Books

Susan Choi, Sarah M. Broom, László Krasznahorkai among 2019 National Book Award winners

The National Book Awards, which celebrate the best in American writing, give out prizes for works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, young people's literature and translation.
(From left): Susan Choi, Sarah M. Broom and László Krasznahorkai were among the 2019 National Book Award winners. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, Adam Shemper, Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Susan Choi, Sarah M. Broom and László Krasznahorkai were among the 2019 National Book Award winners, which annually celebrate the best in American writing.

There are five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people's literature. With the exception of translation, the awards are only open to U.S. citizens.

Here are the winners:

  • Fiction: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi
  • Nonfiction: The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
  • Poetry: Sight Lines by Arthur Sze
  • Translated literature: Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
  • Young people's literature: 1919 The Year That Changed America by Martin W. Sandler

Choi's novel takes place at a competitive performing arts high school in the 1980s. Two freshmen, David and Sarah, fall passionately in love, as observed by their enigmatic acting coach, Mr. Kingsley.

"Trust Exercise by Susan Choi blends the intellectual rigour of post-modern technique with a story that is timely, mesmerizing, and, in the end, unsettling. The exploration of different character perspectives lays bare the myth-making of the self and the damage that storytelling can do to others," said the judges, Dorothy Allison, Ruth Dickey, Javier Ramirez, Danzy Senna and Jeff Vandermeer, in their citation.

"Choi's virtuoso accomplishment on the sentence level is often extraordinary — and pivots in astonishing and non-traditional directions while conforming to traditional ideas of excellence."

The Brooklyn-based writer is also the author of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist American Woman and released her first children's book Camp Tiger in 2019. She teaches fiction writing at Yale University.

In The Yellow HouseBroom chronicles 100 years of her family's history and their ties to a shotgun house built by her mother, Ivory Mae, in 1961. The Yellow House was located in New Orleans East, which was also home to a NASA plant during the space race. Hurricane Katrina erased the Yellow House, but its significance to the Broom family remains.

"If Sarah M. Broom's The Yellow House was simply an indictment of state sanctioned terror on the Gulf Coast, it would be a stunning literary achievement. Broom however shows us that such an account without breathtaking rendering of family and environment is, at best, brittle," said the jurors in a press release.

"The Yellow House uses reportage, oral history and astute political analysis to seep into the generational crevices, while reveling and revealing the choppy inheritances rooted in one family in the neighborhood of New Orleans East."

Broom is a writer now based in New York. She has written for publications like the New Yorker, The New York Times and O, The Oprah Magazine.

Sze's Sight Lines, his 10th collection, is mythic in scope, envisioning scenes from the perspective of figures like Thomas Jefferson to an anonymous man behind on his rent to the lichen on a ceiling.

"Arthur Sze writes with a quiet mastery which generates beautiful, sensuous, inventive and emotionally rich poems," said the judges in their citation.

"Sight Lines unfurls like ink in water, circulating through meditations on the natural world; the pleasure and associational depth of eating food; and the profound constitutions of self through memory, human relationships, and experience of the actual world. A keen awareness arises of structural, environmental, and social threats in the midst of this expansive beauty."

Sze lives in New Mexico where he is a professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts. His past work includes the Pulitzer Prize finalist Compass Rose and Archipelago.

In Baron Wenkcheim's Homecoming, Krasznahorkai, a former Booker International Prize winner, and translator Mulzet tell the story of a baron returning to his hometown at the end of his life in search of his high school sweetheart.

"From this, László Krasznahorkai forges a fictional universe populated with rogues and visionaries, at once epic and intimate, apocalyptic and deeply comic. Ottilie Mulzet's remarkable translation captures the density of his extended sentences, their many twists and pivots, and the slow accumulation of their extraordinary intellectual and moral force," said the judges in a press release.

"Singular and uncompromising, Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming is a masterpiece by one of the great writers of our time."

Krasznahorkai is a Hungarian author who is often rumoured to be in contention for the Nobel Prize. Mulzet is an award-winning translator from Prague.

Sandler's nonfiction book 1919 The Year That Changed America introduces readers to the tumult of post-World War One America. Black soldiers came home to racism and violence, the suffragettes won the women's right to vote, labourers protested working conditions and prohibition was passed. 

"Martin W. Sandler's riveting work of nonfiction, 1919 The Year That Changed America, focuses on one year of turbulence and its far-reaching aftermath," said judges in a press release.

"Sandler's evocative language brings 1919 to life for young readers, showing us the impact of that crucial year on major issues like race relations, women's rights, and climate change. This carefully researched and curated work strikingly demonstrates the interconnected nature of history — as it happens and its rippling consequences for years to come."

Sandler is a five-time Emmy Award winner and the author of over 60 books.

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