By Hillel Italie | Associated Press
NEW YORK — Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” a brief, unflinching address to his teenage son on race and police violence that is well on its way to a lasting place in American letters, won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday night. The fiction prize was given to Adam Johnson’s “Fortune Smiles,” an eclectic and edgy story collection set everywhere from the former East Germany to a Louisiana community reeling from Hurricane Katrina.
Highly praised and intensely debated, on best-seller lists for months, “Between the World and Me” is among the most uncompromising works in recent memory to gain such a wide following and Coates’ acceptance speech — as blunt as any given at a book awards ceremony — was a stirring expression of gratitude and frustration. He dedicated his honor to his friend Prince Jones, who was killed by 15 years ago when police mistook him for a criminal and whose tragedy is at the core of “Between the World and Me.”
“‘Between the World and Me’ comes out of that place,” said Coates, adding that similar shootings keep happening “over and over and over again” and that the officer who shot Jones was never punished.
“I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that officer: ‘Between the World and Me’ comes out of that place,” he said. “What I do have the power to say is that you won’t enroll me in this lie. You won’t make me a part of it.” Coates discussed his memoir at the Chicago Humanities Festival in October.
Johnson’s award follows the Pulitzer Prize he received for his previous work, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Both were edited by David Ebershoff, a longtime Random House executive who is leaving for a full-time writing career. Moviegoers may know him for the upcoming adaptation of his novel “The Danish Girl,” (the film opens in theaters Dec. 11 in Chicago).
Another winning book Wednesday also involved the author’s teenage son. The young people’s literature prize went to Neal Shusterman’s “Challenger Deep,” inspired by the struggles with mental illness endured by his then-adolescent boy, whom Shusterman brought to the stage. Robin Coste Lewis’ debut collection “Voyage of the Sable Venus” was cited for poetry.
All winners received $10,000. Johnson, Coates and Lewis were published by Penguin Random House.
Fiction judges had highlighted five works with contemporary settings, touching upon everything from race and class in Angela Flournoy’s Detroit-based “The Turner House” to the chronicle of marriage in Lauren Groff’s “Fates and Furies” to the economy in Karen E. Bender’s story collection “Refund.” Flournoy, in an email sent earlier in the week, observed that fiction “grants us access to lives and experiences that are different from our own, but it also shows the ways in which human experience has commonalities.”