The finalists of the National Book Awards used the ceremony as a platform to urge for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, following the withdrawal of sponsors.
At the recent national book awards ceremony in New York, a group of finalists made a joint plea for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza conflict. However, there was tension behind the scenes as sponsors withdrew their support beforehand.
Twenty out of the 25 finalists competing in the five different categories – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s literature, and translated literature – were present on stage. Author Aaliyah Bilal, who was nominated for her novel Temple Folk in the fiction category, read a prepared statement on behalf of all the finalists.
Bilal spoke on behalf of the finalists, expressing their opposition to the continuous bombing of Gaza. They are calling for a humanitarian ceasefire to address the pressing needs of Palestinian civilians, specifically children.
“We firmly reject all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism, anti-Palestinian sentiment, and Islamophobia. We recognize the intrinsic worth of all individuals involved and understand that continued violence will not lead to lasting peace in the region.”
On Wednesday, it was announced that a sponsor had pulled out of the event following notification from the National Book Awards regarding the anticipated action.
According to Zibby Owens, the head of sponsor Zibby Media, she was informed that the nominees had formed a group and planned to use their winning speeches to advocate for a pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel stance. In a statement posted online, she expressed her belief that the phrase “free Palestine” has taken on a negative connotation of antagonizing an entire religion rather than just referring to a specific place.
Another sponsor, Book of the Month, a book subscription service, stated to the New York Times that it will not be present at the ceremony but will still show its support for the event.
Historian Ned Blackhawk, winner of the nonfiction prize for his book, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History, alluded to the dispute in his speech, saying he was “deeply appreciative of the spirit of generosity, the kind of collaborative support and the really intense solidarity that all of the finalists have displayed over the past two days”.
Justin Torres won the fiction award for his novel, Blackouts. The Guardian praised it as a “strange and glorious” book that focuses on a historical study of the LGBT community in the 1930s. Reviewer Beejay Silcox compared it to a blend of Scheherazade’s tales from the Kinsey Report, Kiss of the Spider Woman set in a psychiatric hospital, and the Old Testament reimagined by Tennessee Williams.
Dan Santat, an author and illustrator, won the category for young people with his comic book memoir titled A First Time for Everything. The memoir chronicles a childhood trip to Europe that had a profound impact on his life.
Craig Santos Perez, a poet of Chamorro descent from Guam, was awarded the poetry category for his book titled From Unincorporated Territory [åmot].
Stênio Gardel, a Brazilian writer, and Bruna Dantas Lobato, a translator, were awarded in the translated literature category for their work on The Words That Remain. This novel explores themes of homophobia and poverty in Brazil’s rural regions.
The increase in book censorship in the United States, driven by growing conservative parent groups, was a topic of concern on Thursday. During his opening speech, host LeVar Burton asked if there were any members of Moms for Liberty present, referring to the group that has protested against the use of books featuring ethnic minorities and LGBT individuals in school teachings. He made a joke about avoiding conflict if there were no members in attendance.
Oprah, who also spoke at the event, stated that prohibiting books is equivalent to extinguishing the light of truth and the essence of life. She emphasized the importance of allowing individuals to decide for themselves what they want to read, as it is a fundamental aspect of freedom.
The national book awards, now in their 74th year, are highly esteemed literary awards in the US. During the prize ceremony, many authors take the opportunity to discuss political issues that inspire them, although the Israel-Hamas conflict has created divisions among the literary community.
The 92NY, a popular location for literary gatherings in New York, received backlash last month for canceling a scheduled appearance by author Viet Thanh Nguyen. This came after Nguyen signed a letter denouncing Israel’s use of military force. As a result, some writers withdrew from planned events at 92Y and employees resigned.
The Frankfurt book fair faced backlash for delaying a planned tribute to Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, which had been announced months prior, citing the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel causing suffering for millions in both countries as the reason. Shibli later refuted the organizers’ statement that she had agreed to the postponement.
Over 1,500 writers and publishers have expressed their opposition to the decision, including philosopher Slavoj Žižek who denounced it as “outrageous” during his opening speech at Frankfurt.