Announcing the 2020 National Book Award finalists

Al Woodworth on October 07, 2020

Announcing National Book Award Finalists

This week, the National Book Foundation announced the finalists for the 2020 National Book Awards. The winners will be announced on Wednesday, November 18, at the 71st National Book Awards Ceremony, which will be held exclusively online.

Two lifetime achievement awards will also be presented as part of the evening’s ceremony: Walter Mosley will be recognized with the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by Edwidge Danticat, and Carolyn Reidy will posthumously receive the Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

This year's National Book Award finalists include two authors who have previously been recognized by the Foundation: Lydia Millet, who was longlisted for a National Book Award, and Charles Yu, who was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree. Eight of the 25 finalists are debuts.

Congratulations to the authors, translators, and publishers of the 2020 National Book Award finalists!

Without further ado, here are the 2020 finalists:

Fiction Finalists

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

In addition to being named a National Book Award Finalist, Rumaan Alam's novel was also named Jenna Bush's book club pick for October, among many other accolades. Though Leave the World Behind was written before the pandemic and the resurging racial justice movement, it is a rather timely novel about a vacation gone wrong, racism, parenting, privilege, and how people react in a crisis. The writing is crisp and provocative and, as Jenna Bush knows, great for a book club.—Al Woodworth

A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet

Pulitzer Prize finalist Lydia Millet’s sublime new novel—her first since the National Book Award long-listed Sweet Lamb of Heaven—follows a group of 12 eerily mature children on a forced vacation with their families at a sprawling lakeside mansion. The Washington Post called it a "blistering little classic...Take this book, eat it up."

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw wades into the lives of strong southern Black women as they reckon with their love lives and sexuality, the legacy of parents, and the subtle and profound ways church and societal norms dictate their daily experience. Told in short bursts, the stories of these women and their friendships come alive, beating with tenderness and imperfection, and build upon one another to create a beautiful melody of female determination.—Al Woodworth

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain tells the story of a lonely boy growing up in public housing in 1980s Glasgow, a period when Thatcher’s union-crushing policies gave rise to massive unemployment among the working classes. Which, of course, paved the way for the late-'80s drug epidemic about which Irvine Welsh wrote so memorably in Trainspotting, set in Edinburgh, 50 miles or so away. Another tale of working class dreams thwarted by dysfunction and addiction? Have a tissue box handy.—Vannessa Cronin

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Charles Yu’s bitingly comic novel Interior Chinatown will make your head spin—in the best way. The novel is set in a Chinatown—specifically in a Chinese restaurant—where a cop show called Black and White is filmed. The stars are Black and white cops, but the novel is told through “Generic Asian Man,” who aspires to be “Kung Fu Guy.” The reality, of course, is that no matter the role (mostly minor—never recurring), Willis Wu is always typecast into the Asian stereotype, diminishing his personhood, denying him the truth of his American citizenship. Told in the script of the TV show, Charles Yu’s novel is pure entertainment but it’s also a daring and eviscerating portrait of racism in America. —Al Woodworth

Nonfiction Finalists

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Like the people she meets and profiles in her book, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is an undocumented immigrant, and this book pays tribute to and investigates their lives—the hardship, the hard work, the vulgar dismissals, the hope that they carry. Her writing is frank and wry, allowing the people whose stories she tells to shine with their own personalities and quirks. This is a portrait of America—unfiltered, undocumented, moving, and challenging. I was utterly absorbed by her writing and the stories she shared.—Al Woodworth

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

The National Book Foundation describes The Dead Are Arising as "a fully realized portrait of Malcolm X." Pulitzer Prize winner Les Payne set out to interview anyone who had ever known Malcolm X, and after his death in 2018, his daughter and researcher Tamara Payne completed his work.

Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt

In this deeply researched book, Claudio Saunt lays bare how the politics and economics of white supremacy led to the expulsion and dislocation of 80,000 Native American men, women, and children during the 1830s "Indian Removal." Peter Cozzens wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Unworthy Republic is "[a] much-needed rendering of a disgraceful episode in American history that has been too long misunderstood."

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir by Jenn Shapland

Part detective story, part memoir, Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is an engrossing portrait of longing, discovery, and obsession. When Shapland stumbles upon Carson McCullers' love letters to a woman named Annmarie, she is surprised that not only do they not reflect the public version of McCullers, but they also feel familiar to her own experiences. What follows is a full-fledged submersion into McCullers' life as a gay woman, and as Shapland digs deeper, she reveals and discovers even more about her own identity. A moving portrait of the stories we share, the stories we hide, and the stories we read.—Al Woodworth

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker

Publishing on November 2, How to Make a Slave and Other Essays is an examination of what it is to parent, write, age, and exist as a Black American male. Blending humor with laser-focused analysis and criticism, Walker looks at the bias in the medical world, the legacy of Michael Jackson, and his own relationship with his writing mentor in what Kirkus Reviews calls an "engaging and enraging" collection.

