Coronavirus is topic one among newly announced L.A. Times Book Prize winners

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An author photo of Marlon James for his book "Black Leopard, Red Wolf." Credit: Mark Seliger
Marlon James' fantasy novel "Black Leopard, Red Wolf" won The Times' inaugural Ray Bradbury Prize. (Mark Seliger)

The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were announced on Twitter today. Among the winners in 14 categories, who submitted acceptance speech videos, were Steph Cha, Ben Lerner, Namwalli Serpell, George Packer, Maria Popova and Walter Mosley. Marlon James won the inaugural Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction.

For the first time since launching in 1980, the prizes — which traditionally kick off the The Times' weekend-long Festival of Books — were awarded without a physical ceremony due to social-distancing restrictions under the coronavirus crisis.

In videos released Friday and shared on Twitter, the winners were uniformly grateful, but most of them were preoccupied with COVID-19 and its effect on humanity. Their books, their lives and the prizes themselves took on new meaning as the authors did what their books often do, attempting to make sense out of chaos and struggle.

"A mere few decades ago, this pandemic and the logical response to it would've been the subject of fiction," said crime novelist Walter Mosley, winner of the 2019 Robert Kirsch Award for his contributions to the literature of the American West. "Today, the fiction writer has become part of his craft, the subject of his craft," he said from "quasi-quarantine" in Santa Monica.

Marlon James, recipient of the Ray Bradbury Prize for his fantasy novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” highlighted the irony of winning an award that honors an author best known for "the original American dystopia," "Fahrenheit 451," during the global pandemic.

Sitting "literally in a bunker," James said the circumstances made him think "even more about how we look at [Bradbury's] dystopia as a possible future, not realizing [that] in a way it has happened. We're not burning books, but we're burning intelligence. We're burning expertise. We're burning the simple privilege of knowing and we're seeing the consequence of that."

George Packer received the biography prize for “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century.” He used his acceptance speech to speak of a political situation he believes worsened the crisis. The book, he said, is not just the story of "a flamboyant and brilliant and difficult man who served his country," but a portrait of his time, "an era when the United States saw itself as an indispensable world leader, for better and for worse."

"But one thing that this dreadful period we're living in right now has told me," he continued, "is what it's like when America stops being that country and turns inward ... and sees itself as just another nasty power in the world. The results of that have been grim."

Other award recipients focused on the people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Emily Bazelon, winner in current interest for “Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration,” took a moment to think about the "health and safety" of prison and jail inmates "who are at a tremendous risk" for the virus.

Eleanor Davis echoed that sentiment when she accepted the graphic novel/comics award for "The Hard Tomorrow," a story of one couple's quest for a serene future. While bouncing her baby in her arms, Davis spoke of the "tremendous pain and upheaval" the world is enduring, "with those who are already the worst off being the hardest hit."

Davis then turned to her baby and said, "We fear for tomorrow, we hope for it, we fight for it and we move towards it inexorably, but a baby doesn't care about tomorrow. No matter how much tomorrow will hurt him, nothing can ever erase his bright burning today."

Steph Cha, recipient of the mystery/thriller award for “Your House Will Pay," spoke nostalgically about life before COVID-19 before urging us to use the pandemic as a chance to "reevaluate the systems we thought were intractable." (She gave birth shortly after recording the speech.)

Keren Taylor took home the Innovator’s Award for WriteGirl, a local nonprofit that promotes empowerment for teen girls through writing. Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers won the history prize for “They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South.”

Malla Nunn dedicated her young-adult literature award (for “When the Ground is Hard") to the women in her family for "their resilience and their strength." Poetry winner Ilya Kaminsky said he wrote "Deaf Republic" in memory of his Ukrainian parents, "who were refugees and gave up everything for me." Emily Bernard, recipient of the Christopher Isherwood Prize for autobiographical prose, gave thanks in her speech to a man in her life who died from COVID-19. She added: "Those of us who work in words have much labor ahead of us."

Other honorees also reflected on the artist's place in dark times.

"We're going to need renewed and refreshed languages of loving and mourning and collective living in the wake of what's happening now, and literature is one laboratory for those languages," said Ben Lerner, fiction prize winner for “The Topeka School," which explores the roots of toxic masculinity.

Maria Popova, whose book "Figuring" won for tech and science, posed the question: "How do you go on making art, making science, making meaning in the face of something so much larger than we are, so beyond our control?"

Namwali Serpell offered a hopeful answer. Accepting the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction for "The Old Drift," a novel in part about a viral epidemic, the Zambian writer said, "These are dark times, yes, but that darkness, that void, is also a break from business as usual, a crack out of which maybe a revolution will emerge."

She acknowledged that it might feel "impossible to do anything except survive" right now, but "art is survival too. So I say make art, paint it, record it, dance it, write it down."

And she turned to the famous lines from Bertolt Brecht's' "Svendborg Poems," a motto that frequently brings her courage and consolation: "In the dark times will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times."

"Thanks again," she said, "and keep singing."

Below is the full list of 2019 winners:

  • Innovator’s Award: Keren Taylor, founder of WriteGirl

  • Robert Kirsch Award: Walter Mosley

  • The Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose: Emily Bernard, "Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine," Vintage

  • Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction: Namwali Serpell, "The Old Drift: A Novel," Hogarth

  • The Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction: Marlon James, "Black Leopard, Red Wolf," Riverhead

  • Biography: George Packer, “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” Knopf

  • Current Interest: Emily Bazelon, "Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration," Random House

  • Fiction: Ben Lerner, "The Topeka School," Farrar, Straus and Giroux

  • Graphic Novel/Comics: Eleanor Davis, "The Hard Tomorrow," Drawn and Quarterly

  • History: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, "They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South," Yale University Press

  • Mystery/Thriller: Steph Cha, "Your House Will Pay," Ecco

  • Poetry: Ilya Kaminsky, "Deaf Republic," Graywolf

  • Science & Technology: Maria Popova, "Figuring," Pantheon

  • Young Adult Literature: Malla Nunn, "When the Ground is Hard," Putnam Books for Young Readers

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