Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
NEW YORK — Tess Gunty’s “The Rabbit Hutch,” a compelling debut novel set in a low-income residential community in Indiana, has won the National Book Award for Fiction. Gunty, 30, was one of three writers nominated for their first published book.
The non-fiction award went to Imani Perry’s “South to America” and Sabaa Tahir’s “All My Rage” won for children’s literature. In poetry, John Keene was cited for “Punks: New and Selected Poems,” while Argentine-Spanish author Samanta Schweblin and translator Megan McDowell won for best translated work for “Seven Empty Houses.”
Wednesday night winners received $10,000 each.
In her acceptance speech, Gunty cited recent comments by poetry nominee Sharon Olds on the essential role of literature in society. Gunty called books a way to draw attention to those who are “neglected” and otherwise unseen.
“Attention is the most sacred resource we have,” she said, citing books as one of the last places “where we spend the resource freely and need it most.”
“I think kindness wins,” she concluded. “That’s the point of this evening.”
Many of the prizewinners engaged in history, whether it was honorary medalist Art Spiegelman’s references to his parents who survived the Holocaust or Imani Perry’s invoking ancestors who had been “flagged” and “bullet-ridden” . A tearful Tahir mentioned her background as Muslim and Pakistani-American and dedicated her award to her “Muslim sisters” around the world who are “fighting for their lives.”
Several speakers mentioned the current wave of book bans and the threat to freedom of expression. Spiegelman, whose Holocaust-themed cartoon book “Maus” was pulled from shelves this year in Missouri and Tennessee, called some of his censors “savvy marketers” as controversy over his work drove up sales. He then wondered if some educators simply preferred a “kinder, gentler holocaust.”
The benefit dinner for the National Book Foundation, which presents the awards, also included an honorary award for Tracie D. Hall, executive director of the American Library Association. Hall recalled childhood trips with her grandmother to the local library in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, a building she likened to a cathedral and benefactor that allowed her to borrow as many books as she and her grandmother could carry.
She then paid tribute to librarians who “sacrificed their jobs and livelihoods in resisting censorship”.
It was the first time since 2019 — before the pandemic — that the event was held in person, with hundreds, virtually all maskless, gathered on Cipriani Wall Street in midtown Manhattan. Author/Top Chef Host Padma Lakshmi hosted the ceremony, which also featured taped introductions by Keanu Reeves, Alicia Keys and Jimmy Fallon for nominees in competitive categories.
Outside, striking workers from HarperCollins handed out pamphlets and buttons – Lakshmi was one of those wearing a union button – outlining their differences with the publisher over wages, diversity and union security, among other things. Some 250 entry-level and middle-level employees at HarperCollins, New York’s only major publishing house with a union, went on strike last week. There are currently no new talks scheduled.
Perry, a HarperCollins author, did not directly refer to the strike in her acceptance speech, but did mention those who “walk the picket line” as one of her inspirations.