Black Authors Stand Out on the National Book Awards’ Shortlist of Finalists

Illustration for article titled Black Authors Stand Out on the National Book Awards’ Shortlist of Finalists
Screenshot: West Virginia University Press, Liveright, Dutton Books for Young Readers
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Black talent got a prestigious shout-out when the 2020 finalists for the National Book Awards were announced on Tuesday. The 25 honorees and their titles, considered the best literature in America by the National Book Foundation, join previous winners like Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward in a diverse pool of talent and topics across the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. The list has been whittled down from the initial 50 nominees announced in September.


A complete list of National Book Award finalists can be found on the awards website, but the short-listers share a refreshing commonality—they are all first-time finalists for the National Book Award and almost a third of their books are debut works. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is Deesha Philyaw’s first fiction book, the multifaceted story of Black women navigating self-discovery and seduction in the context of their Christianity, sometimes in contradiction to the traditions that exist inside the community. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Les Payne spent 30 years working on the masterful The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X; when he died in 2018, his daughter, Tamara Payne, who served as his principal researcher, finished the project.

Additionally, Tommye Blount is being celebrated for his first poetry collection, Fantasia for the Man in Blue, as are two finalists in young people’s literature—Candice Iloh for Every Body Looking and Kacen Callender for King and the Dragonflies. In related news, also to be celebrated are three Black women authors—Jacqueline Woodson, N.K. Jemisin and Tressie McMillan Cottom—who received the uber elite MacArthur “Genius Grant” yesterday (more on that to come), so basically our brilliance is on full shine right now.

Besides prestige and honor, National Book Award finalists take home $1,000 apiece. The traditional National Book Awards Finalists Reading, a platform to hear all of the authors read excerpts of their work, will happen virtually on November 10. Winners will be announced on November 18 at the National Book Awards ceremony, which is usually a fancy affair but will be virtual this year because of the pandemic. Each will receive a $10,000 prize. The awesome Walter Mosley, the author of dozens of literary works, from his famed Easy Rawlins’ novel series to acclaimed plays, will also be honored with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by two-time National Book Award Finalist Edwidge Danticat during the live-streamed event.

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