Maya Angelou shines, sings at National Book Award ceremony

November 21, 2013
"The Good Lord Bird," by James McBride won the $10,000 National Book Award for fiction last night. (Courtesy of Riverhead)
“The Good Lord Bird,” by James McBride, won the $10,000 National Book Award for fiction last night. (Courtesy of Riverhead)

Forget the winners for a moment: The real highlight of the National Book Awards ceremony Wednesday night in New York was hearing Maya Angelou break into song. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison had just presented the 85-year-old author the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. “It’s amazing,” Angelou said over and over. “It’s just amazing.” Speaking without notes and wearing dark glasses, she referred to the rainbow that God put in the sky in the Book of Genesis. Warming to the occasion, her enthusiasm boiled over, and she sang a phrase from a spiritual, “God put a rainbow in the clouds.” I can’t remember anything like that ever happening at the National Book Awards. Clearly moved by the recognition, Angelou, who published her latest autobiography this spring, thanked the literary community repeatedly. “Easy reading is damn hard writing,” she said. “I’ve been trying to tell the truth as far as I know it.”

There were other great moments, too. The chair of the poetry committee, Nikky Finney, gave an introduction to the poetry prize that was a poem itself, a lovely description of the judging process. Hundreds of collections came to the five judges’ homes: “They began arriving at our door like eggs,” she said. “We peeled back their thin shells.” And when she announced the winner — “Incarnadine” — poet Mary Szybist came to the lectern and delivered a gorgeous acceptance speech that was just as humble as it was wise. “There’s plenty that poetry can’t do, of course,” she said. “But the real miracle is how much it can do.” Struggling to hold back tears, she said, “Speaking differently is what I aspire to.”

James McBride, a former Washington Post Style writer, won the fiction prize this year for his brilliant, boisterous book “The Good Lord Bird.” It’s an unlikely comic novel about a young boy and the abolitionist John Brown. If you promise to keep it quiet, I’ll let you know that “The Good Lord Bird” is also one of The Post’s top 10 books for 2013. (Look for the full list in this Sunday’s paper.) McBride is the first African American man to win the fiction prize in 23 years. (Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” won in 1990). He acknowledged the ability of fiction writing to offer him solace from a string of recent heartaches — his divorce, the death of his mother and niece: “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and just follow him around.”

The chair of the fiction committee, former New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath, said that the judges had received more than 400 submissions. “Not all these books were good,” he quipped. As expected, Thomas Pynchon, a finalist for his novel “Bleeding Edge,” did not attend the ceremony.

Cynthia Kadohata won the award in young people’s literature for “The Thing About Luck,” a story about a 12-year-old Japanese American girl staying with her grandparents. Last week, in her review in The Post, Mary Quattlebaum wrote, “Kadohata is a master of the family drama, and this graceful novel of survival and growth abounds with all the humor and shared heartache of an authentic family.”

New Yorker writer George Packer won the nonfiction prize for “The Unwinding,” his unsparing critique of modern America over the past two decades. This is a place, he writes, “where everything changes and nothing lasts.”

E.L. Doctorow, whose 1975 novel “Ragtime” changed the shape of historical fiction, received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contributors to American Letters. At the opening of his acceptance speech, he wryly congratulated the “short-listed content providers” who were competing for the National Book Awards. He went on to deliver a warning about Internet culture by citing words that have taken on new meaning in the computer age: “mouse,” “web,” “platform,” etc. It all sounded MySpace-fresh and included declarations that shed little light on the complicated evolution of the publishing industry, e.g. “An e-book is not a book,” and “The techies don’t want to know that reading a book is the essence of interactivity.” He ended, though, with a rousing call for protecting free speech from censorship and surveillance. “Everyone in this room is in the free speech business.”

The ceremony was hosted by Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. She seemed nervous and out of place as she strained to entertain the literati. “I’m a professional at selfies,” she said toward the end of the evening.

Why can’t we have Steve Martin back as host?

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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Ron Charles · November 20, 2013