Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones," a bleak but determined novel about a community devastated by Hurricane Katrina, has won the National Book Award for fiction.
Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve," a dramatic account of the Renaissance-era rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius, won for nonfiction Wednesday night.
The poetry prize went to Nikki Finney's "Head Off & Split," an impassioned summation of African-American history, while Thanhhai Lai's Inside Out & Back Again, the story of a Vietnamese family in Alabama, won for young people's literature.
Winners each receive $10,000.
Actor-author John Lithgow hosted the ceremony, declaring himself humbled before the "great thoughts," "quicksilver wit" and "eloquent locution" among the writers, editors, publishers and others gathered.
Honorary prizes were given to Florida-based bookseller Mitch Kaplan, who looked back warmly on a 30-year career/calling in a business he found more fulfilling than law school, and poet John Ashbery, who called writing a "pleasure I can almost taste." In a self-deprecating speech, he acknowledged that even intelligent people find what he writes "makes no sense" and "near root canal" as an experience to read.
"Salvage the Bones," tells the story of a Mississippi Gulf Coast family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in the U.S. now six years ago. Ward, who grew up in Mississippi, was home for the summer in 2005 and survived during the devastating storm with her own family.
"Salvage the Bones" is Ward's second novel. Her first, "Where the Line Bleeds," tells the story of two twin brothers growing up in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, the setting for all of her fiction and based on her own hometown. Ward received an MFA from the University of Michigan and has just started as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama at Mobile.