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Literature

Charles Yu Novel, Malcolm X Bio Win National Book Awards

November 19, 2020

NEW YORK — Charles Yu's "Interior Chinatown," a satirical, cinematic novel written in the form of a screenplay, has won the National Book Award for fiction.

Tamara Payne and her father the late Les Payne's Malcolm X biography, "The Dead Are Arising," was cited for nonfiction and Kacen Callender's "King and the Dragonflies" for young people's literature. The poetry prize went to Don Mee Choi's "DMZ Colony" and the winner for best translated work was Yu Miri's "Tokyo Ueno Station," translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles.

Honorary medals were given Wednesday night to mystery novelist Walter Mosley and to the late CEO of Simon & Schuster, Carolyn Reidy, who died in May at age 71. The children's author and current US Youth Ambassador for young adult literature Jason Reynolds served as emcee, and along with Bob Woodward and Walter Isaacson was among the Simon & Schuster writers who appeared in a taped tribute to Reidy.

Because of the pandemic, one of publishing's most high-profile gatherings was streamed online, with presenters and winners speaking everywhere from New York to Japan. The traditional dinner ceremony is the nonprofit National Book Foundation's most important source of income and is usually held at Cipriani Wall Street, where publishers and other officials pay thousands of dollars for tables or individual seats. The foundation instead has been asking for donations of $50 or more. As of Wednesday evening, just over $490,000 had been pledged from 851 donors.

"It's hard in a pandemic. We were scared we wouldn't be able to do this show," said foundation executive director Lisa Lucas, speaking online from the children's room of the Los Angeles Public Library. Executive director since 2016, she will depart at the end of the year to become publisher for the Penguin Random House imprints Pantheon and Schocken. Her successor has not been announced.

Along with the pandemic and the presidential election, diversity has been an ongoing theme in the book world this year and remained so Wednesday night, from Lucas urging publishers to work at transforming a historically white industry to the winners themselves. 

Yu's novel is a sendup of Chinese stereotypes and of the immigrants' conflict between wanting to assimilate and asserting their true selves. "DMZ Colony" combines poetry, prose and images in its exploration of the history between the United States and South Korea. Mosley, the first Black man to win the medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, spoke of his debt to such literary heroes as Ishmael Reed, John Edgar Wideman and Ralph Ellison.

The award for "The Dead Are Arising" is the second time in a decade a Malcolm X biography has received a high honor for nonfiction and the second time the honor was, at least in part, posthumous. The scholar Manning Marable died right before the 2011 publication of "Malcolm X," which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and receive a National Book Award nomination. Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, died in 2018.

"This is such a bittersweet moment," Tamara Payne said upon accepting the award Wednesday night. "I really wish my father was here for this."

Few references were made to the recent election, though politics did help inspire Yu, whose previous books include the story collections "Third Class Superhero" and "Sorry Please Thank You." He had struggled with "Interior Chinatown," wondering if there was a reason to tell an immigration story, until the surprise victory of Donald Trump in 2016. 

"Before then, I felt it lacked a real reason for being," Yu told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "It seemed that reference to things in the past like the Chinese Exclusion Act (a racist law passed in 1882) had relevance. I started thinking, 'This does still matter. This is a story you should try to tell."

Winners in each of the competitive categories receive $10,000, and other finalists $1,000, with the money divided equally between the author and translator for best translated book. Roxane Gay, Rebecca Makkai and Dinaw Mengestu were among the authors, booksellers and others in the publishing community who as awards judges selected finalists from more than 1,600 books — many of them read digitally because of the pandemic.

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