One of the great joys of attending the National Book Critics Circle awards each March in New York City is being able to watch the surprised expressions when someone wins, and to hear the heartfelt, happy speeches.
Ada Limón won the poetry award last week for her collection, “The Carrying,” published by Minneapolis’ Milkweed Editions. When her name was called, she looked genuinely surprised — and her remarks were generous and full of heart.
“While writing may seem like a lonely venture — the introvert’s isolated stadium — we know we never write in a vacuum,” she said. “We write with all the good ghosts in our corners. I, for one, have never made anything alone, never written a single poem alone.”
Tommy Orange, who won the John Leonard Prize for best first book for his novel, “There There,” was wry and funny but also serious.
“Native American anything never gets attention,” he said. “For this all to happen is a good moment that I hope doesn’t come and go like it has in the past.”
Maureen Corrigan won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for her book reviews for National Public Radio and the Washington Post. She talked about being drawn to writing reviews for the Village Voice years ago when she was working on a doctorate and feeling miserable at putting her words “through the de-flavorizing machine” of her university.
Her father was proud when she did her first piece for “Fresh Air,” but warned her there was no future in radio.
Most moving were remarks by the staff of the small 40-year-old Texas publisher Arte Público Press, which won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Five people trooped happily up to the stage, and for a second I flashed to memories of the Academy Awards and wondered if each one intended to give a full speech.
But Arte Público’s plan was far more restrained and elegant.
Press director Nicolás Kanellos spoke briefly — no more than two sentences — and then stepped back from the microphone, allowing another person, and then another, to speak. Each of the five people read one short paragraph of one gracious speech.
They spoke about the anonymity of being writers of color, of trying to bring books by Hispanic authors to a wider audience.
“We are the people selling the morning newspaper, but never appearing in it, the men and women washing dishes and waiting tables, but never savoring the meals; we are among the crowds on city sidewalks who individually remain invisible, never thought of as writers and artists,” they said.
“No matter how well we spoke and wrote the King’s English … our books remained foreign to the mainstream press and, with a few notable exceptions, outside the scope of national awards. Now, thanks to your magnanimity, we will become more visible, recognizable as part of this grand cultural venture that is the creation and publication of books. Muchísimas gracias.”
They walked off the stage, but Kanellos dashed back to grab the glass trophy from the podium. He shook it over his head triumphantly as he hurried off.
Other winners of the National Book Critics Circle awards:
Autobiography, Nora Krug, “Belonging.” Biography, Christopher Bonanos, “Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous.” Criticism, Zadie Smith, “Feel Free.” Fiction: Anna Burns, “Milkweed,” published by Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press. Nonfiction: “Directorate S,” by Steve Coll. Watch the event at www.bookcritics.org.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books and president of the NBCC board. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks.