The National Book Foundation lists 11 writers of color, most of whom created books or compilations that explore narratives about marginalized identity and social justice, among the 20 finalists for the 2017 National Book Awards.
— National Book (@nationalbook) October 4, 2017
The foundation named the 20 shortlisted authors and their accompanying works on its website this morning (October 4). Each of the four categories—fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature—features five authors, from whom the judges* will select one winner per group. Fifteen of the 20 finalists are women, and nine of those women are women of color.
Here are the authors of color and their nominated books, listed by category with quoted descriptions from Amazon.com’s summary of each work:
- “The Leavers: A Novel,” by Lisa Ko: “One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon—and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. With his mother gone, 11-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.”
- “Pachinko,” by Min Jin Lee: “In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a [disabled] fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant—and that her lover is married—she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.”
- “Her Body and Other Parties: Stories,” by Carmen Maria Machado: “A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella ‘Especially Heinous,’ Machado reimagines every episode of ‘Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,’ a show we naïvely assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgängers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.”
- “Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel,” by Jesmyn Ward: ”Jojo is 13 years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. He doesn’t lack in fathers to study, chief among them his Black grandfather, Pop. But there are other men who complicate his understanding: his absent White father, Michael, who is being released from prison; his absent White grandfather, Big Joseph, who won’t acknowledge his existence; and the memories of his dead uncle, Given, who died as a teenager. His mother, Leonie, is an inconsistent presence in his and his toddler sister’s lives. She is an imperfect mother in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is Black and her children’s father is White. She wants to be a better mother but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use. Simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high, Leonie is embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances.”
- “Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge,” by Erica Armstrong Dunbar: ”A startling and eye-opening look into America’s First Family, ‘Never Caught’ is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington’s runaway slave who risked everything to escape the nation’s capital and reach freedom.”
- “WHEREAS: Poems,” by Layi Long Soldier: ”’WHEREAS’ confronts the coercive language of the United States government in its responses, treaties, and apologies to Native American peoples and tribes, and reflects that language in its officiousness and duplicity back on its perpetrators. Through a virtuosic array of short lyrics, prose poems, longer narrative sequences, resolutions, and disclaimers, Layli Long Soldier has created a brilliantly innovative text to examine histories, landscapes, her own writing, and her predicament inside national affiliations. ‘I am,’ she writes, ‘a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation―and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.’”
- “In the Language of My Captor,” by Shane McCrae: ”Historical persona poems and a prose memoir at the center of the book address the illusory freedom of both Black and White Americans. In the book’s three sequences, McCrae explores the role mass entertainment plays in oppression, he confronts the myth that freedom can be based upon the power to dominate others, and, in poems about the mixed-race child adopted by Jefferson Davis in the last year of the Civil War, he interrogates the infrequently examined connections between racism and love.”
- “Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems,” by Danez Smith: “ ‘Don’t Call Us Dead’ opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for Black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality―the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood―and a diagnosis of HIV positive. ‘Some of us are killed/in pieces,’ Smith writes, ‘some of us all at once.’ ‘Don’t Call Us Dead’ is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America―’Dear White America’―where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle.”
Young People’s Literature:
- “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” by Erika L. Sánchez: ”Perfect Mexican daughters do not go away to college. And they do not move out of their parents’ house after high school graduation. Perfect Mexican daughters never abandon their family. But Julia is not your perfect Mexican daughter. That was Olga’s role. Then a tragic accident on the busiest street in Chicago leaves Olga dead and Julia left behind to reassemble the shattered pieces of her family. And no one seems to acknowledge that Julia is broken, too. …But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought. With the help of her best friend Lorena, and her first kiss, first love, first everything boyfriend Connor, Julia is determined to find out: Was Olga really what she seemed? Or was there more to her sister’s story? And either way, how can Julia even attempt to live up to a seemingly impossible ideal?”
“Clayton Byrd Goes Underground,” by Rita Williams-Garcia: ”Clayton feels most alive when he’s with his grandfather, Cool Papa Byrd, and the band of Bluesmen—he can’t wait to join them, just as soon as he has a blues song of his own. But then the unthinkable happens. Cool Papa Byrd dies, and Clayton’s mother forbids Clayton from playing the blues. And Clayton knows that’s no way to live. Armed with his grandfather’s brown porkpie hat and his harmonica, he runs away from home in search of the Bluesmen, hoping he can join them on the road. But on the journey that takes him through the New York City subways and to Washington Square Park, Clayton learns some things that surprise him.”
“American Street,” by Ibi Zoboi: ”On the corner of American Street and Joy Road, Fabiola Toussaint thought she would finally find une belle vie—a good life. But after they leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration, leaving Fabiola to navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess; the grittiness of Detroit’s west side; a new school; and a surprising romance, all on her own. Just as she finds her footing in this strange new world, a dangerous proposition presents itself, and Fabiola soon realizes that freedom comes at a cost. Trapped at the crossroads of an impossible choice, will she pay the price for the American dream?”
The foundation will reveal the winners during a livestreamed ceremony on November 15.
*Note: Colorlines co-founder Jeff Chang is a judge for the National Book Awards’ nonfiction category this year.