When the journalist and writer Sarah M. Broom decided to tell the story of her family—of the home her then-19-year-old mother bought in New Orleans East at the age of 19; the house where she raised twelve children, including Sarah; the house that was was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2006—in her searing memoir The Yellow House, she knew there was value in sharing their intimate, personal story with the world. She knew it was worth the risk.
“My family understands, I think, the value of having these stories in a book,” she said. “I think they know that in a way this will outlast them and be something that the next generations can draw on to understand where they came from.”
That pronouncement took on an air of prophecy last night, as Broom took home the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction, ensuring the already widely acclaimed work will find its way into the hands of many more readers. The Broom family’s story will live on.
This fall, we’ve been following along with the 2019 National Book Awards, from the announcement of the fascinating longlists in September to last month’s unveiling of the formidable shortlists. At a ceremony last night in New York City, the awards were finally handed out in each of five categories—Young People’s Literature, Translated Literature, Poetry, Nonfiction, and Fiction. Taken together, the winners are a powerful collection of books, from authors whose work, from prose to poetry, feels utterly vital to the landscape of American letters in 2019.
Here is the complete list of winners. Explore the other nominated works here.
Winner 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.
Winner for Nonfiction
The Yellow House, by 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.
Winner for Poetry
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.
Winner for Translated Literature
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.
Winner for Young People’s Literature
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.
The evening also included a celebration of the career of Edmund White, the acclaimed author of the groundbreaking queer coming-of-age trilogy that began with A Boy’s Own Story, who was toasted by filmmaker John Waters and given the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a lifetime achievement award. His most recent book is the memoir The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading. His next novel, A Saint from Texas, will be published in 2020.