Ta-Nehisi Coates wins National Book Award for nonfiction
“Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brief, unflinching meditation on race and police violence, won the National Book Award for nonfiction on Wednesday night. The fiction prize was given to Adam Johnson’s “Fortune Smiles,” an eclectic and edgy story collection set everywhere from the former East Germany to a Louisiana community reeling from Hurricane Katrina.
Coates’ book has been on best-seller lists for months, and his acceptance speech was a stirring expression of gratitude and frustration. He dedicated his honor to his friend Prince Jones, who was killed by police 15 years ago and whose tragedy is at the core of “Between the World and Me.”
“‘Between the World and Me’ comes out of that place,” said Coates, adding that similar shootings keep happening “over and over and over again.”
The young people’s literature prize went to Neal Shusterman’s “Challenger Deep,” inspired by his then-teenage son’s struggles with mental illness, while Robin Coste Lewis’ debut collection, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” was the cited for poetry.
All winners received $10,000.
Earlier during the ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street, Don DeLillo received a lifetime achievement medal for his contributions to American letters. James Patterson was honored for his advocacy of reading and literacy.
Johnson’s award follows the Pulitzer Prize he received for his previous work, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Both were edited by David Ebershoff, a longtime Random House executive who is leaving for a full-time writing career. Moviegoers may know him for the upcoming adaptation of his novel “The Danish Girl.”
Fiction judges had highlighted five works with contemporary settings, touching upon everything from race and class in Angela Flournoy’s Detroit-based “The Turner House” to the chronicle of marriage in Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies” to the economy in Karen E. Bender’s story collection “Refund.” Flournoy, in an email sent earlier in the week, observed that fiction “grants us access to lives and experiences that are different from our own, but it also shows the ways in which human experience has commonalities.”
“Fiction makes it clear that while the particulars of our lives vary, we’re all dealing with the same sorts of emotions, the same desires to be loved and seen and heard,” she wrote.
Some of the night’s speakers are known for their takes on current events, but their tone was more personal and the jokes mostly about publishing.
Host Andy Borowitz, who routinely turns out political satires for The New Yorker, had nothing to say about the presidential campaigns but instead mocked the presumed obscurity of the awards’ sponsor, the National Book Foundation, and the presumed self-absorption of the literary community.
“If you’re not in the mood to hear people talking about themselves, you’re in the wrong place,” he said.
DeLillo’s speech came just days after the attacks in Paris, the kind of horror he had imagined in “Mao II” and so much of his work. But the 78-year-old author was at the awards event to talk about books and old friends, mourning such peers as E.L. Doctorow and James Salter, ruminating about the shelves down the hall from where he writes and listing not just the books but their publishers and list prices. (50 cents for Dostoevsky’s “House of the Dead,” a paperback from 1959.)
“I find myself gazing like a museum-goer,” he said of his shelves.
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