By Emma Baigey, Paridhi Badgotri and Gabriella Sotiriou
The National Book Awards has been running since 1950 and aims to recognise the best of American literature. This year’s talented authors were chosen by a panel of judges made up of writers, translators, booksellers, librarians and critics selected by past award finalists and judges.
The award, managed by non-profit organisation the National Book Foundation, is split into five categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry, Translated Literature and Young People’s Literature.
The finalists for Young People’s Literature are first-time National Book Award honourees. The finalists for Fiction include three impressive debut novels – Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, Sarah Thankam Mathews’ All This Could Be Different and Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon. Gayl Jones is no stranger to a shortlist, having previously been a finalist for the National Book Awards in 1998 and a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in 2021. This year, Gayl Jones' book The Birdcatcher has been nominated amongst the other finalists.
Jones is one of six writers who have been formerly celebrated by the prestigious awards. Scholastique Mukasonga, a 2019 Translated Literature Finalist, is one such author who is being recognised again, this time for her novel Kibogo. The story explores tensions between traditional Rwandan beliefs and those imposed by European Christian missionaries. In an interview with Words Without Borders, her translator Mark Polizzotti explained his job was to render “the very particular tone, music, rhythm, humour, and spiritual yearning that emanates from the text, and trying to introduce this delicious and heartbreaking chorus of emotional registers into a time, language, and culture very different from the one Mukasonga conveys.”
Science and race are recurring topics throughout the Non-fiction line-up. COVID-19 is a topic written about in both Meghan O’Rourke’s The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness and David Quammen’s Breathless: The Scientific Race to Defeat a Deadly Virus. Race relations in the USA are explored throughout His Name Is George Floyd: One Man’s Life and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa as well as South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry.
The five winners will be announced on 16 November at the 73rd National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York. As is custom, two authors will be honoured with lifetime achievement awards; cartoonist Art Spiegelman will receive the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and Tracie D. Hall will be prized with the Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
Padma Lakshmi, bestselling author of multiple cookbooks and her memoir Love, Loss, and What We Ate, will host the ceremony. The National Book Foundation’s Executive Director Ruth Dickey said of the decision “the National Book Awards Ceremony is the highlight of our work each year celebrating exceptional literature… We are honoured that Padma Lakshmi will bring her passion for books, storytellers and human connection to this year’s in-person Benefit Dinner.”
The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty
The Rabbit Hutch paints a bizarre picture of contemporary American society. It explores the emotions of loneliness and longing, whilst telling the tale of a woman who launches a solo campaign against the rodents.
The Man Who Could Move Clouds: A Memoir by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Amidst the political violence of 1980s and 90s Colombia, magic was a regular part of Contreras’s family. In an urge to relearn her family roots after her memory loss, Contreras traces the rigid and violent history of Spanish colonialism. It is a memoir of how magic was established in her family and regaining her otherworldly legacy.
Look at This Blue by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
This collection of poems speaks of the beauty of California’s natural environment, but also the damage being done to that environment and the animal kingdom. Coke draws on her more than forty years living in the state to capture both her love of California and issues surrounding the lack of accountability of the genocide of its original people. Weaving together the area’s history with her own life, Coke pushes the reader to discover how they can coexist with nature.
Jawbone by Mónica Ojeda, translated by Sarah Booker
Jawbone tells the tale of six private school girls who form an Instagram, Slenderman loving clique. The girls target Clara, one of their teachers, who still suffers the effects of past abuse and in response to her fear of the group, kidnaps one of the girls. In her English debut, Mónica Ojeda twists the process of a girl becoming a woman – something that is associated with pain and blood – into something straight out of a horror story.
Young People's Literature
Maizy Chen's Last Chance by Lisa Yee
Maizy Chen's Last Chance tells the story of eleven-year-old Maizy, who finds herself having to help her grandparents at their Chinese restaurant, The Golden Palace. During her time there, she questions the meaning behind racist messages targeting the family and why she doesn’t recognise any of the people in the old photos on the restaurant walls. This is a heartfelt tale of family, friendship, identity, racism and acceptance.