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National Book Awards 2011 [Video]

November 17, 2011 |  8:52 am

The 2011 National Book Awards were held Wednesday night in Manhattan. The video above has the speeches from the presenters of the four awards and the award-winners' acceptance speeches. First up, poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read a poem at Barack Obama's inauguration, presenting the National Book Award for poetry. The winners were:

Poetry: Nikky Finney for "Head Off and Split" (Triquarterly)

Young People's Literature: Thanhha Lai for "Inside Out and Back Again" (HarperCollins)

Nonfiction: Stephen Greenblatt for "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Fiction: Jesmyn Ward for "Salvage the Bones" (Bloomsbury)

Since the winners are known there isn't much suspense, but these speeches are worth watching. Writers may be more socially awkward than the average person, and tend to be a few steps behind when it comes to fashion, but one thing they do right is words. Nikky Finney's speech was so good that host John Lithgow said it was the best acceptance speech he'd heard, for anything, ever, and he's won five Emmys, two Golden Globes, twice been nominated for an Academy Award, and then there were the SAG Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., on and on.

Lithgow's presence was explained not by his children's books but his memoir, "Drama," published in September by HarperCollins (due to a dearth of celebrity memoirs, he deadpanned). He also is the godfather of Nell Freudenberger, one of the New Yorker's 20 writers under 40, whom he brought along as his date for the evening.

As good as Finney's speech was, Jesmyn Ward's came pretty close. "When I committed myself to writing," she begins, "I did so for several reasons: I was in my early 20s and my younger brother had just died. And since living through my grief for my brother meant understanding that life was a feeble, unpredictable thing, I wanted to do something with my time here that would have meaning."

Both Ward and Finney are African American women from the South, born, respectively, in Mississippi and South Carolina. Ward, who has studied at Stanford and Michigan, now teaches at the University of South Alabama. Finney makes her home in Lexington, Ky., where she teaches at the University of Kentucky and has been awarded a Kentucky Foundation for Women Artists Fellowship Award. The young people's literature winner, "Inside Out and Back Again," is about a Vietnamese immigrant girl starting over in Alabama, as author Thanhha Lai did. 

Is there something about this moment that makes writing of the South so compelling? It's interesting that both Finney and Ward have chosen to remain in the South, rather than head to New York or Los Angeles. Add in John Jeremiah Sullivan, the Paris Review's first Southern editor -- he lives in North Carolina -- and it seems that Southern writers are rising to a new level of prominence.

That's not to ignore Stephen Greenblatt, who teaches at a remote, oft-forgotten university known as Harvard. Our review of his National Book Award-winning "The Swerve," which is about a 2,000-year-old poem that was lost and found and changed peoples' thinking, is coming up Sunday.

RELATED:

Jesmyn Ward wins the National Book Award for fiction

The 2011 National Book Award finalists annouced

Patti Smith wins 2010 National Book Award

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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