Daniel Handler, the author best known for his children’s novels written under the name Lemony Snicket, is drawing fire for a racially charged joke he made Wednesday night while hosting the National Book Awards.
Handler’s comments came after Jacqueline Woodson, who is African American, was awarded the prize for young people’s literature for her book “Brown Girl Dreaming.” Handler said: “I told Jackie she was going to win, and I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.”
Handler continued, “I said, ‘You have to put that in a book,’ and she said, ‘You put it in a book.’ And I said, ‘I’m only writing a book about a black girl who’s allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama, saying “This guy’s OK. This guy’s fine.”’" The comments drew some nervous laughs from the crowd.
The joke drew sharp criticism from writers on Twitter. Roxane Gay, author of “Bad Feminist,” wrote: “Daniel Handler’s racist ‘humor’ at the NBAs last night is not okay and I am shocked that so few people are talking about it. ... And you know, I’m sure he’s a good guy. But we can still say, ‘This was a mistake, try and be better.’”
Los Angeles writer Laila Lalami (“The Moor’s Account”) noted: “A black writer at the pinnacle of her career makes an inspiring speech, and a white guy thinks this is the perfect time for a racial joke.” And author Mat Johnson (“Pym”) tweeted: “Ah, the publishing industry, where a black person can win its highest [award], then in the next breath be subjected to a watermelon joke.”
Handler apologized Thursday on Twitter, writing: “My job at last night’s National Book Awards ... was to shine a light on tremendous writers, including Jacqueline Woodson and not to overshadow their achievements with my own ill-conceived attempts at humor. I clearly failed, and I’m sorry."
Woodson has yet to comment publicly about Handler’s joke. This was the first National Book Award win for Woodson, who was a finalist twice before. In her acceptance speech, she said, “I love how much love there is in the world of young adult and children’s literature.... It’s so important that we talk to our old people before they become ancestors, and get their stories.”