At the National Book Awards on Wednesday night, Jesmyn Ward won her second National Book Award for her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, about a black family on an odyssey of sorts in rural Mississippi. She won her first National Book Award in 2011 for her second novel, Salvage the Bones.
Ward is now the first woman to have won two National Book Awards in the fiction category. (Katherine Paterson won two National Book Awards for her fiction in the 1970s, but the National Book Awards treat young people’s literature as a separate category from fiction.)
In her acceptance speech, Ward spoke of rejections she received early in her career that came with the subtext that her work was not “universal” enough. “I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people, because I wrote about black people, or because I wrote about Southerners,” she said.
I still find myself having uncomfortable conversations with reluctant readers who initially didn’t want to read my work because they said, “What do I have in common with a pregnant 15-year-old?” They said, “Why should I read about a 13-year-old poor black boy? Or his neglectful, drug-addicted mother? What do they have to say to me?” And you, my fellow writers and editors and publishing people and National Book Foundation folks, read my work and you answered, “Plenty.” You looked at me and the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women, and men, and you saw yourself.
Women writers came out well throughout the night. For the first time, 15 of the 20 finalists were women, and women won in every category except for poetry. The award for nonfiction went to Russian journalist Masha Gessen for her The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, and the award for young people’s literature went to Robin Benway for her book Far from the Tree, about three siblings separated at birth who find each other as teens. The award for poetry went to Frank Bidart for Half-light, a collection of poetry that spans his entire career of more than 50 years.
In addition to the competitive awards, the National Book Foundation presented the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community to Richard Robinson, president and CEO of Scholastic. The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters went to Annie Proulx, best known as the author of “Brokeback Mountain.”
Proulx began her acceptance speech by remarking that she did not begin writing until she was 58 years old, and went on to passionately denounce America’s current political climate. “This is a Kafka-esque time,” she said, citing news cycles full of sexual harassment cases, crippling storms, and mass shootings. “We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy,” she said, “now cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data.”
“To me,” she added, “the most distressing circumstance of the new order is the accelerating destruction of the natural world, and the dreadful belief that only the human species has the inalienable right to life and God-given permission to take anything it wants from nature.” She called on Americans to participate in citizen science projects, as “something anyone can do.”
“We keep on trying,” Proulx concluded, “because there is nothing else to do.”