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Ta-Nehisi Coates wins National Book Award for non-fiction

National Book Award

‘Between the World and Me’, Ta-Nehisi Coates brief, unflinching meditation on race and police violence, won the National Book Award for nonfiction. 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.

Coates’ book has been on bestseller lists for months, and his acceptance speech was a stirring expression of gratitude and frustration. He dedicated his honour to his friend Prince Jones, who was killed by police 15 years ago and whose tragedy is at the core of Between the World and Me. The young people’s literature prize went to Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, inspired by his then-teenage son’s struggles with mental illness, while Robin Coste Lewis’ debut collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, was cited for poetry. All winners received $10,000.

Earlier during the ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street, Don DeLillo received a lifetime achievement medal for his contributions to American letters. James Patterson was honoured for his advocacy of reading and literacy. 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 fulltime writing career. Moviegoers may know him for the upcoming adaptation of his novel The Danish Girl.

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”.

DeLillo’s speech came just days after the attacks in Paris, the kind of horror he had imagined in Mao II and so much of his work. But the 78-year-old author was at the awards event to talk about books and old friends, mourning such peers as E.L. Doctorow and James Salter, ruminating about the shelves down the hall from where he writes and listing not just the books but their publishers and list prices. (50 cents for Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, a paperback from 1959.)