National Book Critics Circle announces awards just in time for shut-in binge-reading

Dorany Pineda, Boris Kachka
Edwidge Danticat, winner of the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, announced today.  (Ernesto Ruscio / Getty Images)

Edwidge Danticat, Patrick Radden Keefe and Stanford sexual assault survivor Chanel Miller are among the winners of the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Awards, announced Thursday by the organization of American book critics.

The list of seven winning authors — comprising six general categories and the John Leonard Prize for first book — tended toward the topical and addressed urgent issues ranging from immigration to sectarian strife, race and natural disaster. (There was also a lifetime achievement award for Palestinian American author and songwriter Naomi Shihab Nye and a critics award for The New Yorker's Katy Waldman.)

The awards also were given out with no official ceremony due to an even more urgent concern. Typically the NBCCs are awarded during a New York City event, but on Monday, as fears over the novel coronavirus spawned a wide array of event cancellations, the nonprofit announced it was canceling its finalists reading and awards ceremony, both scheduled for this week. The annual gala reception was rescheduled for September.

Below is more about the winning books, which should be on top of your list of things to read in enforced isolation.

Autobiography

Know My Name, by Chanel Miller (Viking)

Known for years as Emily Doe, the anonymous victim of Brock Turner, following a 2015 sexual assault near a Stanford University fraternity, Miller read a victim-impact statement that helped galvanize #MeToo, even as Turner received a six-month sentence that many felt was far too lenient. Here she finally tells her full story, under her own name. In a Times column last year, Robin Abcarian called the book "powerful and disturbing," adding that it should be "required reading for every police officer, detective, prosecutor, provost and judge who deals with victims of sexual assault."

Biography

The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth, by Josh Levin (Little, Brown)

The editorial director of Slate made it his mission to find out everything he could about Linda Taylor, cited by Ronald Reagan and others at the height of the ’80s conservative revolution as the archetypal "welfare queen." He found instead a highly unusual figure, whose life of theft and quite possibly murder was related in fascinating and tragic ways to her mixed-race background. Reviewing the book for The Times, Lynell George called it "a story of grand-scale manipulation, both of Taylor’s trail of brazen deceptions but also the role media and politics played in shaping a narrative."

Criticism

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, by Saidiya Hartman (W.W. Norton)

You could call them the hidden figures of the flapper era, except they weren't just libertines but radicals, fighters and pathbreakers. Hartman's book unearths the mass movement of black women out of the shadows of Jim Crow, sexual repression and the prejudice that would lead policemen and moralists to label them sinners and victims instead of the autonomous individuals they were. NBCC judge Walton Muyumba said the book "moans sensually and philosophically, adding bright, round, gorgeous newness to the extended ring shout of the African American critical tradition.”

Fiction

Everything Inside: Stories, by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf)

Often drawing on her own Haitian heritage, Danticat has plumbed immigration, dislocation, disaster and mourning in both fiction and nonfiction (and won a 2007 NBCC award in autobiography for "Brother, I'm Dying"). In these short stories she tracks an undocumented immigrant's thoughts as he falls to his death, weaves together the stories of two women suffering from dementia and postpartum depression, and depicts a woman meeting her father for the first time only after he's died. Judge Michael Schaub, who previewed the book for The Times, writes in the citation that it's "a stunning book, the best of Danticat’s remarkable career."

Nonfiction

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Doubleday)

Keefe's dive into the civil war that tore Northern Ireland apart is both a gripping, immersive true-crime suspense account, focusing on one grievous disappearance, and an enviably vast overview of both the broad political situation and the deep psychology of tribal violence. As Stephen Phillips wrote in The Times, the book "probes the convulsions that claimed more than 3,500 lives in the country of less than 2 million people and scarred thousands more — and the stunned sense of denial that still clings to them — through the case of one victim."

Poetry

Magical Negro: Poems, by Morgan Parker (Tin House)

Also a YA novelist and the author of a forthcoming book of nonfiction, the Los Angeles-based Parker has won a Pushcart Prize and plenty of raves for past collections of verse, much of which deals with the African American experience. “Morgan Parker’s effortless versatility with language in 'Magical Negro' is a wondrous and immersive experience," judge Hope Wabuke writes. "Here is a poet who reminds us of what language can be — innovative and truthful in its rhythmic constructs of meaning.”

John Leonard Prize for debut book

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom (Grove)

Broom picks up the first-book prize for a story about the house she and her family lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina, tracing her family's roots in New Orleans through the construction of the yellow house and beyond. In The Times, Lynell George called Broom's debut "a declaration of unconditional devotion and commitment to place. Broom also pays homage to the relationships we protect, the ones we yearn for and circle back to; the ones that hold us and don’t give up on us, that are our living and breathing foundation."

Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

Katy Waldman

Waldman has been a staff writer at the New Yorker for two years, and previously wrote for Slate about language, books, politics and culture. She has won a 2018 American Society of Magazine Editors award for journalists younger than 30.

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award

Naomi Shihab Nye

The daughter of a Palestinian refugee father and American mother, Nye has won numerous awards for her poetry, songs and books for children.




For the record:
6:17 PM, Mar. 12, 2020: Author Chanel Miller was mistakenly referred to as Chantel Miller.