In addition to the awards announced Wednesday, the National Book Foundation presented two lifetime achievement awards. Rita Dove won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for her work, which includes 11 books of poetry. Dove was the first black poet laureate of the United States in the 1990s. The literary award for outstanding service to the American literary community was given to Paul Yamazaki, senior buyer at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco.
Sometimes the subject of the war in Israel and Gaza was raised. Poet Heid E. Erdrich, who introduced the poetry laureate, emphasized that “the human suffering in Gaza is at the forefront of our thoughts” and noted that “poetry is what we seek in our grief.”
Days before the ceremony, rumors were circulating that a group of finalists were planning to make some sort of statement on the war in Gaza, but sponsors and organizers were unsure what that might entail. Two sponsors, Zibby Media and Book of the Month, decided not to attend the ceremony and Zibby Media withdrew its sponsorship completely.
It’s not unusual for politics and world events to drive conversations and speeches at the National Book Awards. In the past, honorees have spoken out against racism in America, the lack of diversity in publishing, and threats to free speech as book bans proliferated across the country.
Since the attack on Israel by Hamas militants on October 7 and the subsequent Israeli military campaign in Gaza, literary and cultural institutions have grappled with how to respond to the conflict. Recently, several literary events have been disrupted or canceled. On Monday evening, pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a literary awards ceremony in Canada, at one point taking the stage and holding a sign accusing Scotiabank, which funds the Scotiabank Giller Prize, of financing genocide. Some events featuring Palestinian artists and writers have been canceled or postponed, including the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The collective call for a ceasefire drew applause from some National Book Awards attendees, but the remarks did not appear as polarizing or disruptive as organizers had feared. On Tuesday, after reports that some sponsors planned to skip the ceremony, the National Book Foundation issued a statement to quell the ongoing controversy, noting that political statements had been made by winners in the past.
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