Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book, a surreal meta-narrative about an author’s promotional tour and his haunted past and present, has won the National Book Award for fiction — a plot twist Mott did not imagine for himself.
Hell of a Book is a satirical take on a Black writer’s adventures on the road for a promotional tour — Mott himself had his share of experiences while talking up such previous works as his debut novel The Returned — and a stark and disorienting tale of racial violence and identity, drawing on recent headlines and the author’s childhood.
“I would like to dedicate this award to all the other mad kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied, the ones so strange they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and those around them,” Mott, 43, said in his acceptance speech.
He also cited “the ones who, in spite of this, refuse to outgrow their imagination, refuse to abandon their dreams, refused to deny, diminish their identity, or their truths, or their loves — unlike so many others.”
Tiya Miles’ All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake was the winner for nonfiction.
Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club — a story of same-sex, cross-cultural love set in the 1950s — won for young people’s literature.
The poetry prize was awarded to Martin Espada’s Floaters, and best translation went to Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins.
Winners in the competitive categories Wednesday night each receive US$10,000.
Two honorary prizes were presented: Author-playwright Karen Tei Yamashita received a lifetime achievement medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and author-librarian-NPR commentator Nancy Pearl was given the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
The 72nd annual awards were presented by the non-profit National Book Foundation. While other literary events such as PEN America’s annual gala were held in person this fall, the Foundation decided in September to have a virtual ceremony for the second straight year, citing the complications of organizing a gathering of “authors, publishers, and guests traveling from all over the country.”
Yamashita and Pearl were among the honorees who spoke of a precarious present, worrying about the wave of efforts to censor books at schools and libraries and about violent attacks against racial minorities. Some finalists, fiction and nonfiction, looked for meaning in the distant past, whether Nicole Eustace’s historical work Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America, or such novels as Lauren Groff’s 12th-13th century narrative Matrix and Robert Jones, Jr’s slavery story The Prophets.
Both Groff and Jones say that exploring a previous time is an inspiring way to understand the present. Groff’s novel is based in part on the medieval author Marie de France, an outcast from the French royal court who takes over a rundown abbey in England and helps build it into an economic and social force. Men are almost entirely absent, and unmentioned, in Matrix, which centers on Marie’s upending of religious and other patriarchal institutions.
“I was deeply impressed by how the contemporary moment and that period of history were speaking to each other, from almost a millennium apart,” Groff, a three-time National Book Award finalist, said in a recent interview. “I saw in that time the seeds of how we got to where we are and how we treat women — the way we still have a lot of ambivalence about female power.”
Jones invented — entirely — a love story between two enslaved men in Mississippi, Isaiah and Samuel. While such famed slavery novels as Toni Morrison’s Beloved draw on historical records for their plots, Jones acknowledged he had no basis for Isaiah and Samuel beyond his certainly that men like them went undocumented. He remembered watching a video of the British journalist Esther Armah, who said that her Ghanaian father and great-grandfather and others in their community did not categorize relationships by sexuality.
“It was all considered natural and normal,” he said. “And that gave me the courage to write about people like Samuel and Isaiah. People like Samuel and Isaiah must have existed.”
The event was hosted by actor-writer-comedian Phoebe Robinson, who praised books as a “passport” to the greater world even as she joked that her own books didn’t bring her to the rarefied place of awards finalists. Actor Dion Graham of The Wire served as the main announcer, with Kerry Washington and Rita Moreno among those who helped introduce individual categories.
The National Book Awards were established in 1950, and have gone through several evolutions, with categories expanded for a time to more than 20 and reduced to as few as four. In recent years, the book foundation added a category for books in translation and began announcing long lists of 10 in each category before paring them to five.
Judging panels looked through more than 1,800 submitted books. This year’s judges included such acclaimed authors as Eula Biss, Ilya Kaminsky and Charles Yu, winner of last year’s National Book Award for fiction.
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