Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan won the 2013 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for fiction Friday night for her novel “Half-Blood Blues.”
The novel, which was honored during a gala celebration at the District’s Carnegie Library, tells the story of a young, half-black German man who plays the trumpet with a “massive sound, wild and unexpected, like a thicket of flowers in a bone-dry field” and is arrested in a Paris cafe under the Nazi regime.
“The judges felt ‘Half-Blood Blues’ was an astonishing work of originality,” said Marita Golden, a novelist and co-founder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which celebrates writers in the African diaspora. “They had never read a novel quite like it.”
The nonfiction award went to Fredrick C. Harris for “The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and Rise and Decline of Black Politics,” an examination of President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and the effects of his “race-neutral” approach on African Americans’ quest for racial equality and justice.
Golden said the judges deemed “Ticket” “an important book that deserved a much wider readership.”
The award for poetry went posthumously to Lucille Clifton for “The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010.” The collection by the former poet laureate of Maryland “secured her place in American letters,” the judges said.
The Hurston/Wright Foundation was founded in Prince George’s County in 1990 by Golden and Clyde McElvene, a marketing executive, to discover, educate and mentor black writers and ensure the survival of literature by black writers.
“This is just an extraordinary time for black writers,” said Golden, who has written several fiction and nonfiction books, including “Don’t Play in the Sun,” “Saving Our Sons,” “Long Distance Life” and “Migrations of the Heart.”
“So many new voices are coming out of the diaspora,” said Golden, who lives in Bowie and teaches writing workshops in the Washington area. “It is a very exciting time, but at the same time, because of the changes in the publishing industry and the changes in the way people buy books, black writers are just as negatively impacted in the case of royalties and financial remuneration.”
The foundation stopped giving out monetary awards several years ago, but Golden said that “has not diminished the respect writers have for the award, because it is a game-changer.” She added: “Many times, a publisher will decide to bring a book into paperback because of the award.”
Washington Post staff writer and biographer Wil Haygood, whose front-page story in The Post inspired the movie “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” was awarded the Ella Baker Award for his “masterful writing” and support of the foundation.
In accepting the award, Haygood said that someone had asked him what has changed in his life since the movie was made. “Not a whole lot,” Haygood told the crowd. “But I have heard from both of the ladies who turned me down for my high school prom.”
Haygood, who has written biographies of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Sammy Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson, said in an interview earlier that he was honored to have been selected as an award recipient.
“The others receiving the Legacy award are extremely gifted and very prominent writers,” he said. “I admire their work, and to be selected to receive this type of recognition from the Hurston/Wright Foundation is extremely special.”
Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson also won the Ella Baker Award. Her book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” won the 2011 Hurston/Wright Award for nonfiction.
Wilkerson said she was thrilled to receive the award, named after Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, who were part of the Great Migration and took the same routes as two of the book’s protagonists. The book’stitle was inspired by the words of Wright.
Wilkerson called the award ceremony a homecoming.
“This book has taken me all over the country,” she said, “but no city has a deeper personal meaning to me than Washington, because it is where my parents migrated, met, married and had me. Had they not joined the Great Migration, I, like millions of others, would not have had the opportunity to grow up on freer soil.”
Wilkerson told the audience earlier that she had spent 15 years working on her book. “I often say, ‘If this book were human, it would be in high school,” she said.
After the ceremony, Wilkerson stood near the stage in a red sheath dress, where she answered questions about the Great Migration, snapped photos with fans and encouraged aspiring writers, even as the staff began to put away food and clear tables.
The North Star Award went to U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, author of “Thrall: Poems.”
“I am a poet deeply concerned with history and social justice,” Trethewey said in accepting the award. She cited another poet’s remark — “Poets need not be aiming for social change when they sit down to write, but it can be an outcome” — and added, “Tonight, I accept this award in pursuit of social justice and the idea that all of our work as writers is one of the most grand advocacies in that pursuit.”
Presenters during Friday’s gala featured top names in literature, including poet and activist Sonia Sanchez, who performed an original poem in tribute to Hurston; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones; Mignon L. Clyburn, daughter of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.); author Lucy Anne Hurston, who has written a biography of her aunt called “Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston”; and Teri Ellen Cross Davis, who is poetry coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Host Dolen Perkins-Valdez, who wrote the novel “Wench,” spoke of the literary firepower of the gala, filled with legendary writers, poets, literary agents and editors at high-powered publishing houses. Writers gushed as they shared the stage with legends. “This ceremony is a space for the brilliant work of black writers to . . . take center stage,” Perkins-Valdez told the crowd.
The other nominees for the fiction prize were “A Cupboard Full of Coats,” by Yvette Edwards; “Elsewhere, California,” by Dana Johnson; “The Cutting Season,” by Attica Locke; “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” by Ayana Mathis; and “Gathering of Waters,” by Bernice L. McFadden.
The other nominees in the nonfiction category were “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra,” by Chinua Achebe; “Go-Go Live,” by Natalie Hopkinson; “Exit: The Endings That Set Us Free,” by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; “The End of American Lynching,” by Ashraf H.A. Rushdy; and “Help Me to Find My People,” by Heather Andrea Williams.
The Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers went to Justin Campbell, a graduate student in English at Loyola Marymount University. He won for his novel excerpt, “Sitting on the Knees of God.”
Cary Williams, a student at Harvard University, and Samantha Mallory, a student at Middle Tennessee State University, were finalists in the college writers category.