From left, National Book Award winners Stephen Greenblatt, nonfiction;… (Tina Fineberg, Associated…)
Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones," about a family hit by Hurricane Katrina, receives the National Book Award for fiction. The novel, her second, is a surprise winner.
On a night of literary honors, Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones," about a family hit by Hurricane Katrina, received the National Book Award for fiction on Wednesday at a black-tie gala in New York. Ward's novel, her second, was a surprise winner.
The National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards, presented two of its five major prizes to African American women. In addition to Ward, Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for poetry.
The 62nd National Book Awards were hosted by actor John Lithgow, who published a memoir in September, and included an appearance by poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read at President Obama's inauguration in 2009. Poet John Ashbery, 84, was presented the foundation's lifetime achievement award, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In his acceptance speech, he noted that since he began writing, "difficult poetry" had lost traction in the literary world.
Finney's acceptance speech for her award for the poetry collection "Head Off & Split" combined poetry with a gorgeously stated discussion of race, writing and reading. "That was the best acceptance speech for anything that I've ever heard in my life," Lithgow said, after the applause finally died down. Finney lives and teaches in Lexington, Ky.
Ward, too, is from the South and considers her town of DeLisle, Miss., her inspiration.
"I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South," she told the audience, "so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs."
The nonfiction award went to Stephen Greenblatt for his book "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern." He thanked Lucretius, whose 2,000-year-old poem "On the Nature of Things" is at the center of his literary and cultural history. In The Times' Arts & Books section coming Sunday, reviewer Nick Owchar writes that "The Swerve" is a "wondrous book about how this classic was nearly lost and why Western civilization would be much poorer if that had happened."
The award for young people's literature went to Thanhha Lai for "Inside Out & Back Again." Lai is a Vietnamese immigrant who once wrote for the Orange County Register and now lives in New York. This is her first book.
Mitchell Kaplan, a bookstore owner in Florida and a driving force behind the East Coast's largest literary festival, the Miami Book Fair International, was presented the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.
The awards ceremony was streamed live by the National Book Foundation and broadcast by C-SPAN's Book TV.