Sarah M. Broom’s moving debut memoir, “The Yellow House,” centered on a shotgun house in New Orleans that her mother bought and the family lost after Hurricane Katrina, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night in New York.
And “Trust Exercise,” the fifth novel by Susan Choi, won the award for fiction.
“I’m actually really surprised,” Choi said, briefly choking back tears.
The fast-paced evening was hosted by LeVar Burton, actor and host of the podcast “LeVar Burton Reads.” Resplendent in a tuxedo and black-and-white bow tie, he noted, “We are honoring literary lions” tonight.
The National Book Award for poetry went to Arthur Sze for “Sight Lines,” published by Copper Canyon Press; the award for books in translation went to László Krasznahorkai for “Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming,” translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet; and the young people’s literature award went to a book of nonfiction, “1919: The Year That Changed America,” by Martin W. Sandler, who beamed from the podium and said, “I’ve written 60 books. I intend to write 60 more.”
Many of the brief speeches by awards presenters and recipients alike touched on the politics of the day and noted how reading can be an antidote to dark times.
“We need poetry now more than ever,” Sze said. Poetry, he said, helps us slow down and see deeply and pay attention to what matters.
Novelist Danzy Senna, who presented Choi with the award for fiction, said she became a National Book Award judge because “I wanted an excuse to shut out the news” and the incessant noise of social media.
And Burton said that as long as a person can read in “at least one language,” that person will be free. He noted that “a few scant generations ago it would have been illegal for me to read.”
Other honors awarded Wednesday evening included the Literarian Award, which went to Oren Teicher, the retiring CEO of the American Booksellers Association and was presented by novelist and bookstore owner Ann Patchett.
The Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters went to writer Edmund White. White was introduced by writer John Waters, who noted, “This honor comes with a $10,000 prize and you know he’s going to spend it all on books.”
White recalled how his gay-themed books were not considered publishable 50 years ago. And when he wrote a novel that didn’t feature drag queens or criminals but ordinary gay people, the publishing world was shocked. “The familiar,” he noted, “is more threatening than the exotic.”
Minnesota writers Marlon James and David Treuer were finalists for the fiction award and nonfiction award, respectively, and two books published by Minnesota publisher Graywolf Press were finalists in poetry.