NEW YORK — Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a surreal and poetic novel about a struggling family in Mississippi, on Wednesday night won the National Book Award for fiction.
It was the second time Ward received the fiction prize: She won in 2011 for “Salvage the Bones.”
Masha Gessen’s “The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia” received the nonfiction prize and Robin Benway’s “Far from the Tree” won for young people’s literature. The poetry prize was given to Frank Bidart for his career anthology “Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016.” Each of the four winners received $10,000.
In a brief, emotional speech, Ward spoke of her frustration with some readers who wondered if they could connect with members of a poor black community in the South. She thanked the publishing community, and her friends and family, for their ongoing support.
“You looked at me and the people I love and write about … and you saw yourself,” she said, adding that she felt honored to reimagine and amplify the voices of those she knows back home in Mississippi.
Themes of identity and displacement were common in this year’s fiction finalists, from Elliot Ackerman’s Middle East saga “Dark at the Crossing” to Min Jin Lee’s novel of cultural conflict in Japan and Korea, “Pachinko.” Lisa Ko, whose “The Leavers” tells of a young adoptee’s divide between East and West, said that “America has always been obsessed with identity and self-definition.”
“As someone whose family has been immigrating for generations, I’m drawn to stories of survival and a search for home and belonging, and I’m interested in how expectations of assimilation have intersected with culture and policy throughout US history, and at what cost, and to whom,” she told The Associated Press in a recent email. “These are evergreen themes in this country … perhaps especially resonant right now as our current administration is running on an explicitly exclusionary platform.”
The ceremony also took place during a wave of allegations of sexual harassment and assault, including against literary editor Leon Wieseltier. One of Wednesday’s featured speakers, former President Bill Clinton, has received increased scrutiny for past allegations of harassment and assault. Chris Hayes of MSNBC tweeted last week that “As gross and cynical and hypocritical as the right’s ‘what about Bill Clinton’ stuff is, it’s also true that Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.” A liberal columnist for The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg, wrote this week that it was time to “look clearly at the credible evidence” of sexual assault. Clinton has repeatedly denied the accusations.
The awards were presented by the nonprofit National Book Foundation. Executive Director Lisa Lucas declined to comment on Clinton’s attendance Wednesday night.
Many stood and cheered for the former president as he was introduced by the ceremony’s host, Cynthia Nixon. Clinton was there to praise Scholastic CEO and Chairman Richard Robinson, winner of a Literarian prize for contributions to the book community. Clinton noted that he and Robinson had collaborated on projects for the Clinton Foundation and even managed a pointed inside joke when he boasted that Robinson would send him early copies of “Harry Potter” books, a perk off-limits to the general public.
“That’s one of the things the establishment gets that’s so terrible,” he joked.
Clinton, Bill or Hillary, would have won in a landslide over Donald Trump among the dinner gathering of authors and publishers at Cipriani Wall Street. And books themselves were held up as part of the resistance. Nixon called them a vital weapon in “an increasingly hostile world.” Robinson cited literacy as a great equalizer, ideally available to the rich and the poor. “Equal education is the only solution to maintaining a democratic society,” he said. Bidart said writing poetry has been how he “survived” over the past few months.
Gessen, the Russian-born author and journalist, observed ruefully she never imagined a book about her native country would win a prominent American prize.
“But, of course, times have changed,” she said.
Oscar winner Anne Hathaway presented a lifetime achievement medal to Annie Proulx and performed an act of anti-name dropping, confiding that she and the author had never met. Hathaway starred in the film adaptation of Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” playing a character who barely existed in the original story. Hathaway called Proulx an “epic, singular talent” whose fictional creations were vivid to Hathaway, like people she had met.
Proulx was grateful for her award and dire about the times, which she called “Kafkaesque.” She lamented tribal politics, “flickering threats of nuclear war,” environmental destruction and a shift to what she called “viral direct democracy, cascading over us in a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data.”
Still, she noted the longing for old notions of truth and community.
“The happy ending beckons and we keep on hoping for it,” she said.