The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were announced during a virtual ceremony today. Among the winners in 14 categories were short story writer Deesha Philyaw, journalist Isabel Wilkerson, poet Victoria Chang, biographer William Souder and French novelist David Diop. Stephen Graham Jones won the second Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction.
For the second consecutive year, the prizes — which traditionally kick off The Times’ weekend-long Festival of Books — were awarded without an IRL event due to the pandemic. Times’ book editor Boris Kachka emceed the virtual awards, and winners gave pre-recorded video speeches.
Philyaw, whose debut short story collection “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” was a National Book Award finalist and won the PEN/Faulkner award, took home the Art Seidenbaum Award for first fiction. She will join authors Ben Okri, Carribean Fragoza and Shruti Swamy on Friday for a Book Fest panel about short stories
Judges called the book “a remarkable debut collection of stories … fiercely Black and beautiful,” which “linger in the mind long after we read them… It announces a powerful new voice on the literary landscape.”
In her speech, Philyaw said she wrote the book “in hopes that Black women would see and hear themselves in my characters and their stories. I wrote it to be a balm, an affirmation, a celebration and a guidepost for getting free. In what has been a devastation year, we’re all looking for comfort, solace and healing, all of which we can find in the shelter of each other and in books.”
Wilkerson was awarded the current interest prize for “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” a powerful study of America’s age-old caste system that became a bestseller after last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“This book was a quest for understanding,” Wilkerson said in her speech. “It required me to travel between three different continents and to study and to learn and to distill and synthesize the history and the culture of three different countries in order to better understand our own.” She called her work “a book written by an American, for Americans, about America at a time of existential crisis.”
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In the fiction category, Diop won for “At Night All Blood Is Black: A Novel,” translated by Anna Moschovakis.
“Dark, gruesome, vivid, utterly compelling, ‘At Night All Blood Is Black,’ a war story of racism, colonialism, violence, fear, and madness, is ultimately about the power of storytelling and how stories get told (or very often don’t),” judges said, adding, “we have never read anything like him.”
Of Chang’s “Obit,” winner in the poetry category, Judge Cyrus Cassells said, “innovative poetic obituaries speak to us in a startling way about death and loss with surprising, sometimes surreal juxtapositions of image that never let the riveted reader settle into one groove.”
Chang devoted some of her speech to decrying recent waves of violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. “In a time when so many Asian Americans and those from other marginalized communities still face daily violence, racism and misogyny, I feel particularly moved to be nominated,” she said. She wrote the book when she felt “most alone,” she added, “traveling on a raft at sea uncertain if I could find my way back. I wrote this book for myself, the book that I most needed during a time of grieving.”
The prize for mystery/thriller went to S.A. Cosby for “Blacktop Wasteland,” the noir tale of a Virginia family man pushed to the edge by poverty, racism and his previous life of crime. Judges said it “reflects concerns of the 21st century through a gripping plot accented by fully fleshed-out characters with realistic motives.”
In history, Martha S. Jones took the prize for “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.”
“I wrote ‘Vanguard’ because it’s the book that I needed to read in 2020,” Jones said in her speech. Mindful of the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Jones said she wanted to ensure that Black women’s roles in that struggle were not overlooked. “What I couldn’t have anticipated was the extraordinary range of consequential roles that Black women would play in the 2020 election cycle.”
Previously announced winners were also celebrated during the ceremony: the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which helped many bookstores during the pandemic, won the Innovator’s Award; Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko took the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. Andrew O’Hagan was awarded the Christopher Isherwood Prize for autobiographical prose for his coming-of-age novel “Mayflies,” the bittersweet tale of a friendship cemented in the New Wave 1980s on an epic trip to Manchester, England.
“When I set out to write ‘Mayflies,’ I knew from the start that it would be not only an intimate book but my most autobiographical,” O’Hagan said in a speech recorded in London. “My dying friend and I came up with a pact that I would write a novel about our childhood and about the last year of his life. It came from the heart; some books just do.”
Diana Wagman, a judge in the category, called “Mayflies” “an easy choice” among the many submissions for the award.
The memoirist and novelist Maxine Hong Kingston, who accepted the Robert Kirsch Award on behalf of her good friend Silko, recalled their own epic trip — to China — alongside the late literary giants Allen Ginsberg and Toni Morrison. “Your earring beads were the exact colors and shapes on the columns of temples: red, green, blue and white,” Kingston recalled, addressing Silko.
“You’re not only a writer, Leslie, you are a sybil. An oracle. A prophet. You suffered from visions of the U.S. military and weapons at the Mexican border. Today, we could see that those omens have come true.”
Below is the full list of 2020 winners:
- Innovator’s Award: Book Industry Charitable Foundation
- Robert Kirsch Award: Leslie Marmon Silko
- The Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose: Andrew O’Hagan, “Mayflies”
- Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction: Deesha Philyaw, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”
- The Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction: Stephen Graham Jones, “The Only Good Indians”
- Biography: William Souder, “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck”
- Current Interest: Isabel Wilkerson, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”
- Fiction: David Diop (translator Anna Moschovakis), “At Night All Blood is Black: A Novel”
- Graphic Novel/Comics: Bishakh Som, “Apsara Engine”
- History: Martha S. Jones, “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All”
- Mystery/Thriller: S.A. Cosby, “Blacktop Wasteland”
- Poetry: Victoria Chang, “Obit”
- Science & Technology: Sara Seager, “The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir”
- Young Adult Literature: Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zoboi, “Punching the Air”