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Writers Put Trump on Blast at the National Book Awards
Getty ImagesManny Carabel
At the year’s biggest night in books, writers had no shortage of jabs to make at a president who doesn’t read. Manhattan’s literati gathered at Cipriani Wall Street to celebrate the National Book Awards, where hundreds of guests wore black tie attire to an evening ceremony known among literary insiders as “book prom.”
In an ornate, cavernous space festooned with white orchids, Nick Offerman served as master of ceremonies. He presided over a singularly unusual line-up—this year, 10 of the 25 finalists were published by independent presses, and five were debut titles. This year also marks the inaugural outing of the translated literature category, awarded to both the author and the translator of the winning work.
“Suck on that, Muslim ban,” Offerman quipped with regard to the new category.
In his opening remarks, Offerman said earnestly, “Books remain the ultimate repository of creative ideas and pure knowledge. In our inexorable pursuit of freedom and human rights, books serve us as weapons and also as shields.”
It wasn’t all so high-minded, however; the night swung seamlessly from impassioned defenses of all that books can do and be to bring down the house sex jokes. “Books make me horny,” Offerman remarked. “I’m a fan.”
The night’s highest honor, an award for lifetime achievement, went to prolific novelist Isabel Allende. Allende is the first Spanish-language author to receive the honor, and only the second honoree born outside of the United States. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, she and her family fled the dictatorial Augusto Pinochet regime in the early 1970s, after which she lived as a refugee in Venezuela for 13 years. She then relocated to the United States, where she has since lived in California as an immigrant. She is the bestselling author writing in Spanish today, having sold nearly 70 million copies of her books, translated into 35 languages.
Isabel Allende, Lifetime Achievement Honoree
Getty ImagesPhillip Faraone
Introducing Allende and proclaiming her his hero, novelist Luis Alberto Arrea spoke of her books, to rousing applause: “You can’t build a wall to keep them out. You can’t lock them up. She has taught us that words have wings, and they fly all over the globe.”
Words have wings, and they fly all over the globe.
Taking the podium amid a lengthy standing ovation, the pint-sized Allende joked, “Do you have an encyclopedia or a telephone book that I could stand on?”
Allende spoke movingly of the immigrant experience, and of how her nomadic life has informed her two dozen books. Following Offerman’s lead, she fashioned a sex joke of her own: “I dream, cook, make love, and write in Spanish. Make love—I would feel ridiculous panting in English,” she said.
When the room erupted with laughter, she quipped, “I have a lover at 76. He’s a brave man.”
Speaking of her time in the United States, Allende said, “In this land, everybody descends from someone who came from another place.” She reminded the rapt audience that “the similarities that bring us together are many more than the differences that separate us.”
In the wake of the midterm elections, Allende was no slouch about voting, either. “I refuse to live in fear,” she said thunderously, “let alone vote in fear.”
“I refuse to live in fear, let alone vote in fear.”
Returning to the podium after Allende left to roaring applause, a visibly affected Offerman said, “I am disarmed.”
As awards were distributed in five categories—young people’s literature, translated literature, poetry, nonfiction, and fiction—a theme quickly became apparent. This year’s winners come entirely from marginalized groups, and many spoke to the centrality of their identities to their development as writers.
“Every single time I meet a reader who looks at me and says, ‘I have never seen my story until I read yours,’ I’m reminded of why this matters,” said Elizabeth Acevedo, the daughter of Dominican immigrants and the winner of the young people’s literature award for Poet X. “And that’s not going to be an award and it’s not going to be an accolade. It’s going to be looking someone in the face and saying, ‘I see you,’ and in return being told that I am seen.”
At the end of the ceremony, releasing the crowd to a dance floor already cranking up Jackson Five tunes, Offerman had encouraging words for the winners: “Your books will now get the coolest sticker.”
For a full list of the winners and nominees, head over to the National Book Foundation website.