The literary world was packed with a diverse field of prize-winners this year. Four of those winners — National Book Award winners Robin Coste Lewis, Neal Shusterman and Adam Johnson, along with Man Booker prize winner Marlon James, joined the NewsHour’s chief arts and culture correspondent Jeffrey Brown for Detroit Public Television’s Book View Now at the Miami Book Fair in November. Ta-Nehisi Coates joined the NewsHour in July for a segment for Brief But Spectacular, an ongoing series on NewsHour’s Facebook page.
You can find their thoughts on literature, history, politics and art below.
Robin Coste Lewis, “Voyage of the Sable Venus”
Lewis’ first collection, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” is named for an 18th-century pro-slavery engraving. Lewis dove into the history of black female bodies in art, exploring the effects of racial violence and stereotypes on depictions of black women.
When she began doing research, Coste found art depicting black women in subservient positions that dated back by thousands of years. “I thought, how far back does this go?” she said. “Everywhere I looked, regardless of the time period or the continent, it was happening. So then I couldn’t look away. I had to keep going.”
Marlon James, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”
James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won the Man Booker prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, this year. James is the first Jamaican-born author to win the prize. The book revolves around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 and explores Jamaican history in the 1970s and 1980s. The book has Marley “at the center, but the story’s really about what’s going on around him,” James said.
A key component of James’ writing is his use of all five senses to tell a story, he said. “That’s something I teach and something I’ve been deliberate about,” he said “Smell carries memory. Smell carries nostalgia. When was the last time a book made you taste something?”
Neal Shusterman, “Challenger Deep”
Shusterman’s “Challenger Deep,” which won the National Book Award in the young people’s literature category this year, is named for the lowest point on earth, deep in the Mariana trench. The story follows a young protagonist’s inner world as he experiences schizophrenia, an issue that is personal for Shusterman — his son Brendan developed schizophrenia as a teenager.
“There was one point when he was really in the depths, where he said, it feels like I’m at the bottom of the ocean, screaming at the top of my lungs, and nobody can hear me. And at that point, I realized, I want to be able to tell a story about that feeling,” Shusterman said.
Brendan served as a collaborator on the book, reading the manuscript and helping his father edit sections. He also created all the artwork that appears in the book during a two-week period when he said he was “suffering from mental illness.” That same art inspired some of the sequences in the book, Shusterman said.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me”
Coates’ book “Between the World and Me,” a memoir written in the form of a letter to his teenage son, analyzed the history of racism and white supremacy in America. Coates appeared in the NewsHour series Brief but Spectacular in July, where he talked about his writing and addressing violent policing in the U.S.
“When you write about the impact of white supremacy in this country, there’s a great deal of energy spent on making sure that people who are different than you understand what you’re saying. And I actually think that that corrupts language,” he said. “Because you end up softening things, you actually end up insulting people’s intelligence.”
He also spoke to NewsHour co-anchor Gwen Ifill in October about mass incarceration and inequality, and why he makes the case for reparations for Black Americans.
Adam Johnson, “Fortune Smiles”
Johnson won a National Book Award for “Fortune Smiles,” a short story collection whose subject material draws on surrealism, futurism, technology and politics. Living in San Francisco, Johnson did not have to go far for inspiration. “I just had to look around me,” he said.
As a writer, Johnson is preoccupied with the effects of technology on human interaction, he said. “The thing I’m scared of the most is phones in stories,” he said. “What does it do to tension, inertia, momentum, information management if one character at any moment can share anything, at a distance, privately with another character?”