The National Book Award ceremony took a political turn on Wednesday night, as the event concluded with a joint statement from a group of writers who called for a cease-fire in Gaza.
For the final award of the night, Justin Torres received the fiction prize for “Blackouts,” his widely acclaimed, genre-defying novel about erasure and queer history. As Torres gave his speech, more than a dozen other nominees from different categories joined him on the stage. They stood behind Aaliyah Bilal, a finalist in the fiction category for her short story collection “Temple Folk,” as she read the statement.
“On behalf of the finalists, we oppose the ongoing bombardment of Gaza and call for a humanitarian cease-fire to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians, particularly children,” Bilal said. “We oppose antisemitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia equally, accepting the human dignity of all parties, knowing that further bloodshed does nothing to secure lasting peace in the region. ”
While the conflict in the Middle East was referenced repeatedly over the evening, most of the ceremony focused on literary issues, like the power of literature to broaden perspectives, and the dangers of censorship and the threat of growing book bans.
The ceremony’s host, LeVar Burton, an actor and literacy advocate who hosted the PBS series “Reading Rainbow” for more than 20 years, has been pushing back on book bans and restrictions around the country, which have been a growing concern for authors and publishers in recent years.
“There’s a reason why books are under attack,” Burton said at the beginning of the ceremony. “It’s because they’re so powerful.”
After Burton’s opening remarks, Oprah Winfrey, whose book club made her a major force in the literary world, took the stage and made a passionate case against banning books. Winfrey described how the book bans spreading across the country have often targeted titles that feature diverse characters and L.G.B.T.Q. themes, and argued that censorship is driving polarization and dividing communities.
“To ban books is to cut us off from one another,” she said. “To ban books is to strangle off what sustains us and makes us better people: connection and compassion, empathy, understanding.”
Much of the evening, a black-tie affair at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, was devoted to celebrating literature and the work of the National Book Foundation. This year’s awards ceremony was the 74th, and publishers submitted 1,931 books for consideration.
Ned Blackhawk won the nonfiction award for “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History,” a retelling of U.S. history that centers on Indigenous people, and tells the intertwined histories of Native and non-Native people over five centuries, from the Spanish colonial era to the late 20th century.
The award for translated literature went to “The Words That Remain” by Stênio Gardel, which was translated from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato, and centers on an old man who reflects back on a clandestine romance that he had with his best friend as a teenager.
“Being here tonight as a gay man, receiving this award for a novel about another gay man’s journey to self acceptance, I wanted to say to everyone who ever felt wrong about themselves that your heart and your desire are true, and you are just as deserving as anybody else of having a fulfilling life and accomplishing impossible dreams,” Gardel, who shared the prize with his translator, said in an emotional acceptance speech.
The award for young people’s literature was given to the author and illustrator Dan Santat for “A First Time for Everything,” his graphic memoir about awkward middle school experiences inspired by a class trip in Europe.
The poetry winner, Craig Santos Perez, who is from Guam and received the award for the collection “from unincorporated territory [åmot],” said he hoped to inspire the next generation of Pacific Islander authors.
In addition to the prizes announced on Wednesday, the National Book Foundation awarded two lifetime achievement prizes. Rita Dove won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for her body of work, which includes 11 books of poetry. Dove was the first Black poet laureate of the United States in the 1990s. The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was presented to Paul Yamazaki, the principal buyer at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco.
Occasionally, the subject of the war in Israel and Gaza was raised. The poet Heid E. Erdrich, who introduced the poetry winner, referenced how “human suffering in Gaza is at the forefront of our thoughts” and noted that “poetry is what we reach for in our grief.”
A few days before the ceremony, rumors spread that a group of finalists planned to make some sort of statement about the war in Gaza, but sponsors and organizers didn’t know what that might entail. Two sponsors, Zibby Media and Book of the Month, decided not to attend the ceremony and Zibby Media pulled its sponsorship altogether.
It’s not unusual for politics and global events to drive the conversation and speeches at the National Book Awards. In the past, winners have spoken out against racism in America, the lack of diversity in publishing and threats to free expression as book bans have risen around the country.
Since the attack on Israel by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza, literary and cultural institutions have been wrestling with how to respond to the conflict. Recently, several literary events have been disrupted or canceled. On Monday night, pro-Palestinian demonstrators interrupted a literary award ceremony in Canada, at one point taking the stage and holding up a sign that accused Scotiabank, which provides funding for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, of funding genocide. Some events featuring Palestinian artists and writers have been canceled or postponed, including at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The collective call for a cease-fire drew applause from some attendees at the National Book Awards, but the remarks did not seem to be as polarizing or disruptive as organizers had feared. On Tuesday, after reports that some sponsors planned to skip the ceremony, the National Book Foundation issued a statement to quell the brewing controversy, noting that political statements have been issued by winners in the past.
“Over the years, these speeches have been poignant, funny, moving, at times political, and even, occasionally, controversial,” the statement said. “At their best, these honored authors’ words enrich, enlighten, and inform us all.”