The 69th National Book Awards Reminded Us It’s a Big World Out There

Left to right, fiction winner Sigrid Nunez and lifetime-achievement honoree Isabel Allende. Photo: Getty Images

During the cocktail hour of last night’s annual ceremony for the National Book Awards, the country’s most prestigious literary prize this side of the Pulitzer, agent Joy Harris had two things on her mind: the “mess in Washington,” and the thirst for good books. “I think if we don’t read good fiction we’ll jump off the roof of this building,” she said, looking up at the ornate ceiling of the awards’ home base at Cipriani Wall Street.

It wasn’t a rare sentiment. “This is a dark time my friends,” said the Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, the first Spanish-language lifetime-achievement winner, in a speech that set the tone for the evening. “If we listen to another person’s story, if we tell our own story, we start to heal from division and hatred.” (Still, Allende’s speech was not entirely earnest; she also bragged of having a lover at 76 — which, along with a string of winkingly lewd double entendres from host Nick Offerman in honor of this being the awards’ 69th year, helped lighten the evening’s sober tones.)

Many of the nominated books grappled with capital-I Issues: global warming, the AIDS crisis, #MeToo, racism in America. If there was a theme, it was opening out to the world in defiance of America First isolationism. For the first time since 1983, the National Book Foundation offered a translated-literature prize. While this decision had been in the works for years, the new award nonetheless took on political weight.

“We need to be more international and global in our outlook and in our vision, and fiction is a great vehicle for doing that,” said Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic press and member of the foundation’s board of directors, before sitting down to his dry-aged sirloin. Or, as Harris put it more bluntly, the new award was “a commitment under the onslaught of the Trump administration to recognize that we are in fact citizens of the world.” Yet Lisa Lucas, whose 2016 appointment as the NBF’s executive director ushered in a raft of changes, dismissed the idea that politics played a role. “The goal is timeless, not timely,” she said during a rare break from the action. “Ultimately, translated literature — or literature at all — is boring or super exciting, depending on the times. We don’t react or respond to that. We believe that literature is exciting and fun all the time.”

Near the bar, Danez Smith, a 2017 poetry finalist and a judge
this year, said the slate of nominees showed “both how
transcendent and diverse American letters should be and is.” On the other hand, “if you look around, there’s a lot of white people. These are the folks working behind the scenes. As an industry, we have a long way to go.” But Smith approved of the event’s vibe, even if the fashion ran mostly “very gender-normative and very dark.” His friend Fusilier, a musician dressed in a glittering rhinestone necklace and calf-length fur coat, turned to survey the scene. “I kind of like the old white men. There’s a couple here that I’m like, I’d let him publish me.”

“I think writers are underrated as sex symbols,” added a third friend,
sipping his drink.

Lauren Groff, a fiction finalist for the second time, insisted that the evening was not a competition, but a conversation, “and we had a beautiful conversation this year.” Groff was wearing a patterned Dries Van Noten dress and spiky Louboutin heels, echoing the style of her nominated story collection, Florida: naturalistic and sharp and lightly psychedelic. Nearby, Groff’s sons, aged 10 and 7, in matching little tuxedos and green Vans, played a game of “I spy,” searching for something “fiery, yellowish, orange.” The older boy happily summarized the evening as “chaos.” (He was later spotted sound asleep.)

Earlier this year, Groff set off a Twitter storm when she told an interviewer she wouldn’t answer questions about how she balances motherhood with writing until she saw a male writer asked this same question. At the ceremony, Groff said she was surprised by the response. She’d been asked the question at least a hundred times before, she said, and had answered it the same way every time. “I think that people were finally ready to hear it,” she said, drawing a parallel with #MeToo. “We were talking about it all along, and suddenly, there’s a receptive period, and that’s beautiful.”

Author Emma Straub and her husband, Michael Fusco-Straub —
co-owners of the newish Cobble Hill bookstore Books Are Magic — came dressed in “Molly Ringwald and Duckie cosplay,” as Straub put it. “Whoever wins,” she said, “we’ll sell twice as many as we would have. Ten times as many.” Fusco-Straub nodded. “Jesmyn Ward’s book [last year’s winner Sing, Unburied, Sing] came out and we were selling it pretty steadily, but it wasn’t flying off the shelves. But then the next day after she won, we couldn’t keep it in stock.”

This year’s winners were a more eclectic lot, chosen from short lists consisting almost entirely of underdogs. No white men won prizes. Japanese novelist Yoko Tawada won the translated-book award for her dystopian novel The Emissary; she didn’t travel for the ceremony, but celebrated the new category in a statement: “Translation gives a book wings to fly across national borders.” The queer black poet Justin Phillip Reed, winner of the the poetry award for his first full-length collection, Indecency, told the audience that he was “standing here with ancestral hands on my shoulders still not knowing what to make of this epithet: National Book Award Winner in Poetry.” Jeffrey C. Stewart, who won in nonfiction for The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, spoke about his subject, a closeted gay man who managed “to create a family among writers and artists and dancers and dramatists, and call them the New Negro. The basis for a new creative future — and not just for black people. A new negro, for new America.”

Sigrid Nunez, author of seven novels and a memoir about her friend Susan Sontag, had never been nominated before winning the fiction prize this year for The Friend, about a woman whose best friend commits suicide in the shadow of a possible #MeToo reckoning, leading to the acquisition of a charismatic Great Dane (the only named character in the book). “It feels a little unreal,” she said, shortly before receiving the prize. “When you’re writing all the time, you’re by yourself. Since I’ve never had this happen before, it gives me a sense of being part of the larger world.” Nunez — who is part Chinese, part Panamanian, and part German — was another reminder last night that, even in the nationalist purgatory that is 2018 America, we remain part of a larger world, too.

At the start of the after-party — when publishers mostly run for their coats while their freshly MFA’d subordinates flood in — people were slow to hit the dance floor. An older woman in a full ruche skirt and beaded shawl reminiscent of a Romanov twirled at one end, while at the other, Groff’s younger son shimmied, Vans flicking at warp speed. Elizabeth Acevedo, the winner in young people’s literature for The Poet X — a novel in verse about a Dominican family in Harlem — paused on her way out into the cold night. Luminous in a black dress edged in lace, she said she was still processing the evening’s success: “There was a moment when I thought I misheard. And then I instantly burst into tears.” I asked what made her cry. “It was the realization of what I hope this will mean for folks who feel like they never see themselves, to see our story, on a national level, recognized.” Without naming Trump, she said that she thought the evening provided a powerful counterpoint to the ruling party. “I think the truth is here, in this room. I think this is who we are, and who we can become. These are the stories we deserve.”

The National Book Awards Reminded Us It’s a Big World