger, the chair of the foundation board.

Steinberger spoke from the trustees’ room at the New York Public Library, with the cooperation of the library’s president and CEO Tony Marx. “So far tonight, we’ve raised almost US$500,000, which is great,” Steinberger said, setting a goal for the year at $750,000.

Artist Jane Mount’s painting, to be completed with tonight’s winners for the departing Lisa Lucas. Image: National Book Foundation

Steinberger also sprang a cross-continental surprise on Lucas, a bright painting of the books that have won National Book Awards during her tenure. The artist Jane Mount will complete the painting for Lucas after tonight’s winners are named.

Happy and moved, Lucas named a new sponsor of the program: “Waterproof mascara.”

Host: Jason Reynolds

Hosting the 2020 National Book Awards, author Jason Reynolds. Image: National Book Foundation

The evening’s host, the gracious and engaging author Jason Reynolds, may have felt most comfortable with the first of the program’s five categories of finalists.

Reynolds, named the 2020-2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award, himself, and his newest book is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), which he wrote in collaboration with Ibram X. Kendi.

As a host for the show, Reynolds’ friendly, earnest emcee work was refreshing, a break from the trend of National Book Awards hosts over the years who spend the evening trying to jack up the slow moments with strained efforts at standup comedy. Reynolds, by contrast, was there about the awards’ finalists and winners more than about himself, and that worked as smoothly as the production overall did.

You can review the show in its recording here:

More from Publishing Perspectives on the National Book Awards is here, and on awards programs in general is hereMore on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson 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.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, 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.