Nikky Finney and Jesmyn Ward Win National Book Awards

Ward is the surprise winner in fiction, while Finney wins for poetry.

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Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times is reporting that Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, about a family hit by Hurricane Katrina, received the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. The novel, her second, was a surprise winner.

The National Book Foundation, which sponsors the awards, presented two of its five major prizes to African-American women. In addition to Ward, Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for poetry.

Kellog reports that Ward stated in her acceptance speech, "I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South," she told the audience, "so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs."

Finney's acceptance speech for her award for the poetry collection Head Off & Split received rousing applause. The University of Kentucky professor's speech combined poetry with commentary on race, writing and reading.

Linda B. Blackford of LexingtonGo writes:

First, Finney summoned the souls of the slaves of her native South Carolina, those forbidden by law under threat of death from learning to read and write.

The laws were "words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination all hope," she said in the speech. "What about the possibility of one day making a poem? ... Tonight these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats, tomato-red kerchiefs. ... Some have just climbed out of the cold, wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together. If my name is ever called out I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs."

Finney's acceptance speech prompted host John Lithgow to remark, "That's the best acceptance for anything I've ever heard in my life."

The award for young people's literature went to Thanhha Lai for Inside Out & Back Again. Lai is a Vietnamese immigrant who once wrote for the Orange County Register and now lives in New York. This is her first book. Poet John Ashbery, 84, was presented with the foundation's lifetime achievement award, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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