Poetry Finalists

A Treatise on Stars by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

The author of more than 12 books of poetry, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge's latest collection, A Treatise on Stars, is an ethereal collection about the state of our endangered environment. The New York Times raved that these poems "have the urgency of a manifesto" and Berssenbrugge is "one of the best minds in modern poetry."

Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount

As the publisher writes, "in his debut collection Fantasia for the Man in Blue, Tommye Blount orchestrates a chorus of distinct, unforgettable voices that speak to the experience of the black, queer body as a site of desire and violence."

DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi

Through poems, prose, photographs, and drawings, DMZ Colony explores the relationship between South Korea and the United States. Publishers Weekly calls the collection "playful and inventive and daring waltz that upends what is commonly understood as the 'Forgotten War.'"

Borderland Apocrypha by Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody's publisher describes the collection as a response "to the destabilized, hostile landscapes and silenced histories of borderlands....Relentless in its explorations, this collection shows how the past continues to inform actions, policies, and perceptions in North and Central America."

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

In these poems, American Book Award-winning Natalie Diaz investigates the wounds inflicted onto indigenous people in America. As Louise Erdrich writes: "With tenacious wit, ardor, and something I can only call magnificence, Diaz speaks of the consuming need we have for one another."

Translated Literature Finalists

High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann, translated from the German by Anne Posten

Likened to The Odyssey and Moby Dick, poet Anja Kampmann's novel follows an oil rig worker who journeys from Morocco to Budapest to Hungary and Germany after the death of his bunkmate. While on the road, he's forced to confront his past, notions of masculinity, and the pain and expression of grief and loss.

The Family Clause by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

Dinaw Mengestu raves "The Family Clause is a bold and remarkable novel—a marvel of form and imagination that is also miraculously full of heart and compassion." Over the course of a 10-day visit with his children, a grandfather is forced to address his painful past and renegotiate the relationships he has with his son and daughter.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles

Yu Miri has been called “a creative genius” by the New York Times; she has over 20 books to her name and has received the Akutagawa Prize, Japan's most prestigious literary award. Told from the perspective of a ghost, Tokyo Ueno Station is the story of the park by the same name and the homeless men and women that lived there from the 1960s to the present.

The Bitch by Pilar Quintana, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

The National Book Foundation writes: "Set on Colombia’s Pacific coast, The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is a portrait of a woman wrestling with abandonment, love, and her need to nurture. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, the narrative follows the main character’s adoption of a dog that disappears into the jungle; when the dog returns, she nurses it to health but when it flees once more, there are brutal consequences."

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

The publisher of Minor Detail describes Adania Shibli's novel, which is a double-telling of a single crime story, as "a searing, beautiful novel meditating on war, violence, memory, and the sufferings of the Palestinian people."

Young People's Literature Finalists

King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

King and Dragonflies is a story about loss, grief, and the courage to find your own identity. Tackling issues of race, sexuality, and intersectionality, Callendar's novel has been described by Kirkus as "elegiac and hopeful" and by The Horn Book Review as "deeply affecting, memorable."

We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

We Are Not Free tells the story of a group of San Francisco teenagers, who are second-generation Japanese American citizens, and how there lives are forever altered by the mass arrests of Japanese Americans during World War II. School Library Journal writes, "Chee's words are a lot to take in, but necessary and beautiful all the same."

Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh

National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson writes that Every Body Looking is a "beautifully crafted narrative about family, belonging, sexuality, and telling our deepest truths in order to be whole...[it] is at once immensely readable and ultimately healing."

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

When Stars Are Scattered is a graphic novel about growing up in a refugee camp, as told by Omar Mohamed, a Somali refugee, to the Newbery Honor-winning Victoria Jamieson. Amazon customers have called the novel "riveting and refreshing," "inspiring and heartwarming," and "the best book I've ever read."

The Way Back by Gavriel Savit

Early reviewers have called this book "lyrical and fantastic" and "bewitching" and the publisher compares The Way Back to the fantasy worlds of Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman. Following two teenager, Savit's novel seemlessly blends adventure and the rich and storied traditions of Jewish folklore.

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