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National Book Critics Circle Names 2020 Award Winners

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“Hamnet,” a novel by Maggie O’Farrell that imagines the death of Shakespeare’s 11-year-old son during the bubonic plague, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction on Thursday.

Founded in 1974, the National Book Critics Circle is made up of more than 600 literary critics and book review editors in the United States. The organization’s annual awards, which it typically gives out in the spring to works published the previous year, are unusual in that book critics, rather than authors or academics, select the winners. The awards are open to any book published in English in the United States.

O’Farrell, the author of eight other books, became obsessed with the story of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, when she was at Cambridge University studying English. In her novel, she brought him “so vividly to life the reader is stricken by his loss,” one of the award’s judges, Colette Bancroft, said in a citation.

Raven Leilani won the John Leonard Prize, which recognizes a debut author, for her novel “Luster,” about a young Black woman who works in publishing and moves in with her lover, an older married man, and his family.

The award for nonfiction went to the journalist Tom Zoellner for “Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire,” an account of the 1831 revolt that led to the abolition of slavery in Jamaica.

In a year when many new novels and serious works of nonfiction were overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and presidential election, literary awards have helped draw attention to some of them. The awards were presented virtually on Thursday night. Last year’s ceremony, which was set to take place in March just as the gravity of the pandemic became clear, was canceled, and the winners were celebrated during a virtual ceremony in January.

The poet Cathy Park Hong won the prize in autobiography for “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning,” an essay collection that explores race, culture and her experiences as a Korean American woman and writer. In her acceptance speech, she dedicated her award to the memory of the women of Asian descent who were killed in the shooting in Atlanta last week, and read their names aloud.

The award for biography went to Amy Stanley’s “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World,” which examines the life of a 19th-century Japanese woman.

This year’s other honorees include Nicole Fleetwood, who won the criticism award for her book “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”; francine j. harris, who was awarded the poetry prize for her collection, “Here Is the Sweet Hand”; and Jo Livingstone, a culture staff writer at the New Republic, who won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award went to the Feminist Press, which was founded 50 years ago and has published such authors as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anita Hill, Grace Paley and Barbara Ehrenreich, as well as members of the activist punk band Pussy Riot. In a judge’s citation, Michael Schaub, the committee chair, said the Feminist Press lived up to its mission statement, which includes publishing “insurgent and marginalized voices from around the world to build a more just future.”

“Their literature over the past five decades has made the world a better place for everyone,” he said.

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