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National Book Critics Circle Awards: 2020 Winners Announced

By Ameenah Khan, Emma Carey, Caitlin Evans and Holly Mahoney

Each year since 1976, the National Book Critics Circle presents awards for phenomenal reads in six categories: Fiction, Non-fiction, Biography, Autobiography, Poetry and Criticism.

Each category consists of five finalists and whilst the battle between each author was tight this year, the judges managed to choose who they thought was most deserving of the award. The NBCCA board is split into small committees who are then allocated to focus on one of the six categories. Those committees then take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.

More interestingly, members who have worked only on the committees for Fiction and Criticism, for instance, need to read all the books on the shortlists for Biography, Non-fiction, Autobiography, and Poetry. They have around six weeks to do this. During this time, an ongoing discussion takes place on the general board in preparation for the March awards meeting wherein the winners are finally chosen!

Autobiography Winner Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

Released by Oneworld Publications, Minor Feelings is the first autobiographical book from the beloved poet Cathy Park Hong. The book is a collection of essays detailing Hong’s experience as a Korean American woman in a mix of styles: memoir, history and criticism. Hong uses these forms to her advantage as she shares insight on a key topic of the moment, especially in the face of Asian hate crime on the rise in the US, it seems more important than ever to share empathetic experience and criticise the culture of today.

Criticism Winner Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Nicole R. Fleetwood

This critical text displays its poignancy in its publisher, Harvard University Press, being a leading institution for research and study. The unique body of work was born of interviews with incarcerated artists interwoven with Fleetwood’s family experience. It delves into the originality and innovation of the human mind when forced into restricted and bare conditions. In the era of mass incarceration, America’s prison system is constantly under scrutiny and analysis, therefore Fleetwood’s work brings a new, creative perspective to the conversation.

Fiction Winner Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Winning the Fiction category this time around is Maggie O’Farrell with her poetic, poignant novel, Hamnet. In this mesmerizing story, O’Farrell poignantly portrays how grief and the loss of a loved one can influence one’s life. She offers creative speculation on how the loss of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son, Hamnet, could have changed his family’s life and influenced his works of art. Agnes Hathaway, the novel’s free-spirited protagonist, guides the reader through a tale of wonder and pain. O’Farrell’s remarkable exploration of grief and loss sees this novel winning not only literary awards but, subsequently, the hearts of many.

Non-fiction Winner - Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire by Tom Zoellner

Winning the Non-fiction category is Tom Zoellner with his inspiring book Island on Fire. The title says it all; this book is a mind-blowing account of the uprising and rebellion of Jamaican slavery in 1831 Britain. A transformative revolt that formally abolished slavery in Britain just two years later. In this gripping day by day account, Zoellner also highlights the Jamaican hero and rebellion leader, Samuel Sharpe, giving readers an insight into the unfathomable world they faced whilst reaching their freedom.

Biography Winner Stranger in the Shogun’s City by Amy Stanley

Claiming the Biography award this year was Amy Stanley with her eye-opening book all about her life. We follow the story of a young unconventional girl who rebels against society’s expectations to forge a life for herself. Based in Japan, the readers not only get an insight into what life was like in this country in the 1800s, but also how Japan opened up to trade and diplomacy with the West for the first time ever. As readers, we get first-hand experience of what went on during this pivotal moment in Japanese history. If you’re interested in getting your hands on a unique biography book, this read is the one for you!

John Leonard Prize Winner Luster by Raven Leilani

Raven Leilani’s breath-taking debut Luster set the world of literary fiction on fire this past year with its raw and witty depiction of millennial protagonist Edie and her relationship with a married couple. While the narrative remains on Edie, Leilani is wonderfully accomplished in her nuanced discussion of racial, sexual and professional politics in a real and sentimental manner. For any readers interested in intersectional discussions of modern life and emotional and powerful prose, this is not a novel to miss out on.

As you can see by this astonishing collection of winners, the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award has celebrated some of the best and most beloved literary releases that 2020 has had to offer. With such a well-rounded and impactful collection of work, it is clear why this award has remained an anticipated date in the literary calendar since its inception in 1976.



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