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Sigrid Nunez wins the 2018 National Book Award for The Friend

At the 2018 National Book Awards, all the prizes went to writers of color.

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Nunez standing onstage in a silver suit, holding a microphone
Sigrid Nunez at the Ucross Foundation’s Inaugural New York Gala & Awards Dinner at Jazz at Lincoln Center in June 2015.
Patrick McMullan via Getty Image
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On Wednesday night, the National Book Foundation announced its awards for 2018, celebrating the best in American literature and the power of books in general. Or, as ceremony host Nick Offerman put it, “Books serve as weapons and also as shields. They are perhaps the best creations of humankind … what can I say? They make me horny.”

In a move that felt like a pointed statement given the current political climate, all of this year’s winners were people of color. In fiction, Sigrid Nunez won for The Friend, about a writer whose friend dies by suicide and who finds she must now care for his dog. In nonfiction, Jeffrey C. Stewart won for The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, a biography of the so-called “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance. Justin Phillip Reed won the award for poetry for his collection Indecency, and slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo took the award for young people’s literature for her debut YA novel in verse, The Poet X. In a new category recognizing literature in translation, author Yoko Tawada and translator Margaret Mitsutani shared the award for The Emissary.

Throughout the evening, speakers pointed to books as a weapon against bigotry and hate, and to the National Book Awards as a means of legitimizing their force.

“Isabel speaks words of love, words of witness,” said author Luis Alberto Urrea, presenting a lifetime achievement award to Isabel Allende. “You can’t build a wall to keep them out. You can’t lock them up.”

“This award is an extraordinary gift for me,” said Allende, the first Spanish-language writer to win the honor. “It means that maybe I’m not an alien after all. Maybe it’s time to plant my roots and relax. Maybe I belong. Maybe I’m not going anywhere.”