Ta-Nehisi Coates wins National Book Award for nonfiction

21 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

National Book Award winner Adam Johnson: ‘Storytelling isn’t a game to me’.

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night on the strength of his book “Between the World and Me.” (Credit: Wikimedia/Eduardo Montes-Bradley) Coates, a correspondent at The Atlantic, wrote his award-winning book in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son; it’s a thoughtful and pessimistic, no-punches-pulled look at being a black man in America. As he told a group in Baltimore earlier this year: “I wrote this book because when people talk about the African-American community, what they never talk about is fear. But when he stood on stage to receive the award, for his short-story collection Fortune Smiles, Johnson seemed stunned, and barely mentioned his own book as he paid tribute to his fellow finalists – among them Lauren Groff and Hanya Yanagihara, whose novels Fates and Furies and A Little Life had seemed to be the two frontrunners. The fiction prize was given to Adam Johnson’s “Fortune Smiles,” an eclectic and edgy story collection set everywhere from the former East Germany to a Louisiana community reeling from Hurricane Katrina.

The morning after, Johnson is still heaping praise on them. “I was among a group of really talented young writers who are doing important work – large, sweeping work,” he says. “I told my wife, I’m just really looking forward to seeing a writer’s life transformed before my eyes.” Johnson knows what that’s like, having won the Pulitzer prize in 2013 for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, an expansive tale of life in North Korea under Kim Jong-il. Monitor reviewer Chris Hartman called “Between” “a highly provocative, thoughtfully presented, and beautifully written narrative concerning his own misgivings about the ongoing racial struggle in America.” Writer Neal Shusterman won the young people’s literature prize for his book “Challenger Deep,” which tells the story of a teenager who is diagnosed with schizophrenia and the interaction of his hallucinations and his real life. “Voyage of the Sable Venus” by Robin Coste Lewis took the poetry prize for the year. “Smiles” taking the prestigious fiction prize is unusual, as short story collections don’t often take the award.

He speaks frankly about the freedom that comes from the public recognition of an award like this, and his acute sense of the rare blessing of his current position, as a prize-winning author and a tenured professor of creative writing at Stanford University. “I’m a very fortunate guy. I get to do this thing I love for a living, which is teaching, and I have the freedom to write what I want to write,” he said. “I’m lucky to have a few people who want to read what I write, and I have three kids and a coffee maker and I live a pretty normal American life.” That awareness of freedom and good fortune, however, is coupled with a strong sense of responsibility to tell the kinds of stories that don’t always get shared, whether they explore life under the totalitarian regime of North Korea or, as in Hurricanes Anonymous, in this collection, the life of a UPS driver in storm-tossed Louisiana. The young people’s literature prize went to Neal Shusterman’s “Challenger Deep,” inspired by the struggles with mental illness endured by his then-adolescent boy, whom Shusterman brought to the stage. Perhaps as a result, he said, “storytelling doesn’t quite seem to be a game to me.” In the wide-ranging Fortune Smiles, the eclectic stories share a fascination with the gap between what a narrator describes and what a reader perceives.

Many people struggle to find the time to engage with a full-length novel when they’re dealing with emails every second of every day or having to meet deadlines or rush home to put the kids to bed. But I certainly don’t know what it feels like to be an African-American parent who has to worry about his or her son being put in harm’s way more than his white peers simply because of the color of his skin. Maybe not every reader will go with me but by writing in a moment-to-moment way, if you ask me, those stories – even at 50 pages – they read fast to me.” Johnson’s interest in pushing formal boundaries is connected to what he sees as the role of literature in a rapidly changing world. “In times of stability we see conservatism in artistic forms – the sonnet spoke to us for 600 years,” he says. “But times of great change favour experimentation, finding new vessels to contain stories that have new concerns. Bender’s story collection “Refund.” Flournoy, in an email sent earlier in the week, observed that fiction “grants us access to lives and experiences that are different from our own, but it also shows the ways in which human experience has commonalities.” “Fiction makes it clear that while the particulars of our lives vary, we’re all dealing with the same sorts of emotions, the same desires to be loved and seen and heard,” she wrote.

I feel that that change is only ramping up – with climate change, with redistribution of people in the world, with collisions of communities, the varied nature of storytelling is going to have to alter to address that.” Here’s the money graph from the research (you can read the full American Sociological Association report here): “Uncertain (or pessimistic) survival expectations are emerging as an important marker of inequality in the United States, as adolescent pessimism about future survival has been linked to a range of deleterious behaviors, such as delinquency, fighting and violence, and suicide attempts.” Foil the findings of this report against a year of myriad cases of questionable police shootings and increased tension around issues of race and inequality. Doctorow and James Salter, ruminating about the shelves down the hall from where he writes and listing not just the books but their publishers and list prices. (50 cents for Dostoevsky’s “The House of the Dead,” a Dell paperback from 1959.) “Here are the shelves with the old paperbacks, books still in their native skin,” he said. “And when I visit the room I’m not the writer who has just been snaking his way through some sentences on a sheet of paper, curled into an old typewriter.

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