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The 2019 National Book Award finalists spotlight authors from marginalized groups

Marlon James and Susan Choi are among the 25 finalists.

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A typewriter and bookshelf inside the late French writer and artist Boris Vian’s apartment.
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.

The National Book Foundation has announced the finalists for the 2019 National Book Awards, and this year they are dominated by women, people of color, and disabled people.

The recognition of authors in these groups is part of a larger trend. Under the leadership of executive director Lisa Lucas, the National Book Foundation has spent the past few years focusing on amplifying voices who have gone unheard in the past, spotlighting books by authors from marginalized groups, and last year reviving a long-dormant category recognizing translated literature.

In 2019, the National Book Award finalists are overwhelmingly pointed in their focus on opening up the political boundaries of their respective genres. Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf, nominated for Fiction, brings Game of Thrones-style quest fantasy to the landscape of an African folktale. David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, nominated for Nonfiction, tells the history of American Indians. In Poetry nominee Deaf Republic, by the hard-of-hearing poet Ilya Kaminsky, the citizens of an occupied country go deaf. Scholastique Mukasonga’s The Barefoot Woman, nominated for Translated Literature and translated by Jordan Stump, deals with the Rwandan genocide. Akwaeke Emezi’s YA novel Pet, nominated for Young People’s Literature, is about a trans girl teenager who lives in a world full of monsters, even though grown-ups assure her that all the monsters are dead.

But while this year’s list of finalists lifts up marginalized authors, it’s also mostly focused on the Big Five publishing houses.

In recent years, the National Book Awards have tended to spotlight books from small independent presses in their biggest categories. So the Fiction and Nonfiction categories would include a few finalists from the Big Five publishers — Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette, who among them boast a market share of over 80 percent of US trade publishing — but they would also feature titles from smaller independent presses, like Soho Press and Graywolf.

In 2019, however, the finalists for Fiction are all from Big Five houses, and four of the five are from the biggest house of all, Penguin Random House. Additionally, while smaller presses made a good showing for themselves in other categories, in an unusual move, university presses have been entirely shut out of the Nonfiction category, where they traditionally flourish.

You can find the full list of the 2019 National Book Award finalists below. The winners will be announced on November 20.

Finalists for Fiction

Susan Choi, Trust Exercise. Henry Holt and Company / Macmillan Publishers

Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Sabrina & Corina: Stories. One World / Penguin Random House

Marlon James, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House

Laila Lalami, The Other Americans. Pantheon Books / Penguin Random House

Julia Phillips, Disappearing Earth. Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House

Finalists for Nonfiction

Sarah M. Broom, The Yellow House. Grove Press / Grove Atlantic

Tressie McMillan Cottom, Thick: And Other Essays. The New Press

Carolyn Forché, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance. Penguin Press / Penguin Random House

David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present. Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House

Albert Woodfox with Leslie George, Solitary. Grove Press / Grove Atlantic

Finalists for Poetry

Jericho Brown, The Tradition. Copper Canyon Press

Toi Derricotte, ”I”: New and Selected Poems. University of Pittsburgh Press

Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic. Graywolf Press

Carmen Giménez Smith, Be Recorder. Graywolf Press

Arthur Sze, Sight Lines. Copper Canyon Press

Finalists for Translated Literature

Khaled Khalifa, Death Is Hard Work. Translated from the Arabic by Leri Price. Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan Publishers

László Krasznahorkai, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet. New Directions

Scholastique Mukasonga, The Barefoot Woman. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump. Archipelago Books

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Pantheon Books / Penguin Random House

Pajtim Statovci, Crossing. Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston. Pantheon Books / Penguin Random House

Finalists for Young People’s Literature

Akwaeke Emezi, Pet. Make Me a World / Penguin Random House

Jason Reynolds, Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Simon & Schuster

Randy Ribay, Patron Saints of Nothing. Kokila / Penguin Random House

Laura Ruby, Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All. Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins Publishers

Martin W. Sandler, 1919 The Year That Changed America. Bloomsbury Children’s Books / Bloomsbury Publishing

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