Account of life as a black man wins book award

National Book Award for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote about his experiences in the United States

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired to write by the violence directed at black people in the United States.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired to write by the violence directed at black people in the United States.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for non-fiction on Wednesday night for Between The World And Me, a visceral, blunt exploration of his experience of being a black man in the United States, which was published this summer in the middle of a national dialogue about race relations and inequality.

"Every day, you turn on the TV and see some kind of violence being directed at black people," he said in an emotional acceptance speech. "Over and over and over again. And it keeps happening."

The fiction award went to Adam Johnson for Fortune Smiles, a collection of surreal and comic short stories that deal with natural disasters, technology and politics, and these take place in settings ranging from Palo Alto, California, to North Korea.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. PHOTO: SPIEGEL & GRAU

The judges called him "one of the most talented writers of his generation" and called his stories by turns "surprising, wondrous, comic and devastating". Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 novel The Orphan Master's Son.

Between The World And Me, published by Spiegel & Grau, was one of the most celebrated and widely discussed books of the year, and won comparisons to the work of American writer and critic James Baldwin, who wrote eloquently of the struggle of African Americans.

Coates, a correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote the book in the form of a letter to his son. He dedicated the award to his college friend, Prince Jones, who was shot to death by a police officer who mistook him for a criminal.

"I'm a black man in America. I can't punish that officer; Between The World And Me comes out of that place," Coates said.

"I can't secure the safety of my son. I just don't have that power. But what I do have the power to do is say, 'You won't enrol me in this lie. You won't make me part of it.'"

The National Book Award, which was established in 1950, has gone to some of the country's most celebrated authors, including William Faulkner, Saul Bellow and Flannery O'Connor.

Presented by the National Book Foundation, the award was open to American authors whose books were published from Dec 1 last year to Nov 30 this year. The prizes were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street, with more than 700 guests. Each winner received US$10,000 (S$14,156) and a bronze sculture.

Along with Fortune Smiles, finalists in the fiction category included Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, which follows four ambitious young college friends in New York as one of them grapples with his dark past; Lauren Groff's novel Fates And Furies, which tells the story of a marriage from the husband's and wife's perspectives, revealing the secrets they kept; Karen E. Bender's short-story collection Refund; and Angela Flournoy's debut novel, The Turner House, about multiple generations of a Detroit family.

The award for Young People's Literature was given to Neal Shusterman's Challenger Deep, a novel about a mentally ill teenager who has dark fantasies about travelling to the deepest point on Earth, which was inspired by Shusterman's son.

Poet Robin Coste Lewis won for her collection, Voyage Of The Sable Venus, a meditation on cultural and artistic depictions of the black female figure that juxtaposes autobiographical verses with reflections on cultural stereotypes and art.

Best-selling novelist James Patterson received the Literarian Award, for outstanding service to the literary community, in recognition of his philanthropic efforts to support independent bookstores and promote literacy in public schools. Patterson, who has sold more than 300 million copies of his books, has donated US$2.75 million to school libraries and bookstores.

In his acceptance speech, he joked about his outsider status as a commercial author in elite literary company, calling himself the "Big Mac at Cipriani". He issued a call for publishers to "innovate more".

"Let's all be literarians, whatever the hell that means," he said. "Let's try to make sure there's another generation of readers."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2015, with the headline 'Account of life as a black man wins book award'. Print Edition | Subscribe