Jason Mott and Tia Miles win National Book Awards

Jason Mott and Tia Miles win National Book Awards

New York Jason Mott’s “Hell of a Book,” a surreal meta-narrative about the author’s tour and his haunted past and present, won a National Book Award for Fiction — a plot that Mott himself could not have imagined.

“Hell of a Book” is a satirical take on the adventures of a black writer on the road to a promotional tour — Mott himself has had his share of experiences while talking about previous works such as his first novel, “The Returned” — and a stark and confusing tale of racial violence and identity, inspired by the headlines Recent news and childhood of the author.

“I would dedicate this award to all the other crazy kids, to all the strangers, the eccentrics, the bullies, and the people so weird that 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 “those who, nevertheless, refuse to transcend their imaginations, refuse to give up their dreams, or refuse to deny their identity, their truths, or their love, or belittle their identity, their truths, their love, or their love.”

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Tiya Miles’ “All You Bear: The Journey of Ashley Kiss, Memento of the Black Family” was the winner for non-fiction books.

Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club – a same-sex, multicultural love story set in the 1950s – won for youth literature.

The Poetry Prize for “Floaters” was awarded to Martin Espada, and the best translation went to “Winter in Sokcho” by Elisa Chua Dosabane, translated by Anisa Abbas Higgins from French.

Wednesday night’s competitive category winners receive $10,000 each.

Two honorary awards were presented: Writer and playwright Karen T. Yamashita received the Lifetime Achievement Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and Nancy Pearl, author commentator and librarian on NPR, received the Literary Award for Distinguished Service to the American Literary Community.

The 72nd annual awards are presented by the not-for-profit National Book Foundation. While other literary events like PEN America’s annual gala have been held in person this fall, in September the foundation decided to hold a virtual gala for the second year in a row, citing the repercussions of organizing a gathering of “authors, publishers, and guests from across the country.”

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Yamashita and Pearl were among the honorees who spoke of an uneasy present, worried about the wave of efforts to censor books in schools and libraries and from violent attacks against ethnic minorities. Some finalists, both fiction and nonfiction, have searched for meaning in the distant past, whether it was Nicole Eustace’s historical work “Covered in the Night: A Story of Murder and Native Justice in Early America,” or novels such as Lauren Grove’s twelfth- and thirteenth-century novel “The Matrix”. And the story of slavery by Robert Jones Jr. “The Prophets.”

Both Grove and Jones say that exploring past time is an inspiring way to understand the present. Grove’s novel is based in part on medieval author Marie de France, the outcast from the French royal court who takes charge of a dilapidated abbey in England and helps build it into an economic and social powerhouse. Men are almost entirely absent, and not mentioned, in “The Matrix,” which centers on Mary’s heart of religious and other patriarchal institutions.

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“I’ve been deeply impressed by the way the contemporary moment and that period of history talk to each other, for nearly a thousand years,” Grove, 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 – in full – a love story between two enslaved men in Mississippi, Isaiah and Samuel. While famous slavery novels such as Toni Morrison’s “The Beloved” rely on historical records of its plots, Jones admitted that he had no basis for Isaiah and Samuel other than what he certainly said men like them went undocumented. He remembers watching a video of British journalist Esther Arma, who said her Ghanaian father, grandfather and others in their community did not categorize relationships on the basis of sex.

“It was all normal and normal,” he said. “It gave me the courage to write about people like Samuel and Isaiah. There must be people like Samuel and Isaiah.”

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The event was hosted by comedian, actress and writer Phoebe Robinson, who praised books as a “passport” to the larger world even as she joked that her own books didn’t make her place among the award finalists. Actor Dion Graham of The Wire served as lead announcer, and Kerry Washington and Rita Moreno were among those who helped introduce the individual classes.

Founded in 1950, the National Book Awards have gone through many developments, with the categories for some time expanding to more than 20 and reducing to no fewer than four. In recent years, the Writers Foundation added the translated books category and began announcing long lists of 10 in each category before reducing them to five.

The jury considered more than 1,800 submitted books. This year’s jury included such well-known authors as Eula Biss, Ilya Kaminsky and Charles Yu, winner of the 2020 National Book Award for fiction.

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