Jean Valentine’s 2004 National Book Awards Poetry Acceptance Speech

I didn’t expect this. I thank the judges, with all my heart for your generous and careful labor: James Galvin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Al Young, Lynn Emanuel, and Michael Waters, all writers I honor and have respected so deeply over the years. I thank my fellow nominees with boundless gratitude and respect for your work, and gratitude for the honor of being in your company; the pensive, musical, human world of Donald Justice, and thanks to Carol Frost for reading his work for us last night; the brilliant, gentle originality of Cole Swensen; the truth and depth of Carl Phillips’ poetry, his beautiful searches; the deep, sober unforgetting of William Heyen’s witness in Shoah Train.

Thanks to the National Book Foundation, and Meg Kearney, and everyone at Wesleyan University Press, especially Suzanna Tamminen, my sweet guide. And thanks to my most beloved daughters Sarah and Rebecca Chace, the heart of my life. Thank you.

 

Excerpt from Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman 

Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Gonnerman. Published in March, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

PART ONE

An Easy $2,500

1983-1984
CHAPTER 1

Twenty-six-year-old Elaine Bartlett cracked open the bedroom closet and surveyed her options. She picked out a T-shirt, a pair of Jordache jeans, a leather belt, and a brown knit sweater with suede patches on the elbows. She fastened a thin chain around her neck and slid a pair of gold hoops in her ears. Then she checked herself in the mirror. The day before, she had gotten a wet and set; the plastic rollers were still in her hair. She picked a beige silk scarf out of a drawer and tied it around her head.

Barefoot, she headed down the hall. She loved how the plush carpet felt between her toes. People had told her she was crazy to put carpet everywhere in her apartment, even in the kitchen, but she had been dreaming of wall-to-wall carpet for years. She had not been able to afford an interior decorator, of course. Instead, she had studied photos she had ripped out of glossy magazines. After seeing wall-to-wall carpet in the pictures of every celebrity’s home, she had been determined to settle for nothing less.

There had not been enough money to buy furniture for every room, but she was especially proud of the living room, which she had done all in white: three white leather sofas, a white leather bar (even though she didn’t drink), and, of course, white carpeting. Around the perimeter were statues: a tiger, an elephant, a giraffe. There was also plenty of glass. The record player had glass doors, and there were two glass tables. Not long ago, there had been three glass tables, including one with a zebra statue atop it. Then one day, her younger son, Jamel, had decided to play cowboy, jumped on top of the zebra, and crashed through the glass.

Friends had warned her about decorating her apartment with so much glass when she had four young children, but she hadn’t listened. She thought her home looked glamorous. Anyone who saw a photograph of it certainly would not think she was broke, and that was precisely the point. Reality, of course, was a different story. Her apartment was located in the Wagner Houses, a large city housing project in East Harlem. Her rent was only $127, but she scrambled every month to make the payment.

To support her family, she collected welfare and worked off the books at a beauty parlor. Some nights she also poured drinks at a local bar. Still, the cost of caring for her four children—of buying food, clothes, and diapers—regularly exceeded her income. She got a little help from her boyfriend, Nathan Brooks, the father of her two daughters, but he was often in jail. As for the carpet and furniture, she hadn’t actually paid for them all by herself. She’d had them on lay-away for almost two years, then convinced her best friend, a drug dealer named Littleboy, to pay the rest of the bill.

Every year, her scramble for money intensified in the weeks before Thanksgiving. Today was November 8, 1983; Thanksgiving was only sixteen days away. Organizing a huge feast was a Bartlett family tradition, and this year she wanted to invite everyone over to her place. Now that she had all this new furniture, she was eager to show it off. The party promised to be expensive, but in recent weeks she had stumbled upon a plan to earn some extra cash.

All weekend long, Nathan had told her that her plan was a mistake. “It doesn’t sound right,” he’d said over and over. But now she did not have time to discuss the matter anymore. She dressed her daughters, three-year-old Satara and one-year-old Danae. Then she took them over to Nathan’s mother, who lived next door. Her sons, ten-year-old Apache and six-year-old Jamel, were already at her own mother’s apartment downtown. It was nearly 8:00 a.m.: she had to hurry. As Nathan watched, she grabbed her pocketbook and marched out.

Most mornings, she headed to work, walking north three blocks, then west on 125th Street until she reached the 125 Barber Shop and Beauty Shop. Often she had at least two children with her. She could never make it down those four long blocks on 125th Street without sparking a small commotion. “Hey, Big Red!” the country boys would shout when she strolled by, “See her calves? She got good strong calves. She’s a breeder. She can have some more kids. She ain’t finished yet.”

