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Charles Yu, Malcolm X biographers among winners of the 2020 National Book Awards

Left to right, David Steinberger, Kacen Callender, Don Mee Choi, Tamara Payne, Charles Yu, Lisa Lucas.
Left to right, National Book Foundation Board Chair David Steinberger, young people’s literature winner Kacen Callender, poetry winner Don Mee Choi, nonfiction winner Tamara Payne, fiction winner Charles Yu and NBF Executive Director Lisa Lucas.
(National Book Foundation)

Los Angeles-born writer Charles Yu took home the fiction prize (or, rather, received it at home) for his third book “Interior Chinatown” at the 2020 virtual National Book Awards on Wednesday.

Written in the form of a screenplay, “Interior Chinatown” is a satirical novel about the intersection of Hollywood tropes and Asian stereotypes. The National Book Award Foundation called it “a bright, bold, gut punch of a novel.”

“I can’t feel anything in my body right now,” said a dumbfounded Yu during his speech. “I prepared nothing, which tells you about how realistic I thought this was.”

“There’s not many reasons for hope right now,” Yu said once the reality of his win had set in. “But to be here, hearing about all of these books, having read some of them, and going on to read many more of them, it is what keeps me going, and I hope that this community can sustain other people the same way.”

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The father-daughter duo of Les Payne and Tamara Payne were awarded the nonfiction prize for “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X.”

Les, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and former editor at Newsday, worked on the book for nearly 30 years until he died in 2018. Final edits were overseen by Tamara, who was also his lead researcher; she tearfully accepted the prize on his behalf.

“This is such a bittersweet moment,” said Payne. “Since beginning the journey to finishing ‘The Dead Are Arising,’ we’ve seen how Malcolm X has influenced people internationally. Today, we see the youth all over the world continue to embrace him because his message still rings true.”

The poetry award went to Don Mee Choi for “DMZ Colony,” a collection of poems about people transformed by war and colonization in the United States and South Korea. Choi has received a Whiting Award and the Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry, among other accolades.

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Choi, who dedicated the award to her father, thanked the small, independent presses that have published her work and translations of Korean feminist poets. “Poetry and translation have changed my life,” she said. “For me they’re inseparable.”

Steph Cha shares a meal and some notes on performing identity with the “Interior Chinatown” author.

The award in the category of translated literature went to Korean Japanese author Yu Miri for her novel “Tokyo Ueno Station,” translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles. Set in a train station in Japan, the story is told from the point of view of a dead man in limbo.

Miri’s dozens of earlier books include her bestselling memoir “Inochi,” which was adapted into a film. She opened a bookstore and theater space after relocating to Fukushima, Japan, an area devastated by the 2011 earthquake,tsunami and nuclear disaster.

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“I would like to share this joy with the people of Miramisoma, [Japan],” who were affected by the 2011 disasters, said Miri. “This is for you.”

The young people’s literature award went to Kacen Callender for “King and the Dragonflies,” which covers themes of racism, toxic masculinity and self-discovery.

Born and raised in St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Callender won several prizes for their 2018 debut novel, “Hurricane Child.”

In their speech, Callender said (also through tears): “I know I’m not the only one who believes that these next generations are the ones who are meant to change everything. Young people already have changed the world in so many ways, and it is an honor and a privilege to be given the platform and the opportunity to help in their guidance through the magic of story.”

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Lifetime achievement prizes went to Walter Mosley, who won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and Carolyn Reidy, who was posthumously awarded the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Reidy was president and chief executive of Simon & Schuster from January 2008 until her death on May 12.

As a new biography comes out, a look back at the history of Malcolm X histories, from ‘The Autobiography’” to Public Enemy to Manning Marable.

Here is the complete list of 2020 National Book Award finalists announced in October:

Young people’s literature

- “Every Body Looking” by Candice Iloh
- “King and the Dragonflies” by Kacen Callender
- “The Way Back” by Gavriel Savit
- “We Are Not Free” by Traci Chee
- “When Stars Are Scattered” by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

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Translated literature

- “High as the Waters Rise” by Anja Kampmann, translated from German by Anne Posten
- “Minor Detail” by Adania Shibli, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
- “The Bitch” by Pilar Quintana, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman
- “The Family Clause” by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies
- “Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles

Poetry

- “Borderland Apocrypha” by Anthony Cody
- “DMZ Colony” by Don Mee Choi
- “Fantasia for the Man in Blue” by Tommye Blount
- “Postcolonial Love Poem” by Natalie Diaz
- “A Treatise on Stars” by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge

Nonfiction

- “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X” by Les Payne and Tamara Payne
- “Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the road to Indian Territory” by Claudio Saunt
- “How to Make a Slave and other Essays” by Jerald Walker
- “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” by Jenn Shapland
- “Undocumented Americans” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, the first undocumented immigrant to be named a finalist. This month, she received her green card and is now a legal permanent resident.

Fiction

- “A Children’s Bible” by Lydia Millet
- “Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu
- “Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam
- “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” by Deesha Philyaw
- “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart

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Finalists for the Nov. 18 awards, announced today, include stories about Malcolm X, Indigenous queer women and immigrants without documentation.


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