National Book Critics Circle names the 2020 award winners

‘Hamnet’, a novel by Maggie O’Farrell that depicts 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 they typically award to works published the previous year in the spring, are unusual in that book critics select the winners rather than authors or academics. 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, while studying English at Cambridge University. In her novel, she brought him to life “so vividly that the reader is struck by his loss,” said one of the judges, Colette Bancroft, in a quote.

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

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

In a year when many new novels and serious non-fiction works have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and presidential election, literary awards have drawn attention to some of them. The prizes were awarded almost Thursday evening. Last year’s ceremony, which was due to take place in March, just as the severity of the pandemic became apparent, was canceled and the winners celebrated in a virtual ceremony in January.

Poet Cathy Park Hong won the autobiographical award for ‘Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning’, a collection of essays exploring race, culture and her experiences as a Korean American woman and writer. In her acceptance speech, she dedicated her award in memory of the women of Asian descent who died in the Atlanta shooting last week, and read their names aloud.

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

Other accolades this year include Nicole Fleetwood, who won the critical award for her book “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”; francine j. Harris, who received the poetry prize for her collection “Here Is the Sweet Hand”; and Jo Livingstone, New Republic culture worker writer, 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 authors such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Anita Hill, Grace Paley and Barbara Ehrenreich, as well as members of the activist punk band Pussy Riot. In a quote from a judge, Michael Schaub, the chair of the committee, said the Feminist Press was fulfilling its mission of publishing “rebellious and marginalized voices from around the world to build a fairer future.”

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