Announcing the winners of the 2020 National Book Awards

Chris Schluep on November 20, 2020
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Announcing the winners of the 2020 National Book Awards

I would usually be writing this post in New York, having last night attended the National Book Awards celebration. But if this year is anything, it is different. The winners of the 71st Annual National Book Awards were announced over Zoom. Jason Reynolds, a Newbery and Printz honoree who has himself been a finalist for the National Book Award, presided over the events. Edwidge Dandicat presented the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Walter Mosley. Mosley is the first Black man to receive the medal. In the end, it was a successful—and quite moving—night of celebrating books and authors.

The event was open for all to view. You can find links to the 71st Annual National Book Awards ceremony on Youtube or Facebook, or on the website to the National Book Foundation.

Here are the winners in each category, along with a few of their comments upon hearing the announcement:



Fiction: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Charles Yu's novel takes on stereotypes by embracing them and making them part of the story. Willis Wu works in a Chinese restaurant and plays many roles (e.g. Generic Asian man, Background Oriental Making a Weird Face, Disgraced Son). But what he really wants to be is Kung Fu Guy. The author clearly did not expect to be awarded this honor, expressing that he had not written a speech and had lost all feeling in his body. But he gathered himself to give one. "To be here hearing about all these books, having read some of them, going on to read many more of them," Yu said. "It is what keeps me going. And I hope that this community can sustain other people the same way, and I hope in some small way my book can also do that for people."


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

The buzz around this one had been growing and growing since its publication last month. Tamara Payne, who worked on the book with her father, Les Payne, before he died in 2018, started her acceptance by saying, "I really wish my father was here for this." Their goal in writing about Malcolm X was, as Ms. Payne put it, to bring him "into clearer focus. To show not just his family, but the world in which he was born. To provide context for the man who, more than any other leader of the 1960s, moved Blacks to consider who we are, from whence we come, and to plan for what we could become."


Poetry: DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi

Fighting back tears, Don Mee Choi stated, "This award is for my father." Her poetry harnesses the power of translation, and in her acceptance she said, "Poetry and translation have changed my life. For me, they're inseparable." The poet went on to thank the "wonderful small and independent presses" that have supported her work, and the work of poets in general.


Translated Literature: Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri (translated by Morgan Giles)

This is the story of Kazu, a ghost who lives in Tokyo observing the modern city as he reflects on his own life. At the announcement of Tokyo Ueno Station as the winner of Best Translated Literature, Morgan Giles, who translated the book, began to cry. Yu Miri, who was speaking from Japan, said: "It is a shame that we can't be together on stage right now. I'd like to give you a high five and a hug."


Young People's Literature: King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender

Kacen Callender's book is about Kingston James, a twelve-year-old boy from Louisiana whose brother Khalid has unexpectedly passed away. "This has been an interesting year to win the National Book Award for Young People's Literature," said Callender in her acceptance. "This has been the hardest, most painful, most devastating year in many people's memories. But this has also been an empowering year for many, a year when we're forced to pause and reflect, not only on ourselves but on the society we live in. To look at the wounds, internal and external, and to heal and to grow."


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