Announcing the 2019 National Book Awards Finalists

In late September, the longlists for the 2019 National Book Awards were announced, with the selection of finalists in each of five categories—Young People’s LiteratureTranslated LiteraturePoetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction. This morning, we present the twenty-five finalists across those categories. The winners will be announced on Wednesday, November 20th. 

Finalists for Fiction

Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi
An Indie Next pick named to 11 best book lists in 2018, Trust Exercise is set in the 1980s at a highly competitive suburban performing arts high school, Trust Exercise will incite heated discussions about fiction and truth, friendships and loyalties, and will leave readers with wiser understandings of the true capacities of adolescents and the powers and responsibilities of adults.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James
Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard. As Tracker follows the boy’s scent—from one ancient city to another; into dense forests and across deep rivers—he and the band are set upon by creatures intent on destroying them. As he struggles to survive, Tracker starts to wonder: Who, really, is this boy? Why has he been missing for so long? Why do so many people want to keep Tracker from finding him? And perhaps the most important questions of all: Who is telling the truth, and who is lying? Listen to Marlon James discuss the novel on the B&N Podcast.

Sabrina & Corina: Stories, by Kali Fajardo-Anstine
Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s magnetic debut story collection breathes life into her Indigenous Latina characters and the land they inhabit. Set against the remarkable backdrop of Denver, Colorado–a place that is as fierce as it is exquisite–these women navigate the land the way they navigate their own lives: with caution, grace, and quiet force. Sabrina and Corina is a moving exploration of the universal experiences of abandonment, friendships and mother-daughter relationships, and the deep-rooted truths of our homelands and the people who inhabit it.

The Other Americansby Laila Lalami
Late one spring night, Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant living in California, is walking across a darkened intersection when he is killed by a speeding car. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow, Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efraín, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, an old friend of Nora’s and an Iraq War veteran; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself. As the characters—deeply divided by race, religion, and class—tell their stories, connections among them emerge, even as Driss’s family confronts its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies, and love, messy and unpredictable, is born.

Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips
In this intense, original, must-read debut, two sisters vanish from the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, and over the course of twelve chapters (each representing a month in the year that follows), readers will come to know the female denizens of the isolated, shoreline community as they respond in very different ways to the crime. From the girls’ mother, to witnesses, detectives, and other possible victims, every character is vividly rendered, as are the locations and histories that wind around the story like vines.

Finalists for Nonfiction

Thick: And Other Essaysby Tressie McMillan Cottom
In eight highly praised treatises on beauty, media, money, and more, Tressie McMillan Cottom—award-winning professor and acclaimed author of Lower Ed—is unapologetically “thick”: deemed “thick where I should have been thin, more where I should have been less,” McMillan Cottom refuses to shy away from blending the personal with the political, from bringing her full self and voice to the fore of her analytical work. Thick “transforms narrative moments into analyses of whiteness, black misogyny, and status-signaling as means of survival for black women” ( Los Angeles Review of Books ) with “writing that is as deft as it is amusing” (Darnell L. Moore).

What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, by Carolyn Forché
She is twenty-seven when the mysterious stranger appears on her doorstep. The relative of a friend, he is a charming polymath with a mind as seemingly disordered as it is brilliant. She’s heard rumors from her friend about who he might be: a lone wolf, a communist, a CIA operative, a sharpshooter, a revolutionary, a small coffee farmer, but according to her, no one seemed to know for certain. He has driven from El Salvador to invite Forché to visit and learn about his country. Captivated for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, she accepts and becomes enmeshed in something beyond her comprehension. Pursued by death squads and sheltering in safe houses, the two forge a rich friendship, as she attempts to make sense of what she’s experiencing and establish a moral foothold amidst profound suffering. This is the powerful story of a poet’s experience in a country on the verge of war, and a journey toward social conscience in a perilous time.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, by David Treuer
Dee Brown’s 1970 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was the first truly popular book of Indian history ever published. But it promulgated the impression that American Indian history essentially ended with the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee—that not only did one hundred fifty Sioux die at the hands of the U. S. Cavalry but Native civilization did as well. Growing up Ojibwe on a reservation in Minnesota, training as an anthropologist, and researching Native life past and present for his nonfiction and novels, David Treuer has uncovered a different narrative. Because they did not disappear—and not despite but rather because of their intense struggles to preserve their language, their traditions, their families, and their very existence—the story of American Indians since the end of the nineteenth century to the present is one of unprecedented resourcefulness and reinvention. Our B&N Podcast interview with Treuer is here.

