Book Awards honor the 99 Percent

Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones" wins fiction prize at ceremony held blocks from Occupy Wall Street

Published November 17, 2011 8:10AM (EST)

NEW YORK (AP) — The National Book Awards ceremony, held just blocks from the Occupy Wall Street protests, was a gilded tribute to the 99 percent.

Stories of resilience in the face of poverty, displacement and disappearance were awarded Wednesday night as hundreds of writers, editors, publishers and other industry officials gathered under the 70-foot ceilings of the luxury venue Cipriani Wall Street.

"I thought I should point out, since nobody else has," said poet Ann Lauterbach, who introduced honorary winner John Ashbery, "that we are occupying Wall Street."

Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones," a bleak but determined novel about a black community in Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina, won the fiction prize. Ward's acceptance, the culmination of a night of emotional speeches and tributes to those who had been silenced, noted that the death of her younger brother had inspired her to become a writer. She realized that life was a "feeble, unpredictable thing," but that books were a testament of strength before a punishing world.

"I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South," said Ward, whose brother was hit by a drunk driver the year she graduated from college. Earlier in the week, she told The Associated Press that writing was a way to "ease the looming fact of death."

Ward's novel, picked over such better known works as Tea Obreht's "The Tiger's Wife," was based partly on first-hand experience. She was with her family in Mississippi when Katrina hit. They fled the house, fearful of drowning in their own attic.

"We went out into the storm, sheltered in our cars for hours, were denied shelter by a white family who told us we could sit outside in their field but couldn't shelter in their house, and then made our way to an intersection where another family, again white, took us in," she said. "To say the least, it was traumatic."

Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve," a dramatic account of the Renaissance era rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius, won for nonfiction Wednesday. The poetry prize went to Nikki Finney's "Head Off & Split," summation of African-American history from slavery to Katrina, while Thanhhai Lai's "Inside Out & Back Again," the story of a Vietnamese family in Alabama, won for young people's literature at a time when the state is reconsidering sweeping anti-immigration laws that went into effect in September.

Winners each receive $10,000.

Actor-author John Lithgow hosted the ceremony, declaring himself humbled before the "great thoughts," ''quicksilver wit" and "eloquent locution" among the attendees. After Finney's remarks, a compressed and impassioned review of the injustices and triumphs set to verse in her book that had audience members standing and cheering, he expressed pity for the winners who had to follow. Greenblatt, tearful in victory, noted the miracle of words, how an ancient poet such as Lucretius could matter so greatly centuries later.

"My book is about the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space and time and distance, to have someone long dead in the room with you, speaking in your ear," said Greenblatt, a Harvard professor also known for his Shakespeare biography "Will in the World."

Honorary prizes were given to Florida-based bookseller Mitch Kaplan, who looked back warmly on a 30-year career/calling in a business he found more fulfilling than law school, and to Ashbery, a highly praised poet with an acknowledged reputation for an inaccessible style, who called writing a "pleasure I can almost taste." In a self-deprecating speech, the 84-year-old Ashbery confided that even intelligent people find what he writes "makes no sense" and "near root canal" as an experience to read.

"I never meant for it to be (difficult)," he said. "I wanted the difficulty to reflect the difficulty of reading, any kind of reading, which is both a pleasant and painful experience since we are temporarily giving ourselves over to something that may change us."

The National Books Awards are chosen by separate panels of writers for each category. Judges looked through 1,223 books in all. This year's prizes were born in controversy, after the nominees were first announced weeks ago. The list for young people's literature initially included "Shine," by the popular author Lauren Myracle. But the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards, quickly acknowledged that "Shine" had been inadvertently chosen over Franny Billingsley's "Chime." Nominees are read over the phone by the judging committee to the foundation and one title was mistaken for the other. In an embarrassing see-saw of decisions, Myracle was removed, reinstated, then pushed into withdrawing.

Young people's judge Mark Aronson joked about the error Wednesday, noting how a misheard phone call in Game 5 of the World Series from the St. Louis Cardinals' dugout to the team's bullpen led to the wrong pitcher on the mound at a crucial moment and to the Cardinals' defeat by the Texas Rangers.

But St. Louis went on to win the series, Aronson added, and so, too, the awards were destined to end in triumph.

By Hillel Italie

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