As the National Book Awards concluded on Wednesday, finalists for the prestigious literary prizes took the stage in New York to speak about the war between Israel and Hamas, while other participants in the ceremony also chose to address the banned books.
Aaliyah Bilal, who was nominated for the fiction prize for her short story collection “Temple Folk,” read a prepared statement as a group of other finalists stood around her.
“On behalf of the finalists, we oppose the ongoing bombing of Gaza and call for a humanitarian ceasefire to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians, especially children,” Bilal said during the ceremony.
“We equally oppose anti-Semitism, anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia, accepting the human dignity of all parties, knowing that further bloodshed will do nothing to secure lasting peace in the region. »
Some audience members in the room responded with a standing ovation. But the authors’ coordinated statement also highlighted tensions within the literary community: After learning that a group of prize finalists planned to make a statement about the war, two sponsors decided not to attend the ceremony, reported the New York Times.
Zibby Owens, owner of Zibby Media, wrote in a Substack essay before the ceremony that his company decided to withdraw its support and participation after learning that the authors planned to “collectively come together to use their speeches to promote a campaign pro-Palestinian and anti-Palestinian. -The Israeli agenda. She added that she believed the event would promote discrimination against Israel and the Jewish people.
The Book of the Month subscription service, which remained a sponsor, told CNN in a statement that it did not attend the ceremony but continued to support the event.
Oprah and LeVar Burton spoke about book bans
It is not uncommon for political statements to be made at the National Book Awards, as the National Book Foundation noted in its own statement ahead of the event.
In addition to finalists’ comments on the war between Israel and Hamas, several speakers and authors used their platforms at the awards ceremony to address efforts to ban books from American schools and libraries.
LeVar Burton, children’s author and former host of the iconic TV show “Reading Rainbow,” hosted the awards ceremony and opened the ceremony with a joke.
“Before we begin, are there any Freedom Moms in the house? he asked, referring to a conservative group behind recent attempts to remove some books from school shelves. “No? Good. Then there will be no need to raise your hands tonight.
In his opening remarks, Burton alluded to the climate in which attempts to ban books are taking place.
“It was my mother who taught me at a very young age that if you know how to read in at least one language, you are, according to her definition, free. And this idea of freedom seems particularly fraught in this global political moment,” he said. “There are wars, rumors of war and mechanisms of war at work. On the home front, we are fighting for control of the truth and how we interpret the truth in this country. Books are banned, words are silenced, and writers and other book advocates are attacked. ”
Oprah Winfrey, who was celebrated as a special guest at the ceremony, drew attention to people who have been targeted for fending off attempts to ban books. She cited Barbara Kingsolver and Tess Gunty, as well as Abraham Verghese and Amanda Gorman, among other authors.
She also spoke about the importance of reading books by diverse authors, explaining how Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” had a profound impact on her when she was 15 years old.
“This book gave voice to my silences, to my secrets. It gave words to my pain and confusion of being raped at the age of 9,” she said. “Until ‘Caged Bird,’ I didn’t know that there was a language, that there were words to describe what had happened to me or that any other human being on earth had experienced it. This is the power of books.
At the end of her speech, Oprah said she hoped children would be able to see themselves in the pages of books and, as a result, see others more clearly too.
“Make no mistake: banning books is extinguishing the flames of truth, of what it means to be alive, of what it means to be conscious, of what it means to be engaged in the world. Banning books is cutting us off from each other, shrouding us in a lonely darkness, a soulless echo chamber,” she said. “Banning books is stifling what sustains us and makes us better people. »
The winners of Wednesday’s National Book Awards reflected a wide range of topics.
Justin Torres won the fiction prize for “Blackouts,” an experimental novel that blends queer history and fiction to describe a deathbed conversation between two gay men.
Ned Blackhawk received the nonfiction prize for “The Rediscovery of America: Indigenous Peoples and the Destruction of American History,” a retelling of American history that places Indigenous peoples at the center.
Craig Santos Perez won the poetry prize for his collection “From the Unincorporated Territory (åmot),” about his native Guam and the culture of the Chamorro people.
Dan Santat won the Children’s Literature Prize for his middle-grade graphic memoir, “A First Time for Everything,” and Stênio Gardel won the Literature in Translation Prize for “The Words That Remain,” translated from Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato.
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