Solitary, by Albert Woodfox with Leslie George
Solitary is the unforgettable life story of a man who served more than four decades in solitary confinement—in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, 23 hours a day, in notorious Angola prison in Louisiana—all for a crime he did not commit. That Albert Woodfox survived was, in itself, a feat of extraordinary endurance against the violence and deprivation he faced daily. That he was able to emerge whole from his odyssey within America’s prison and judicial systems is a triumph of the human spirit, and makes his book a clarion call to reform the inhumanity of solitary confinement in the U.S. and around the world.

The Yellow Houseby Sarah M. Broom
A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows.

Finalists for Poetry

The Tradition, by Jericho Brown
Jericho Brown’s daring new book The Tradition details the normalization of evil and its history at the intersection of the past and the personal. Brown’s poetic concerns are both broad and intimate, and at their very core a distillation of the incredibly human: What is safety? Who is this nation? Where does freedom truly lie? Brown makes mythical pastorals to question the terrors to which we’ve become accustomed, and to celebrate how we survive. Poems of fatherhood, legacy, blackness, queerness, worship, and trauma are propelled into stunning clarity by Brown’s mastery, and his invention of the duplex—a combination of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues—is testament to his formal skill. The Tradition is a cutting and necessary collection, relentless in its quest for survival while reveling in a celebration of contradiction.

“I”: New and Selected Poems, by Toi Derricotte
In Derricotte’s own words:

“How do you gain access to the
power of parts of yourself you
abhor, and make them sing
with beauty, tenderness, and compassion?

This is the record of fifty years
of victories in the reclamation
of a poet’s voice.”

Deaf Republic, by Ilya Kaminsky 
Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—they all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language. The story follows the private lives of townspeople encircled by public violence: a newly married couple, Alfonso and Sonya, expecting a child; the brash Momma Galya, instigating the insurgency from her puppet theater; and Galya’s girls, heroically teaching signing by day and by night luring soldiers one by one to their deaths behind the curtain. At once a love story, an elegy, and an urgent plea, Ilya Kaminsky’s long-awaited Deaf Republic confronts our time’s vicious atrocities and our collective silence in the face of them.

Be Recorder, by Carmen Giménez Smith
Be Recorder offers readers a blazing way forward into an as yet unmade world. The many times and tongues in these poems investigate the precariousness of personhood in lines that excoriate and sanctify. Carmen Giménez Smith turns the increasingly pressing urge to cry out into a dream of rebellion—against compromise, against inertia, against self-delusion, and against the ways the media dream up our complacency in an America that depends on it. This reckoning with self and nation demonstrates that who and where we are is as conditional as the fact of our compliance: “Miss America from sea to shining sea / the huddled masses have a question / there is one of you and all of us.” Be Recorder is unrepentant and unstoppable, and affirms Giménez Smith as one of the most vital and vivacious poets of our time.

Sight Lines, by Arthur Sze
From the current phenomenon of drawing calligraphy with water in public parks in China to Thomas Jefferson laying out dinosaur bones on the White House floor, from the last sighting of the axolotl to a man who stops building plutonium triggers, Sight Lines moves through space and time and brings the disparate and divergent into stunning and meaningful focus. In this new work, Arthur Sze employs a wide range of voices—from lichen on a ceiling to a man behind on his rent—and his mythic imagination continually evokes how humans are endangering the planet; yet, balancing rigor with passion, he seizes the significant and luminous and transforms these moments into riveting and enduring poetry.

Finalists for Translated Literature

Death is Hard Workby Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price
Khaled Khalifa’s Death Is Hard Work is the new novel from the greatest chronicler of Syria’s ongoing and catastrophic civil war: a tale of three ordinary people facing down the stuff of nightmares armed with little more than simple determination. Abdel Latif, an old man from the Aleppo region, dies peacefully in a hospital bed in Damascus. His final wish, conveyed to his youngest son, Bolbol, is to be buried in the family plot in their ancestral village of Anabiya. Though Abdel was hardly an ideal father, and though Bolbol is estranged from his siblings, this conscientious son persuades his older brother Hussein and his sister Fatima to accompany him and the body to Anabiya, which is—after all—only a two-hour drive from Damascus. There’s only one problem: Their country is a war zone. With the landscape of their childhood now a labyrinth of competing armies whose actions are at once arbitrary and lethal, the siblings’ decision to set aside their differences and honor their father’s request quickly balloons from a minor commitment into an epic and life-threatening quest. Syria, however, is no longer a place for heroes, and the decisions the family must make along the way—as they find themselves captured and recaptured, interrogated, imprisoned, and bombed—will prove to have enormous consequences for all of them.

Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, by László Krasznahorkai, translated by Ottilie Mulzet
Set in contemporary times, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming tells the story of a Prince Myshkin–like figure, Baron Béla Wenckheim, who returns at the end of his life to his provincial Hungarian hometown. Having escaped from his many casino debts in Buenos Aires, where he was living in exile, he longs to be reunited with his high-school sweetheart Marika. Confusions abound, and what follows is an endless storm of gossip, con men, and local politicians, vividly evoking the small town’s alternately drab and absurd existence. All along, the Professor—a world-famous natural scientist who studies mosses and inhabits a bizarre Zen-like shack in a desolate area outside of town—offers long rants and disquisitions on his attempts to immunize himself from thought. Spectacular actions are staged as death and the abyss loom over the unsuspecting townfolk.

The Barefoot Womanby Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump
A moving, unforgettable tribute to a Tutsi woman who did everything to protect her children from the Rwandan genocide, by the daughter who refuses to let her family’s story be forgotten. The story of the author’s mother, a fierce, loving woman who for years protected her family from the violence encroaching upon them in pre-genocide Rwanda. Recording her memories of their life together in spare, wrenching prose, Mukasonga preserves her mother’s voice in a haunting work of art.

The Memory Policeby Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
A haunting Orwellian novel about the terrors of state surveillance, from the acclaimed author of The Housekeeper and the Professor. On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten. When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past. A surreal, provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, The Memory Police is a stunning new work from one of the most exciting contemporary authors writing in any language.

Crossingby Pajtim Statovci, translated by David Hackston
The death of head of state Enver Hoxha and the loss of his father leave Bujar growing up in the ruins of Communist Albania and of his own family. Only his fearless best friend, Agim—who is facing his own realizations about his gender and sexuality—gives him hope for the future. Together the two decide to leave everything behind and try their luck in Italy. But the struggle to feel at home—in a foreign country and even in one’s own body—will have corrosive effects, spurring a dangerous search for new identities. Steeped in a rich heritage of bewitching Albanian myth and legend, this is a deeply timely and deeply necessary novel about the broken reality for millions worldwide, about identity in all its complex permutations, and the human need to be seen.

Finalists for Young People’s Literature

Pet, by Akwaeke Emezi
Monsters were banished from the town of Lucille a long time ago—or at least that’s what everyone thought. Jam’s been taught that the bigotry and injustice they brought with them are things of the past. But then hulking Pet claws its way out of her mother’s painting. Pet warns that there is a monster in Lucille, and it’s in her best friend Redemption’s house. Emezi’s YA debut is a compelling allegory for our time, carried on the shoulders of a fascinating cast of characters, at the center of which is Jam, black, transgender, and selectively nonverbal. We can almost guarantee you won’t read anything else like it this year.

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks, by Jason Reynolds
One of the best things I read this year was Reynolds’s short story in Black Enough, about a group of boys dreaming of the perfect sandwich. His newest longer work is every bit as unusual and compelling, a novel told over the course of a ten-block walk. (Reynolds excels at deeply exploring moments in time;  Long Way Down, a National Book Awards Longlist selection in 2017 takes place in the 60 seconds it takes an elevator to descend, as the boy riding in it contemplates whether to carry out a revenge shooting). It’s a slice of life, or really of a bunch of lives, about what happens as you’re living, the detours and the conversations and the truth and the connections, and to make it even better, it’s an illustrated work, with art by Alexander Nabaum.

Patron Saints of Nothing, by Randy Ribay
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a book look as powerful and relevant as Ribay’s third novel, which tells the story of a boy named Jay whose entire plan for his final semester of high school is to play video games, until he learns his Filipino cousin Jun was a victim of President Duterte’s war on drugs. No one else in the family wants to discuss it, but Jay needs to find the truth behind his cousin’s murder, even if it means traveling to the Philippines to get it. He isn’t at all prepared for what he learns there, especially the fact that Jay himself had his own part in Jun’s death.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All, by Laura Ruby
Ruby (the Printz-winning rural fantasy Bone Gap) hops genres with her newest, set in Chicago during World War II and starring Frankie, who’s living with her siblings in an orphanage after the death of her mother and disappearance of her father. Her dad was supposed to return as soon as he made enough money to take care of them, but when he shows up for a weekend visit that turns out to be his final goodbye as he takes off for greener pastures with his new wife, Frankie and her sister, Toni, are now on their own, forcing Frankie to figure out how to make a life in a world that’s burning to embers around them.

1919: The Year That Changed America, by Martin W. Sandler
1919 was a momentous year, as Sandler documents in this fascinating overview of events ranging from Boston’s Great Molasses Flood, to laborers protesting working conditions, to women’s gaining the right to vote. Sandler breathes life into each event, gives it context, and examines its impact on modern day politics and culture; connections to immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, and climate change will particularly resonate with young readers. A meticulous and breathtaking look at history’s influence on the present day.

How many of the 2019 National Book Award Finalists have you read?

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