Some of the most provocative topics in American political discourse — from the opioid crisis to racial identity to the country’s southern border — were at the heart of the books celebrated Friday night during the 39th annual Los Angeles Times Book Prizes.
Held inside USC’s Bovard Auditorium, the ceremony kicked off The Times’ weekend-long Festival of Books by honoring 12 authors, including Corona native Terry Tempest Williams, who received the Robert Kirsch award for lifetime achievement. The festival, which is now in its 25th year, will bring together more than 500 writers, musicians and artists as tens of thousands of attendees descend on USC’s campus.
Former U.S. Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantu received the current events prize for “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border.” He said Friday that writing the book was the “only way to make sense of what” he had experienced while conducting immigration enforcement operations.
“We have to hear more voices of those who are affected by immigration enforcement,” he said. “Listen to these voices that are coming from the border. Listen to them, review them, extend your platforms to them.”
Former Roanoke Times reporter Beth Macy earned top honors in the Science and Technology category for “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” which chronicles the origins of the nation’s crippling dependency on painkillers and the Purdue pharmaceutical company’s role in the crisis.
Macy spoke about the painful process of researching her work. She dedicated her win to Tess Henry, a woman central to her book who suffered from addiction and was later murdered.
“In my writing, there were people I spoke to who died before I was able to get home and type up my interview notes…. There were times when I really, really wanted to just quit,” she said.
In fiction, Rebecca Makkai’s novel “The Great Believers,” a tale of friendship that moves from Chicago to Paris, won the top prize. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s darkly comedic debut, “My Sister, the Serial Killer,” took home the Mystery/Thriller prize, and Eisner Award winner Tillie Walden’s “On a Sunbeam” was honored as the best graphic novel or comic book. Walden could not attend Friday night’s ceremony, but she sent in an acceptance video in the style of her graphic novel.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires spoke about the importance of diverse characters in literature as she claimed the Art Seidenbaum prize for best fiction debut for her collection of short stories, “Heads of the Colored People.”
“I wrote this book because I felt like as a kid, and even as a grad student, I didn’t see books that reflected the kind of black person I was…. I wanted to write about weird black people,” she said.
When Elizabeth Acevedo started writing “The Poet X,” which took home the Young Adult Literature prize on Friday, she said she was trying to pull together an array of disparate story strands while working her way through graduate school.
“It was 368 pieces of verse, I had no idea what they were doing,” Acevedo said. “They were hinges I was trying to connect into doorways.”
Julia Boyd won the History prize for chronicling the Nazi party’s ascent to power in “Travelers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism 1919-1945,” a project that relied heavily on nearly century-old pieces of paper.
“For anyone out there who has a box of letters in their attic and is thinking of throwing it out, don’t. Please,” Boyd said. “I urge you, take them to your library or archives. They’re history.”