Charles Yu, a writer whose talents range from short stories to episodes of HBO’s Westworld, has won the National Book Award for fiction for Interior Chinatown.
The novel, his second after his 2010 debut How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe, beat out A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, and Rumaan Alam’s dystopian Leave the World Behind (soon to be a Netflix thriller starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington) for the top fiction prize at the all-virtual awards ceremony hosted by the National Book Foundation.
Yu, 44, who has written episodes for shows such as Lodge 49 and Legion, accepted the award with surprise – “this seems about right for 2020, because pretty sure this is all a simulation” he quipped – and noted in his acceptance speech the poignancy of a virtual awards show for books in an ongoing pandemic. “There’s not many reasons for hope right now, but to be here, hearing about all of these books – having read some of them, going on to read many more of them – it is what keeps me going,” he said.
Interior Chinatown, an inventive novel that begins as a screenplay set in Los Angeles’ Chinatown that expands into a portrait of the bit actor cast as a “generic Asian man”, was hailed as a “bright, bold gut punch of a novel” by the five-judge panel, headed by author and critic Roxane Gay.
The father/daughter duo Les and Tamara Payne won best nonfiction for The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, a long-gestating biography of the civil rights icon begun decades ago by Les Payne, who died before its publication. “I really wish my father was here for this,” said Tamara Payne, accepting on behalf of her father, who initiated the project “to provide context for the man who, more than any other leader of the 1960s, moved blacks to consider who we are, from whence we come, and to plan for what we could become”.
The 71st annual awards, hosted virtually by young adult novelist and poet Jason Reynolds, also bestowed a lifetime honour for outstanding service to the American literary community to Carolyn Reidy, the CEO of Simon & Schuster from January 2008 until her death in May 2020 at age 71. The medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters went to novelist Walter Mosley, the first black man to receive the prestigious honour, which has previously been awarded to such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Isabel Allende and Gwendolyn Brooks.
Mosley, a native of Los Angeles and prolific writer of crime fiction, acknowledged the “great weight hanging over the reception of an award when the underlying subject is ‘the first black man to receive’”.
“One might ask, can such a thing make a difference?” he said of the honour. “I prefer to believe that we are on the threshold of a new day, that this evening is but one of 10,000 steps being taken to recognise the potential of this nation.”
The 90-minute livestream celebrated a long tradition of American literature, the resiliency of book organisations in a brutal, upending year, and diversity of talent, with specific focus on black writers amid calls for greater inclusivity following nationwide protests for Black Lives Matter this summer. In a montage honouring black authors past and present, former host LeVar Burton said, “Tonight, when we say that Black Lives Matter, let us say it as acknowledgment of all those deserving writers and, by extension, readers who previously have been excluded from this room.”
The evening’s other winners included Kacen Callender’s King and the Dragonflies for young people’s literature; Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, for translated literature; and in poetry, Don Mee Choi for DMZ Colony.
The National Book Awards, presented by the National Books Foundation, started in 1950 and converted into an event in 1989, and awards prizes of $10,000 to each winner and $1,000 to each finalist. Publishers submitted 1,692 books for the 2020 awards – 388 in fiction, 609 in nonfiction, 254 in poetry, 130 in translated literature, and 311 in young people’s literature. Winners were selected by a rotating panel of five judges per category.
The 2020 National Book Award winners
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – WINNER
The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne – WINNER
Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory by Claudio Saunt
My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland
How to Make a Slave and Other Essays by Jerald Walker
A Treatise on Stars by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge
Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount
DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi – WINNER
Borderland Apocrypha by Anthony Cody
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz
Young people’s literature
King and the Dragonflies by Kacen Callender – WINNER
We Are Not Free by Traci Chee
Every Body Looking by Candice Iloh
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
The Way Back by Gavriel Savit
High as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann; translated from German by Anne Posten
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 – WINNER
The Bitch by Pilar Quintana; translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli; translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette