Cathy Park Hong, Raven Leilani among National Book Critics Circle Award winners

Cover of the book Luster: A Novel
HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE - Cover of the book Luster: A Novel by Raven Leilani.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


The 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards

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Raven Leilani, Cathy Park Hong and Maggie O’Farrell are among the seven winners of the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards, announced Thursday during a virtual awards ceremony by the organization of American book critics.

Hong won the prize in autobiography for “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” a book that weaves memoir, history and cultural criticism into an exploration of Asian American identity.

During an emotional acceptance speech, Hong read the names of the eight victims who were killed at three Atlanta-area spas last week.

“This award is also in memory of the women who died in Atlanta,” she said. “This is for their families and this is for all of the Asian women, the women in the sex industry, in the service industry, the migrant workers, the factory workers, the mothers and daughters who have come from homelands riven by empire, who have labored and struggled and died in the shadows of American history. Your hardship and spirit will not be in vain. We will remember you. We will fight for you. Your lives are not expendable. You will be remembered.”


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Leilani took home the John Leonard Prize for a first book for her novel “Luster,” about a Black woman in her 20s trying to make sense of her life among the privileged in New York. The judges called it “a tremendous achievement” whose “tender and raucous prose mirrors the narrator’s tender and raucous self.”

“For me, this craft and the community I’ve made around it have given my life shape and purpose,” said Leilani during her acceptance speech, dedicating the honor to all of her teachers.

“At every stage of life I’ve had a teacher who saw me, who met me where I was and who made me feel capable and specific,” she said. “...This book wouldn’t exist without them.”

O’Farrell received the fiction award for “Hamnet,” a historical work based on the life of Shakesepeare, about a famous playwright and his wife who lose their son to the bubonic plague.

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The poetry prize went to Francine J. Harris for “Here Is the Sweet Hand,” a poetry collection that explores female loneliness, blackness, queerness, pop culture and society at large. In the biography category, Amy Stanley won for “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World,” an immersive history focused on an unconventional woman in 19th-century Edo, the city that would become Tokyo.

Tom Zoellner won the nonfiction prize for “Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire,” a riveting account of a Jamaican slave rebellion that led to the British abolition of slavery. In criticism, Nicole Fleetwood won for “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which documents the creative lives of currently and formerly incarcerated artists.

Jo Livingstone and the longtime nonprofit Feminist Press were also honored during the public event as recipients of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, respectively.

This year’s live virtual ceremony comes at a time when the National Book Critics Circle is recovering from a tumultuous summer that almost destroyed the 47-year-old organization. Former President Laurie Hertzel and five board members resigned in June amid competing allegations of racism and privacy violations. Last August, NBCC members voted to allow board member Carlin Romano, who was at the center of the controversy, to finish his term.

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Here is the complete list of 2020 National Book Critics Circle Awards finalists announced in January:


Cathy Park Hong, “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning”
Shayla Lawson, “This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope”
Riva Lehrer, “Golem Girl
Wayétu Moore, “The Dragons, The Giant, The Women
Alia Volz, “Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco”


Amy Stanley, “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World”
Zachary D. Carter, “The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes”
Heather Clark, “Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath”
Les Payne, Tamara Payne, “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
Maggie Doherty, “The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s”


Nicole Fleetwood, “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”
Namwali Serpell, “Stranger Faces
Cristina Rivera Garza, “Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country”
Vivian Gornick, “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader”
Wendy A. Woloson, “Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America”


Martin Amis, “Inside Story
Randall Kenan, “If I Had Two Wings
Maggie O’Farrell, “Hamnet
Souvankham Thammavongsa, “How to Pronounce Knife
Bryan Washington, “Memorial


Walter Johnson, “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States”
James Shapiro, “Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future”
Sarah Smarsh, “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs”
Isabel Wilkerson, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”
Tom Zoellner, “Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire”


Victoria Chang, “Obit
Francine J. Harris, “Here Is The Sweet Hand
Amaud Jamaul Johnson, “Imperial Liquor
Chris Nealon, “The Shore
Danez Smith, “Homie

John Leonard Prize

Kerri Arsenault, “Mill Town: Reckoning With What Remains”
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, “The Undocumented Americans
Raven Leilani, “Luster
Megha Majumdar, “A Burning
Douglas Stuart, “Shuggie Bain
Brandon Taylor, “Real Life
C Pam Zhang, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold

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