National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Carlos Eire, Winner of the 2003 NONFICTION AWARD for
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy

Jonathan Kirsch
2003 Nonfiction Panel Chair

Walter Mosley (Master of Ceremonies):

The first award this evening is for nonfiction. The finalists are: Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History, Doubleday/Random House; George Howe Colt, The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Home, Scribner/Simon & Schuster; John D'Emilio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, Free Press/Simon & Schuster; Carlos Eire, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Free Press/Simon & Schuster; and Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Crown Publishing/Random House.

It's my pleasure to introduce the Chairman of the nonfiction jury, Jonathan Kirsch. He is the author of ten books including the forthcoming God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, to be published by Viking in 2004. He is also a columnist for the L.A. Times Book Review and an attorney specializing in publishing law. Mr. Kirsch.

Jonathan Kirsch:

Thank you and good evening. I am deeply honored to appear before you tonight as the representative of the nonfiction judging panel for the 54th National Book Awards including the four distinguished writers and discerning readers who served with me on the panel. They are: Catherine Clinton, a writer, historian and biographer who is affiliated with the Gilder Lehrman Center at Yale University; Wendy Gimbel, author of Havana Dreams and a trustee of PEN, The Kenyon Review and Parnassus, who is researching and writing a book about sugar and the Caribbean in the 18th century; Lawrence Jackson, biographer of Ralph Ellison, who teaches English and African-American studies at Emory University; and Terry Teachout, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal, whose latest book, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken, is just out in paperback from Perennial.

Over the last seven months, the five of us were afforded the opportunity and the duty to read and weigh the merits of the 436 nonfiction titles that were submitted for consideration for the National Book Award. I must say that I took great pleasure in the conversations, both in person and by conference calls graciously coordinated by National Book Foundation Senior Program Officer Meredith Andrews by which we judged the entries.

From the beginning, we were mindful of the long tradition and high standards that are attached to the National Book Awards and as pleasurable as the process of judging turned to be, we took our jobs seriously. At the same time, we were bedeviled by the task of picking a short list of five books and then a single winner from a small mountain of books that included works of history, biography, memoir, criticism, politics, religion, science, travel and much else besides.

We are sworn to silence on all but the final result of our proceedings but I think that I am permitted to share at least one aspect of our approach to judging. Early on, Wendy Gimbel observed that we should not consider any book for the short list that did not move us to say after closing the book, "zowie." Later, Larry Jackson expressed a preference for the term "high cotton" as a sign of praise.

This did we begin to call our list of books in active contention the "zowie high cotton list." A few hours ago we put the "zowie high cotton list" on the table at Wendy Gimbel's beautiful home for one last conversation about the five books we had come to know so well and admire so much. I am pleased to announce that the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for nonfiction is Carlos Eire for Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, published by the Free Press.

CARLOS EIRE:

Thank you very much. I'm stunned, I'm deeply honored, I think it's quite possible tomorrow or sometime before Christmas it will snow in Havana. If I received this award, it is possible.

The sweetest and deepest irony is that this book is the result of my night job, because up till now I've only written scholarly books. I devoted time at night to writing this book. I have a long list of people to thank, first and foremost, my wife, Jane, who made this laurel wreath for me to wear whether or not I received the award because at home I am the winner. I have Jane to thank for so,so many things.

I remember one moment, a deep dark moment, we were in Madrid. I was there on a Fulbright doing research on a book that I think has been read by maybe 500 people on the globe on attitudes towards death and the afterlife in 16th century Spain. But I had no contract for that book, as a matter of fact, I had no contracts at all. I had a very, very thick folder of rejection letters for my first book which I think has been read by maybe 505 people on the globe on the Protestant rejection of Catholic symbols and Catholic ritual.

A month prior to this event in Madrid, on a beautiful park overlooking the western edge of Madrid, which was strewn with broken bottles - I had just received a rejection letter from a press I shall not mention and Jane encouraged me to keep going, keep going and keep going. She said you should keep going and I did and here I am.

I have to thank my three children, John Carlos, Grace, and Bruno, to whom I read this book as I was writing it. Every night I would sit down to write between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00, 3:00 a.m. and then the following night I would read to them what I had written the previous night. They were the best, most honest and most loving critics I have ever had. Whenever they said something wasn't fair, that's not fair to keep us in suspense, I took it very seriously.

I have my agent to thank, Alice Martell, my guardian angel. I have Martha Levin, my editor at Free Press to thank. Rachel Klayman, my editor who helped me shape the manuscript into its present form. I have Sara Schneider, my publicist, to thank for her wonderful work, and all the folks at the Free Press, who have done such a wonderful, wonderful job and have always made me feel as if I'm sitting on top of the world. Now I realize I am. My world, anyway.

I also want to mention something which frames this book and this is not a sweet irony at all, it's actually a very sad irony. Had I written this book in my native land, I would be in prison. As we sit here enjoying this dinner, there is one country on earth, Cuba, which is dead set and has been dead set since 1959 on repressing thought, repressing expression. There is no freedom to write, there is no freedom to read. Everything that the National Book Foundation stands for is negated in Cuba on a daily basis. There are people in Cuba now in prisons that aren't fit for even animals. Their crime? Writing.

There are actually several people who are in prison for establishing libraries. Hard to believe but true, nonetheless. It is these very, very brave men and women that I would like to dedicate this National Book Award to, the people in prison who cannot speak their minds without paying the heaviest price of all. And may it not only snow in Havana some time soon, may they be able to speak freely once and for all. Thank you very much.

Photo Credit: R. Platzer/Twin Images