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Jason Mott wins National Book Award for 'Hell of a Book'
A screenshot of Jason Mott via video conference, who won the National Book Award for fiction for “Hell of a Book.” Via The New York Times.

by Elizabeth A. Harris



NEW YORK, NY.- Jason Mott won the National Book Award for fiction on Wednesday for his novel “Hell of a Book,” an account of a Black author’s book tour intertwined with one focused on a Black boy in the rural South and a third character, The Kid, who may be imaginary.

Mott, who said that his agent had picked his work out of the unsolicited “slush” pile 10 years ago, is a poet and the author of three novels in addition to “Hell of a Book.”

“I would like to dedicate this award to all the other mad kids, to all the outsiders, the weirdos, the bullied,” he said in his speech. “The ones so strange they had no choice but to be misunderstood by the world and by those around them. 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.”

Historian Tiya Miles won the nonfiction prize for “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.” The book traces the history of a family through a cotton sack that an enslaved woman gave to her daughter in the 19th century when they were about to be sold apart.

The judges called it “a brilliant, original work,” examining a compilation of lives “that ordinary archives suppress.” Miles, a professor at Harvard University, was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2011.

In her speech, she thanked her editor, Molly Turpin, recounting how when she first said over coffee that she wanted to write a book about “an old bag,” her editor was delighted. “Your face lit up,” she said. “You were so curious. You were so receptive. You were the perfect editor for this project.”

The National Book Award is one of the most closely watched literary prizes in the world, previously awarded to luminaries such as William Faulkner, W.H. Auden and Ralph Ellison. It can boost book sales and transform an author’s profile.

This year’s ceremony was hosted by Phoebe Robinson, a comedian and the founder of Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint at Penguin Random House devoted to diverse voices. Her most recent book, “Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes,” was published in September.

This was the second annual National Book Awards ceremony held remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, with Robinson recording from the Penguin Random House headquarters in New York City and authors and presenters beaming in remotely. In years past, hundreds of attendees celebrated at a black-tie gala at Cipriani Wall Street.

“If there were ever a time that underscored the extraordinary experiences that books provide,” said Ruth Dickey, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, “it has been these past 20 months.”

The finalists for the fiction award included “Matrix,” by Lauren Groff, about an orphaned young woman who transforms a destitute nunnery; “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” by Anthony Doerr, a novel that encompasses several centuries, two continents and one interstellar ship; “Zorrie,” by Laird Hunt, a portrait of a woman’s life in rural Indiana; and “The Prophets,” by Robert Jones Jr., a love story about two enslaved men set on an antebellum plantation.

Nonfiction finalists included “A Little Devil in America,” an essay collection by Hanif Abdurraqib celebrating Black performers and artists; “Running Out,” by Lucas Bessire, about a Kansas aquifer at risk of depletion and its impact on the area’s farmers and ranchers; “Tastes Like War,” a memoir by Grace M. Cho, who cooks family recipes while exploring how war, xenophobia and colonialism are carried in the body; and “Covered With Night,” by Nicole Eustace, about the 18th-century murder case of an Indigenous hunter.

Martín Espada won the award for poetry for “Floaters,” a book that honors migrants who drowned in the Rio Grande. Judges said it was “vital for our times and will be vital for those in the future, trying to make sense of today.”

The award for translated literature went to “Winter in Sokcho,” a debut novel by Elisa Shua Dusapin and translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins that is set at a South Korean resort.

The award for young people’s literature went to “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” by Malinda Lo, which follows a queer 17-year-old in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Red Scare who is falling in love for the first time. In her speech, she urged viewers to pay attention to their school boards and vote in local elections.

“We need your support to keep our stories on the shelves. Don’t let them erase us,” she said.

The foundation presented two lifetime achievement awards.

Nancy Pearl, an author and librarian who has worked in public library systems in Detroit, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Seattle, was the recipient of the Literarian Award, which recognizes service to the American literary community.

Karen Tei Yamashita, the author of eight books, including “Sansei and Sensibility,” “Tropic of Orange” and “Letters to Memory,” received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, an award that has previously gone to Toni Morrison, Walter Mosley and Maxine Hong Kingston. Yamashita teaches literature and creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“Ideas are dangerous and transformative,” she said in her speech. “Writing, then, is creative work for which we are responsible, accountable. Writing requires our constant care and integrity.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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