A belated note on the National Book Award nominees

19 Dec

Just a few weeks ago, the National Book Award winners were announced. What was more surprising than the winners this year, however, were the nominees.
Marking a rare sweep of female dominance, four out of five fiction nominees were women this year, as well as three out of five non-fiction.
While women are serious contenders for the National Book Award today, it wasn’t always that way.
In fact, a dominance of female nominees is big news, considering it was only in 1966 that the first woman won a National Book Award in fiction, when Katherine Ann Porter took the fiction award for The Collected Stories of Katherine Ann Porter. She was up against four male writers who are less well known today—as well as the English 101 textbook favorite, Flannery O’Connor. Porter also won the Pulitzer Prize that year.
Granted, the National Book Award began in 1950, but that still meant there was a 16 year sweep that ignored female fiction writers.
In poetry and non-fiction, recognition did not take so long. In 1952, Rachel Carson won the non-fiction award for The Sea Around Us, and that same year, Marianne Moore took home the poetry award.
This year’s fiction nominees were varied—and though Jesmyn Ward won for her novel Salvage the Bones, the other women (and man) presented serious efforts.
Below is a synopsis of this year’s nominated works in fiction—just in case you’re looking for books to add to your Christmas/winter reading list.
– Ward’s winning novel tells the story of a family during Hurricane Katrina, following them over the course of 12 days. As Ward herself writes, on her blog: “This is the story of a girl growing up in a world of men, a tale about her brother and his pit bull, a novel about a family in the maw of Hurricane Katrina. This is about tragedy: this is about hope.”
– Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which won the 2011 Orange Prize, was also nominated for the National Book Award, and features the story of Natalia, a young doctor who lives in the Balkans in a country strikingly similar to Obreht’s native Serbia. Natalia sets off to figure out why her grandfather mysteriously died, and along the way, reflects on the fantastic stories her grandfather told her: the man who could not die, and the tiger who haunted a Balkan village. She tries to bridge the gap between the fantastical past and the more normal present.
She told the Daily Beast in March: “In trying to write about several generations, I wanted parts of the story to have a voice that was contemporary and to perhaps not be as fantastical. The way the fantastic ended up working in the novel is as something that is very much sharpened by war. I wanted to have a contrast to that. That’s where the contemporary parts come in.”
– Edith Pearlman’s story collection Binocular Vision was the only set of short stories to be nominated in fiction this year. It was a strong contender, using rich language, though, as Pearlman said in her National Book Award nomination interview, her goal was: “As always, to convey the urgency of the story in as few words as possible.”
– As the lone male nominee on the list, Massachusetts resident Andrew Krivak’s novel The Sojourn stands out. Like Obreht, he takes inspiration from his family’s European roots. His Slovak background no doubt helped him shape the story of a Colorado family who return to Austria-Hungary in the 1800s. The story ultimately is about World War I, and the characters so-called backwards immigration turns the classic immigrant story on its head.
“The Sojourn is based loosely on the experience of my grandfather, who fought for the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War,” Krivak says in an interview posted to his blog. “[He] was captured in Italy, imprisoned, and walked home to Czechoslovakia after the Armistice.”
– Finally, Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic rounds out this year’s multicultural bunch of nominees. It is a follow-up to her 2003 debut novel, When the Emperor was Divine. Otsuka follows a group of Japanese women in San Francisco after their arrival as “picture brides.” Set 100 years ago, the story has all the details of a classic historical fiction novel with the richness of Otsuka’s unique perspective and use of language. Of her inspirations for the novel, Otsuka told the National Book Award interviewers that the plight of the “picture brides” captured her, as in Japan, “an unmarried woman had no social value whatsoever. So there was that, the bravery of these young women. Such adventurous spirits, determined to make their own way in the world.”

Published two weeks ago in the Southbridge Evening News and other Stonebridge Press newspapers.

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