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National Book Foundation Announces Finalists for 2020 National Book Awards

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The twenty-five Finalists for the 2020 National Book Awards for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature (YPL) were announced with the Washington Post online. The five Finalists in each category were selected by a distinguished panel of literary experts, and were advanced from the Longlists announced in September. Between the five categories, there are two writers who have been previously honored by the National Book Awards: Lydia Millet who was Longlisted in 2016 and Charles Yu, a 2007 5 Under 35 honoree. Eight of the twenty-five Finalists are debuts.

Publishers submitted a total of 1,692 books for this year’s National Book Awards: 388 in Fiction, 609 in Nonfiction, 254 in Poetry, 130 in Translated Literature, and 311 in Young People’s Literature. Judges’ decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors; deliberations are strictly confidential.

The Winners will be announced on Wednesday, November 18 at the 71st National Book Awards Ceremony, which will be held exclusively online. Two lifetime achievement awards will also be presented as part of the evening’s ceremony: Walter Mosley will be recognized with the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by Edwidge Danticat, and Carolyn Reidy will posthumously receive the Foundation’s Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community.

Finalists for Fiction:

  • Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind
    Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers
  • Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible
    W. W. Norton & Company
  • Deesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
    West Virginia University Press
  • Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
    Grove Press / Grove Atlantic
  • Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown
    Pantheon Books / Penguin Random House
  • In Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam, Brooklyn couple Amanda and Clay head out on a family vacation to Long Island, but their trip turns uneasy when the homeowners seek refuge following blackouts in New York City. As the world outside moves towards greater unrest, the group faces their perceptions about each other and the very concept of safety. Civilization’s future is at stake in A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet, who holds a master’s degree in environmental policy. The cast of young characters in Millet’s novel easily fend for themselves as their parents remain indifferent to the devastation of the world around them in allegorical tale that defies rationalizations about climate change. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw draws us into the multifaceted lives of Black women across several generations as they engage in self-discovery and seduction. In Philyaw’s first work of fiction, her characters push the boundaries of thought around morality, Christianity, and their community’s expectations. Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart is an epic portrayal of a working-class family haunted by alcoholism. Each of their experiences are portrayed with great care through the eyes of lonely Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, who finds himself at the margins of his own family. Everyone embodies a role in Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu and protagonist Willis Wu strives to land the best one available to an Asian-American man: Kung Fu Guy. Yu’s novel takes the concept of allegory and uses the familiar landscape of Hollywood tropes to create a nuanced, heartfelt, and stylistically unique portrait of Asian-American identity.

Finalists for Nonfiction:

  • Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, The Undocumented Americans
    One World / Penguin Random House
  • Les Payne and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X
    Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company
  • Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory
    W. W. Norton & Company
  • Jenn Shapland, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers
    Tin House Books
  • Jerald Walker How to Make a Slave and Other Essays
    Mad Creek Books / The Ohio State University Press 

Finalists for Poetry:

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s thirteenth collection of poems, A Treatise on Stars, implores that we connect with the larger natural and cosmic world. Two Finalists for Poetry are debut collections, Fantasia for the Man in Blue by Tommye Blount and Borderland Apocrypha by Anthony Cody. The title poem in Fantasia for the Man in Blue is a series of poems ranging throughout the book, a quartet that speaks to the experience and threat of police violence upon Black people. The complex and layered collection is drawn from reality, and exemplifies how desire lives in proximity to the danger of being a marginalized body. A work of documentary poetics, Borderland Apocrypha details the history of trauma and survival at the U.S.-Mexico border. Cody utilizes imagery, historic documents, multi-lingual erasure poems, and more to force a reckoning with history’s silence. Deeply rooted in the personal and political, DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi is structured in eight sections and includes transcriptions of conversations with activist Ahn Hak-sop, her father’s work as a photojournalist, hand-written texts, and more. Choi deftly explores the histories of South Korea and the United States via her return from South Korea in 2016 after years of living in the states. Natalie Diaz‘s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, engages with love and history in an anthem of desire against erasure while simultaneously celebrating her survival as an Indigenous queer woman.

Finalists for Translated Literature:

  • Anja Kampmann, High as the Waters Rise
    Translated from the German by Anne Posten
    Catapult
  • Jonas Hassen Khemiri, The Family Clause
    Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan Publishers
  • Yu Miri, Tokyo Ueno Station
    Translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles
    Riverhead Books / Penguin Random House
  • Pilar Quintana, The Bitch
    Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman
    World Editions
  • Adania Shibli, Minor Detail
    Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette
    New Directions 

Translated from the German by Anne PostenHigh as the Waters Rise by Anja Kampmann explores the emotional life of an oil rig worker whose bunkmate fell into the sea and drowned, setting off a chain of events that force his reckoning with the exploitation of natural resources. Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s The Family Clause, translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies, provides insight on one family across a span of only ten days, during which relationships change and memories are brought to the surface. In Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri and translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles, ghost narrator Kazu visits the park in which he last lived as a homeless man. As the book unfolds, the reader learns more about his earlier years and the ways in which Japan’s modernization pushed many to the margins of society, where they were subsequently ignored. The Bitch by Pilar Quintana is a portrait of a woman wrestling with abandonment, love, and her need to nurture. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, the narrative follows the main character’s adoption of a dog that disappears into the jungle; when the dog returns, she nurses it to health but when it flees once more, there are brutal consequences. Written by Adania Shibli and translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth JaquetteMinor Detail is split between two interrelated narratives, the latter half following a young woman’s search to discover more about the tragic murder of a Palestinian teenager in 1949, who died the day she was born.

Finalists for Young People’s Literatured:

Kacen Callender, King and the Dragonflies
Scholastic Press / Scholastic Inc.

  • Traci Chee, We Are Not Free
    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Candice Iloh, Every Body Looking
    Dutton Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House
  • Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, When Stars Are Scattered
    Dial Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House
  • Gavriel Savit, The Way Back
    Knopf Books for Young Readers / Penguin Random House 

The 71st National Book Awards Ceremony will be streamed on YouTube and also available at the Foundation’s website, www.nationalbook.org. Winners of the National Book Awards receive $10,000 and a bronze medal and statue; Winners and Finalists in the Translated Literature category will split the prize evenly between author and translator; Finalists receive $1,000 and a bronze medal.

The Awards Ceremony is the culminating event in a series of entirely virtual National Book Awards events to be held in the coming months. This year, 5 Under 35, the Foundation’s celebration of emerging fiction writers selected by National Book Award Winners, Finalists, Longlisted authors, and former 5 Under 35 honorees will take place on October 20 in partnership with the Miami Book Fair online. The annual National Book Awards Teen Press Conference will take place on November 16 in partnership with the Miami Book Fair online. The traditional National Book Awards Finalists Reading will again be hosted by The New School on the evening of November 10 in which all the Finalists will read from their work; this event will be online, free, and open to the public.

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