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Novelist Jesmyn Ward and journalist Masha Gessen win National Book Awards

Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award in fiction

Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award in fiction for her novel "Sing, Unburied, Sing." Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

Novelist Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award in fiction for her novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” one of several awards presented Wednesday evening at a ceremony in Manhattan.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” published by Scribner, is set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and tells the story of one African-American family struggling with the burdens of the past and the challenges of the present. It is alternately narrated by a 13-year-old boy, his drug-addicted mother and the ghost of a young boy who was imprisoned at Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary. Ward, who lives in Mississippi, won the National Book Award in 2011 for her novel “Salvage the Bones.”

In her acceptance speech, Ward noted that her work has in the past been rejected because editors did not see what it had to say to a wide readership and recognized the award as a rebuttal to that position. She thanked friends and family for allowing her to “re-imagine your lives and your voices.”

Masha Gessen received the National Book Award in nonfiction with “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” published by Riverhead. It is the story of Russia since the fall of communism as told through the lives of ordinary citizens. Gessen is a Russian-born journalist who now lives in New York.

The poetry award was given to Frank Bidart for “Half-Light: Collected Poems, 1965-2016,” published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Bidart has been a finalist for the National Book Award five times.

The award for young people’s literature went to Robin Benway for “Far From the Tree,” published by HarperCollins. This young adult novel tells the story of a young woman, adopted at birth, who seeks her biological siblings.

The ceremony, hosted by actress Cynthia Nixon, was held during a black-tie benefit dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in Manhattan. Winners received $10,000 apiece.

In addition to the book prizes, Annie Proulx was recognized with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, presented by actress Anne Hathaway, who starred in the film adaptation of Proulx’s story “Brokeback Mountain.” Proulx is also the author of “The Shipping News” and “Barkskins,” among other titles. Richard Robinson, president and CEO of Scholastic, received the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the Literary Community. The award was presented by President Bill Clinton.

The awards are presented annually by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to recognize the best in American literature. The first awards were presented in 1950. Past recipients include Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Louise Erdrich, Louise Gluck and Patti Smith.

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