The North Carolina writer Jason Mott has won the National Book Foundation’s 2021 prize for fiction, for his novel Hell of a Book.
The US foundation’s 72nd annual awards, presented online only due to Covid-19, were announced on Wednesday night.
The foundation described Mott’s book as a “masterful novel” that broke new ground: “A structurally and conceptually daring examination of art … [which] somehow manages the impossible trick of being playful, insightful, and deeply moving all at the same time.”
The novel interweaves the narratives of an author on a book tour (drawing on Mott’s own experiences), and a young black boy nicknamed Soot, who is relentlessly bullied by other children because of the darkness of his skin.
Mott said Hell of a Book was also inspired by the spate of black killings at the hands of US police in recent years, and what it means for a black man trying to keep himself safe on the streets of America.
“I’d like to dedicate this award to all the other mad kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied, the ones so strange that they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and by those around them,” Mott said in his acceptance speech.
“[This award is dedicated to] the ones who, in spite of this, refuse to outgrow their imagination, refuse to abandon their dreams and refuse to deny, diminish their identity or their truth or their loves. Unlike so many others.”
Mott is best known for his 2013 bestselling debut novel The Returned, about the reappearance of dead residents in a Missouri town, which was later adapted into the US TV series Resurrection.
The Harvard University historian Tiya Miles won the National Book award for non-fiction for All That She Carried. For that book, Miles tracked down the provenance of Ashley’s Sack: a piece of cloth from the mid-1800s embroidered with a message about the slave sale of a nine-year-old girl.
“My great grandmother Rose, mother of Ashley, gave her this sack when she was sold at age nine, in South Carolina,” the embroidery reads.
“It held a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, a braid of Rose’s hair. Told her, It be filled with my Love always. She never saw her again. Ashley is my grandmother. Ruth Middleton, 1921.”
The sack is now housed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.
The National Book award for young people’s literature went to Malinda Lo for Last Night at the Telegraph Club, a novel which tackles the challenges young LGBTQ people face, part of which is written in Chinese.
In an impassioned acceptance speech, Lo said the number of young adult books published with LGBTQ characters had grown significantly in the past decade.
“But the opposition to our stories has also grown,” she said.
“This year, schools across the US are facing significant rightwing pressure to remove books about people of colour and LGBTQ people – especially transgender people – from classrooms and libraries.
“I urge every one of you watching to educate yourselves about your school boards and vote in your local elections … we need your support to keep our stories on the shelves. Don’t let them erase us.”
The Latino poet Martín Espada won the National Book award for poetry for his collection of poems Floaters.
The National Book award for translated literature went to Aneesa Abbas Higgins for her translation of Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, from French into English.
Two lifetime achievement medals were also awarded.
Karen Tei Yamashita, the author of the novels I Hotel, Tropic of Orange and Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, was awarded the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters.
The Japanese-American writer said politics and resistance were at the heart of Asian American literature.
“For our community your recognition tonight is significant, especially this year post-pandemic, having weathered the Twitter of absurdity, corruption and mendacity, the brutality of racial profiling and the provocation of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim, anti-Asian hatred,” she said.
“In such times, may our writing forge tolerance and care.”
A lifetime achievement medal for outstanding services to the literary community was awarded to Nancy Pearl, an author, literary critic and the former executive director of Seattle Public Library’s Washington Center for the Book.
Pearl is best known for her bestseller Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason (2003), and as the founder of the One City One Book project that has spread throughout the world.
“I’m dedicating this to the librarians who do such essential work for their communities,” she said.
“One of the foundational principles of the public library is that it is a truly egalitarian institution, available free to everyone regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, age or economic status.
“As such, it is a democratising and unifying force in our society, which is needed now more than ever before.”
Announcing Pearl’s award, the Washington Post book critic Ron Charles said Pearl represented the ideal of a librarian.
“An activist for the unbridled pleasure of reading, she’s not a guardian of the treasures,” he said. “She’s a farmer of the orchard.”