Moroccan American novelist Laila Lalami won the 2015 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award for fiction for “The Moor’s Account,” a historical novel that recreates the doomed 16th-century Narváez expedition through the eyes of a black explorer who traveled across an “ocean of fog and darkness” to the edge of the known world and witnessed the atrocities of the Spanish conquest.
The judges called the book “a sweeping novel of historical fiction,” said Marita Golden, a novelist, co-founder and president emeritus of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which honored black writers during a star-studded gala Friday at the Washington Plaza Hotel.
“In beautifully creating the voice of the Moroccan slave Estebanico, Lalami restores the important role of blacks in the early exploration of this continent,” Golden said. “Her gorgeous writing, telling use of setting, and detail allow the readers to feel themselves to be alive in those distant times.”
Accepting the award, Lalami said it is imperative for writers to tell the stories of those whose histories are not accurately told by those who write history. “It is an honor to tell this book,” she said, “and it was my privilege to tell it,”
The gala also celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which was created in 1990 in Washington with a mission to discover, encourage and support writers of African descent and to ensure the survival of literature by black writers. Golden, a co-founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, announced she plans to step down from her role as executive director in January.
“I feel deeply gratified,” Golden said, “that the idea the foundation represents — an organization that creates an ongoing community of support for black writers — is powerful enough that it attracted smart people who are inspired by the idea and want to lead it into the future.”
Deborah Heard, former assistant managing editor for the Style section of The Washington Post, has been named executive director of the foundation.
“I’m thrilled. As you know from my work, I love writers,” Heard said. “This was unimaginable to me as a kid in Alabama. It took me a while to discover that there were books by black writers and black life in books. I never could have imagined that an organization like the Hurston/Wright Foundation existed, and to be part of it is fantastic. I think the current mission of the foundation is exactly right: it’s supporting, it’s discovering, it’s nurturing, it’s honoring black writers, and a big part of that mission is connecting black writers with readers.”
The winner in the nonfiction category was Elizabeth Nunez for “Not for Everyday Use: A Memoir,” a riveting account in which Nunez, who immigrated to the United States from Trinidad, comes to grips with her mother’s death.
“Called home by the death of her mother, Nunez tells a story of a husband and wife whose bond was eternal, an island whose repressive political and religious history shaped her family and a daughter’s struggle to witness and honor and forgive,” the judges said.
The award for poetry went to Claudia Rankine for “Citizen: An American Lyric,” a groundbreaking collection of prose poetry that examines race and politics in the United States.
“Claudia Rankine has changed the way we look at the poetry manuscript,” the judges said. “It is a phenomenon, a revelation and one of the best genre-bending books of recent literary history. ‘Citizen’ leaves no reader un-changed.”
Emmy-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson was host of the gala, which attracted hundreds of literary stars, including powerhouse writers, editors, poets and literary agents.
The foundation’s highest honor went to Edwidge Danticat, who received the “North Star Award” for excellence in writing. Danticat — author of “Breath, Eyes, Memory”; “Krik? Krak!”; “The Dew Breaker”; and “Brother, I’m Dying” — was celebrated for her commitment to social justice.
“What incredible shoulders I find myself standing on tonight,” Danticat told the crowd. “I consider this award as a reward to be bolder in my writing. I think, too, of Richard Wright, who wrote in ‘Black Boy’: ‘We can fight injustice with our words. . . . We can fight the fear out of ourselves.’ ”
During the ceremony, National Book Award-winning poet Nikky Finney and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa read works they wrote in tribute to Wright and Hurston, who once said that black writers “passed nations through their mouths.”
“Her two calico dresses are with her for sure. A good strong bonnet, one jar of sea shells all stuffed away,” Finney read, her voice booming. “You will find the indigo swirling from neck to him to rim on every bit of everything. The same color of the Southern sky that is impossible to wash out.”
The other finalists and nominees for Hurston/Wright Legacy awards:
Finalist: Roxane Gay for “An Untamed State”
Finalist: Tiphanie Yanique for “Land of Love and Drowning”
Nominee: Chris Abani for “The Secret History of Las Vegas”
Nominee: Ishmael Beah for “Radiance of Tomorrow”
Nominee: Nadifa Mohamed for “The Orchard of Lost Souls”
Finalist: Charles E. Cobb for “This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed”
Finalist: Charles Blow for “Fire Shut Up In My Bones”
Nominee: Danielle Allen for “Our Declaration”
Nominee: Saladin Ambar for “Malcolm X at Oxford Union”
Nominee: Bob Herbert for “Losing Our Way”
Finalist: Geffrey Davis for “Revising the Storm”
Finalist: Roger Reeves for “King Me”
Nominee: Brian Gilmore for “We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters”
Nominee: Gregory Pardlo for “Digest”
Nominee: Willie Perdomo for “The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon”