Ta-Nehisi Coates wins National Book Award for nonfiction; Adam Johnson’s …

19 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

2015’s National Book Award winners give moving, socially conscious speeches.

NEW YORK — Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” a brief, unflinching address to his teenage son on race and police violence that is well on its way to a lasting place in American letters, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night. Among the night’s big winners were Ta-Nehisi Coates and Neal Shusterman, both of whom used their acceptance speeches as an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the social issues that inspired them to write their books. “In the depth of my son’s illness, he said to me, ‘Dad, sometimes it fees like I am at the bottom of the ocean, screaming at the top of my lungs and no one can hear me,’” he said. “Hopefully, this book can open up a dialogue about mental illness, to remove the stigma around mental illness and to show people who are suffering that they are not alone.” Later, Shusterman brought his son Brendan, who inspired his book Challenger Deep, onto the stage with him, telling Brendan that the prize was “yours as much as it is mine.” “At the heart of our country is the notion that we are okay with the presumption that black people somehow have an angle, somehow have a predisposition towards criminality,” said Coates. “I have waited for 15 years for this moment. 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. His fiction counterpart, Adam Johnson, took a slightly different tone when accepting the award for his short story collection Fortune Smiles. “I told my wife and my kids, ‘Don’t come across America because this is not going to happen,’” joked Johnson, who lives in California.

In an acceptance speech that prompted a standing ovation from the black tie-clad crowd at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, Coates dedicated the award to Prince Jones, a Howard University classmate who was killed while unarmed by a police officer and who figures prominently in the memoir, written as a letter to Coates’ teenage son. “I’m a black man in America. Every day you turn on the TV and you see some sort of violence being directed at black people,” Coates said, alluding to controversial incidents caught on tape, including the death of Eric Garner, the arrest of Sandra Bland and the killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed man shot and killed in South Carolina this year. The first annual awards of the prestigious prize were held in 1950, and have honored now house-hold names like William Faulkner, Philip Roth, and Joyce Carol Oates. Johnson’s collection of dark, discomfiting short stories “feature characters reeling from displacement, dislocation or emotional and cultural vertigo,” says The New York Times.

This year, finalists included both a Pulitzer winner – Johnson, who took home the 2013 award for The Orphan Master’s Son – and a first-time author: Angela Flournoy, whose The Turner House chronicles several generations of a Detroit family. Robin Coste Lewis was named the winner of the poetry prize for her debut collection, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” a reflection on the black female form throughout history. 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. Johnson’s award follows the Pulitzer Prize he received for his previous work, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Both were edited by David Ebershoff, a longtime Random House executive who is leaving for a full-time writing career.

This year’s selections show that the judges have a keen sense of American politics right now, choosing three books tied to some of the most pressing social issues of the day. Slate calls it “a love letter written in a moral emergency.” The intensely personal nature of Coates’ short book stands in contrast to his deeply historical journalistic work. The New Yorker remarks on her tight lyrical form: “Lewis’s technique returns the humanity to these anonymous women, which, in turn, makes the objects depicting them feel like examples of, and even instruments of, real historical violence.” Shusterman’s arresting novel is about high school student Caden Bosch’s slow descent into schizophrenia.

Fiction judges had highlighted five works with contemporary settings, touching upon everything from race and class in Angela Flournoy’s Detroit-based “The Turner House” to the chronicle of marriage in Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies” to the economy in Karen E. As friends and family gather anxiously around him, they watch Bosch drift in and out of a hallucinated journey to reach the real-life deepest point on Earth, called Challenger Deep.

He has waited 15 years, he says, because “when Prince Jones died, there were no cameras, there was nobody looking”, and so the police officer went unpunished. 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. Kirkus writes of the prolific YA author’s latest, “Nothing is romanticized—just off-kilter enough to show how easily unreality acquires its own logic and wit.” Now, with the ubiquity of cameras and video recording, the world is watching at large – and also watching are the gatekeepers of literary prestige, who have decided to throw their weight behind this issue. 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.

Though short stories are generally seen as a hard sell, Fortune Smiles is the second consecutive story collection, after Phil Klay’s Redeployment, to take home the prize.

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