National Book Awards: winners condemn Gaza war

National Book Awards: winners condemn Gaza war

Literature meets global discourse at the National Book Awards

by Suswati Basu
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The National Book Awards this year highlighted not just literary achievements but also pressing global issues. Justin Torres emerged as the winner in the Fiction category for his daring novel “Blackouts,” published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (FSG). Known for its illustrated narrative weaving history with imagination, Torres’s book delves into a censored study of gay sexuality.

National Book Awards authors unite in a call for peace in Gaza

In a remarkable turn of events, Torres invited fellow writers to join him on stage for a collective statement regarding the Israel-Hamas conflict. Aaliyah Bilal, a National Book Awards fiction nominee, read the statement, which condemned the bombardment of Gaza, antisemitism, anti-Palestinian sentiments, and Islamophobia, urging a humanitarian ceasefire.

“On behalf of the finalists we oppose the ongoing bombardment of Gaza and call for a humanitarian ceasefire to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestine civilians, particularly children,” she said, adding that the group “opposes antisemitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia equally, accepting the human dignity of all parties, knowing that further bloodshed does nothing to secure lasting peace in the region.”

Read: National Book Awards 2023 longlists: books leave lasting impression

The awards also celebrated other triumphs. Ned Blackhawk was honoured with the Nonfiction prize for “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History,” while Dan Santat’s “A First Time for Everything” secured the Young People’s Literature award. Craig Santos Perez’s “from incorporated territory (åmot)” was recognised for Best Poetry, and Stênio Gardel’s “The Words That Remain,” translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato from Portuguese, won in the Literature in Translation category. Winners of the National Book Awards receive $10,000, a bronze medal, and statue and finalists receive $1,000 and a bronze medal.

Celebrating winners and navigating political tensions

Controversy surrounded the event when Zibby Media withdrew its support, citing concerns over the statement’s potential antisemitic and anti-Israel stance.

“I am deeply troubled to learn that all the nominees of the National Book Awards this year have decided to collectively band together to use their speeches to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli agenda. As a sponsor, I am not comfortable bringing my authors and my team into a politically charged environment like this one, one that will make many of us feel quite uncomfortable — including myself as a Jewish woman.”

Zibby Owens, “Zibby Media” Founder

Owens claimed that there had been no communication on the part of the NBF and that she wanted the show to be a “safe space.” On the National Book Foundation website, it stated that political statements had been made in previous shows and that it hoped people would come together “in a spirit of understanding, compassion, and humanity.”

“Political statements, if made, are by no means unprecedented in the history of the National Book Awards, or indeed any awards ceremony. We are working with the venue to ensure a safe environment for all our guests. We of course hope that everyone attending the National Book Awards, in person or tuning in online, comes in a spirit of understanding, compassion, and humanity—the very things that the books we love inspire.”

National Book Foundation

Despite this, the ceremony, held at Cipriani Wall Street, was a blend of emotion and homage to literature. Oprah Winfrey’s keynote address, imbued with her lifelong passion for words, was a highlight, alongside the honouring of poet Rita Dove and Paul Yamazaki of City Lights bookstore.

Read: Palestine protesters disrupt Scotiabank book prize over ‘Israel weapons ties’

The event, hosted by LeVar Burton and featuring notable attendees like Jesmyn Ward and Abraham Verghese, was not only a celebration of literature but also a platform for expressing concerns over current socio-political issues. With themes of self-expression, silenced voices, and literature’s power to articulate our deepest disturbances, the National Book Awards stood as a testament to the transformative power of words.

Generating over $1 million for the National Book Foundation, the evening was a resounding success, both in terms of financial support and in amplifying diverse voices in literature. The National Book Awards, a beacon of literary excellence, also served as a poignant reminder of literature’s role in reflecting and responding to the world around us.

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