The men on the street always called her “Big Red”—the same nickname they gave every big-boned, light-skinned woman. The name stuck. Everyone at the beauty parlor called her Big Red, too. All day long, customers appeared in the doorway and asked, “Is Big Red in?” Fou barber chairs filled the front of the shop, and a row of shoe-shine stands lined one wall. Elaine’s customers knew that to get to the beauty parlor, they had to walk through the barbershop and into a back room.

She had been working here for nearly nine years, though she did not have a hairdresser’s license. She rented a booth for fifty-five dollars a day, then kept everything else she earned. On a good day, she left with two or three hundred dollars.

While she worked, her children played at the arcade next door, with the older children minding the younger ones. Whenever they needed more quarters, they sprinted through the barbershop to find her. And whenever she got a break, she went next door, joining them in a game of Pac-Man or Frogger.

The barbershop was always buzzing with the news of the day. Nicky Barnes, the notorious drug kingpin, had been testifying recently in court, squealing on his former business partners. One year earlier, the movie 48 Hours had opened, and some people were calling Eddie Murphy the new Richard Pryor. And now Jesse Jackson had just announced that he was going to run for president. To most people here, he was far more appealing than the current crop of politicians: Mayor Koch, Governor Cuomo, and President Reagan.

Like many businesses along 125th Street, this barbershop was a magnet for anyone trying to make a dollar. Numbers runners stopped in all day long, taking bets from employees and customers alike. Boosters parked a van out front and walked in with armloads of stolen goods: sneakers, boots, underwear, cosmetics, socks, radios, even slabs of meat. Elaine rarely had to go shopping anymore; everything she needed, she could buy here for discount rates.

Almost everyone who came into the beauty parlor was black. One of the few exceptions was Charlie. He was the friend of a coworker, and he stopped in all the time. Elaine figured he had some sort of hustle, just like everybody else. Maybe he was a numbers runner; maybe a small-time drug dealer. She had seen him at parties, and he was always getting high. Although she’d known him for only a few months, she considered him a friend.

Charlie knew Elaine was always looking for a way to make some extra money. Four days earlier, at 10:30 on a Friday evening, he had visited her apartment to talk about a deal he wanted her to do for him. While her boyfriend Nathan was in the back room, Charlie had spelled out his plan. He knew a couple of people in Albany who wanted to buy a package of cocaine, but they didn’t want to come to New York City. If she carried the package to Albany, a two-and-a-half-hour train ride away, he would pay her $2,500. The way he described it, the plan sounded perfectly simple.

Joan Didion Accepts the 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction

The 2005 National Book Award in Nonfiction goes to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Joan Didion. Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images

BRENDA PINEAPPLE: Unfortunately, I was asked to say a few words about the process of choosing the nonfiction finalists. Fortunately, I can think of only four words: Five hundred and forty-two. That was the number of nominations this year, the most, I’m told, ever. Terrific biographies, eloquent histories, riveting memoirs, erudite and charming books about physics and physicists, about mathematics, about rock musicians and paintings and painters, heart piercing books about Iraq and Vietnam and veterans of yesteryear, about immigrants and travel and the myriad peoples of America, about American presidents and power, about women prisoners in courtrooms and crossword puzzles and illness and trees and religions and rugs, as well as books about marriage, about mountains, about lightening and, of course, about that most exciting of all endeavors, the writing life.

With such variety of subject matter and style, ours then was a daunting, humbling, often demoralizing task, true jury duty. After a certain point, I talked to no one, saw no one, went no place and for sustenance depended completely on the four enormously talented writers who for several months were the only people on earth except my husband who knew, understood and forgave the manic obsessiveness that our task entailed. These extraordinary judges are Mark Bowden, Dennis Covington, Tony Horwitz and Gregory Wolfe. [Applause] I thank them for their passion, their conviction, their stubbornness, their equanimity, their incredibly hard work and, best, for their ability to articulate over and over what good writing means, what it can do, how it changes us.

Together, we congratulate our five outstanding finalists:

  • Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion by Alan Burdick published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius by Leo Damrosch, published by Houghton Mifflin.
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, published by Knopf.

    Jeanne Birdsall and Joan Didion. Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
  • 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, published by Times Books.
  • Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild, published by Houghton Mifflin.

This year’s National Book Award in Nonfiction goes to The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

JOAN DIDION: There is hardly anything I can say about this except thank you, and thank you to everybody at Knopf who accepted my idea that I could sit down and write a book about something that was not exactly anything but personal and that it would work. Thank you all. [Applause]

William T. Vollman Accepts the 2005 National Book Award for Fiction

ANDRE DUBUS III:

Good evening. I will be very brief. It was a true joy and an honor to read through this mountain of books these last four months. I thank the National Book Foundation and Harold Augenbraum for allowing me to do this. I want to publicly thank my hardworking judges, Rikki Ducornet, Cristina Garcia, Thomas LeClair and Anna Quindlen. They worked hard. [Applause]

William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images
William T. Vollmann and Andre Dubus III (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images).

At this point in the evening, I’m so nervous I’m about to throw up and I’m not one of the finalists. So I’m going to get right to it. The finalists for this year’s National Book Award for Fiction are:

  • The March by E.L. Doctorow, published by Random House
  • Veronica by Mary Gaitskill, published by Pantheon
  • Trance by Christopher Sorrentino, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Holy Skirts by René Steinke, published by William Morrow
  • Europe Central by William T. Vollmann, published by Viking Press.

The winner of this year’s National Book Award for Fiction is Europe Central by William T. Vollmann.

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN:

I thought I would lose so I didn’t prepare a speech. Well, let’s put it this way: When I was in elementary school, they showed me a film loop about burned corpses being pulled out of ovens. I was really horrified, and later on I understood that I was partly German. I thought, you know, am I somehow guilty for this? I mean, I probably have relatives over there who had something to do with the Third Reich. How could this possibly be?

William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction. (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)
William T. Vollmann at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony as he is announced the winner for Fiction.  (Photo credit: Robin Platzer/Twin Images)

I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what that book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more.

I’m very grateful to my wife for being here. I want to thank my agent, Susan Golomb, for all her hard work on my behalf. I’m so grateful to Paul Slovak and Viking for taking care of me for so many years. Thanks to the National Book Foundation. I never expected this honor. Thank you. [Applause]

GARRISON KEILLOR: 

It’s good to see a big prize go to a very nice young man. Thank you all for this evening. Thanks to all of our sponsors for putting on this wonderful festive occasion. Thanks again to all of the judges for doing the hard work. Congratulations to all the nominees. Good night.

M. T. Anderson Acceptance Speech for the 2006 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature

Young People’s Literature Chair, Margaret Bechard: It’s an honor to represent the judging panel for the Young People’s Literature award. If I were writing this story, I could not have created a better group of fellow judges. Patricia McKissack, Linda Sue Park, Ben Saenz, and Jude Watson brought intelligence, humor, and passion to our deliberations. There’s no greater pleasure than talking about and discussing and yes, heatedly arguing about books with four other people who care deeply about good writing. And if you don’t think that children’s book authors heatedly arguing isn’t a pretty terrifying sight, well you haven’t seen children’s book authors. We had much to discuss. We read picture books, easy readers, middle grade and young adult novels, graphic novels, poetry, and nonfiction. It was exciting and gratifying to see the depth and breadth of creativity, talent, and artistic courage exemplified in the children’s books published in this past year. Our committee looked for stories that would leave us breathless, for characters that would haunt our lives and our dreams, for authors who would indeed be vigilant witnesses to the wonderful and fearful complexity of life. We found five outstanding authors. The finalists for this year’s National Book Award in Young People’s Literature are M.T. Anderson for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, published by Candlewick Press; Martine Leavitt, Keturah and Lord Death, published by Front Street Books, a division of Boyds Mills Press; Patricia McCormick for Sold, published by Hyperion; Nancy Werlin, for The Rules of Survival published by Dial Books, a division of Penguin Putnam; and Gene Yang, for American Born Chinese, published by First Second, a division of Roaring Brook Press. And the winner of the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature is M. T. Anderson for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing.

[applause]

M.T. Anderson: Thank you. Thank you so much Margaret and to the whole committee. It’s an incredible honor to be included in this list of books. There are actually several reasons why it is wonderful, the most salient of which is that this, I believe, is the first time that a graphic novel has been included in the nominees. And I know there is a lot of the dithering that goes on in the blogosphere about whether graphic novels are literature or not, and I think that anyone who has read Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese can see that it is poignant, it is sophisticated, it is literature for young people. So anyway, I’m just really glad that we are leading that charge. I would just like to thank my parents, my girlfriend Nicole, and John Bell, the historian who did the fact checking for this book, The Boston Athenaeum where I did a lot of the research, and last but in fact foremost, Candlewick Press, which published the book. Usually when one goes to a publisher of children’s books and says, ‘Hey, would you like a 900-page two volume historical epic for teens, written in a kind of unintelligible 18th-century Johnsonian Augustan prose by an obsessive neurotic who rarely leaves his house or even gets dressed,’ usually that children’s publisher will say ‘No, we would not like to buy that book.’ But Liz Bicknell, my editor, purchased the book and has just been incredibly supportive for the last several years. The sales and marketing department has taken this basically un-sellable product and has just done amazing things with it. It’s just a testament, I think, to what a small press can do just by taking risks. So thank you Candlewick for taking this risk on me, for showing the incredibly poor judgment to accept a manuscript that has allowed us to come here tonight. Thanks. Thank you all.