The best thing about the National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony in New York last month wasn’t the speeches, though they were great: It was the happiness.
When Louise Erdrich’s name was called as the fiction winner, fellow writer Ann Patchett — also a finalist in that category — nearly leaped over the back of Erdrich’s chair to embrace her. When Carol Anderson’s name was announced as the winner in criticism, Anderson’s surprise was effervescent. She let out a gasp and then clapped a hand over her mouth. On stage, she pressed her hand to her heart before she spoke.
And as Ishion Hutchinson approached the podium, he beamed bashfully and said that he was filled with “biblical astonishment” to receive the award for poetry. He accepted it in the memory of his grandmother, May Hutchinson, who had always deeply encouraged his writing.
Sitting down in front with the rest of the NBCC board, I was in a great spot to see all of this — I could see Erdrich begin to tremble when her name was called and then clasp her hands to compose herself. I could see Matthew Desmond’s wife, Tessa, thrill with joy when his name was called for the nonfiction prize.
These books that were honored are important and fascinating, books that will last. Desmond’s “Evicted” is immersive journalism at its finest, recounting the lives of people in inner-city Milwaukee who cannot get a stable grip on life because their poverty means a constant revolving door of housing.
Anderson’s book, “White Rage,” lays out the history of civil rights in this country, a history in which every advance of blacks has been met with violent resistance from whites.
The speeches from these writers were inspiring, a combination of gratitude and a call to action. (“I want to thank, above all, my parents,” Anderson said, “who came from nothing but gave me the fight.”)
Ghana-born, American-reared Yaa Gyasi, winner of the John Leonard prize for best first book, thanked her parents, “Kwaku and Sophia Gyasi, who came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs and the children in their arms. In a time where it feels like every day immigrants and refugees are being met with new affronts to their humanity, I am even more grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made.”
Desmond, accepting the award for “Evicted,” said, “Today the majority of poor families in America spend at least half of what they have on housing costs. … Poverty diminishes people born for better things.”
Some read from prepared remarks, but Erdrich appeared to speak extemporaneously. She thanked her mother, “a strong Native woman,” and her father, a 91-year-old son of immigrants, and she passionately urged writers to continue to tell the truth in their stories and poems.
“This is so important,” Erdrich said. “The truth is being assaulted, not only in our country but all over the world. There is a great rush of deceit, and more than ever we have to look into the truth. … Let us be fierce and dangerous about the truth.”
The venerable Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale” (a bestseller again, 32 years after publication because it seems to many to be prescient), received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. She was introduced by her longtime agent, Phoebe Larmore, who noted that Atwood is not one woman, “she’s 20 or 30 women,” a person who “can see farther ahead than anyone.”
As with the others’, Atwood’s speech was a call to action. “Never has American democracy felt so challenged,” she said. “Never have there been so many attempts — from so many sides of the political spectrum — to shout down the voices of others, to obfuscate and confuse, to twist and manipulate, and to vilify reliable and trusted publications.”
And then, more poignantly, she added, “I will cherish this Lifetime Achievement award from you — though, like all sublunar blessings, it is a mixed one. Why do I only get one lifetime? Where did the lifetime go?”
OK, I’m rethinking my premise. The best thing about the awards ceremony wasn’t the happiness: It was the speeches after all.
To watch a video of the NBCC awards presentations, go to http://bit.ly/2nJzvDg
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks