Rookie Novelist Scores a National Book Award

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Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, a sweeping debut novel set in a low-income housing community in Indiana, has won the National Book Award for fiction. The 30-year-old Gunty was among three writers nominated for their first published books, per the AP. The nonfiction prize went to Imani Perry’s South to America, while Sabaa Tahir’s All My Rage won for young people’s literature. In poetry, John Keene was cited for Punks: New and Selected Poems, while Argentine-Spanish language author Samanta Schweblin and translator Megan McDowell won for best work in translation for Seven Empty Houses. Winners on Wednesday night each received $10,000.

In her acceptance speech, Gunty cited recent comments made by poetry nominee Sharon Olds about literature’s essential role in society. Gunty called books a path to calling attention to those “neglected” and otherwise not visible. “Attention is the most sacred resource we have,” she said, calling books among the last places “where we spend the resource freely and need the most.” “I think kindness wins,” she concluded. “That’s the point of this evening.” History was on the minds of many of the award winners, whether honorary medalist Art Spiegelman’s references to his parents surviving the Holocaust or Perry’s invoking ancestors who’d been “lashed” and “bullet ridden.” A tearful Tahir cited her background as a Muslim and Pakistani American and dedicated her prize to her “Muslim sisters” around the world “fighting for their lives.”

Several speakers mentioned the current wave of book bannings and the threat to free expression. Spiegelman, whose Holocaust-themed cartoon book Maus has been pulled from shelves this year in Missouri and Tennessee, called some of his censors “shrewd marketers” because the controversy over his work boosted sales. He then wondered if some educators simply preferred a “kinder, gentler Holocaust.” It was the first time since 2019—before the pandemic—that the event was held in person, and hundreds, virtually all maskless, gathered at Cipriani Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. Author and 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.

(Read more National Book Awards stories.)

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