By HILLEL ITALIE
The National Book Awards ceremony, held just blocks from the Occupy Wall Street protests, was a gilded tribute to the 99 percent.
Stories of resilience in the face of poverty, displacement and disappearance were awarded Wednesday night as hundreds of writers, editors, publishers and other industry officials gathered under the 70-foot ceilings of the luxury venue Cipriani Wall Street.
“I thought I should point out, since nobody else has,” said poet Ann Lauterbach, who introduced honorary winner John Ashbery, “that we are occupying Wall Street.”
Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” a bleak but determined novel about a black community in Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina, won the fiction prize. Ward’s acceptance, the culmination of a night of emotional speeches and tributes to those who had been silenced, noted that the death of her younger brother had inspired her to become a writer. She realized that life was a “feeble, unpredictable thing,” but that books were a testament of strength before a punishing world.
“I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South,” said Ward, whose brother was hit by a drunk driver the year she graduated from college. Earlier in the week, she told The Associated Press that writing was a way to “ease the looming fact of death.”
Ward’s novel, picked over such better known works as Tea Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife,” was based partly on first-hand experience. She was with her family in Mississippi when Katrina hit. They fled the house, fearful of drowning in their own attic.
“We went out into the storm, sheltered in our cars for hours, were denied shelter by a white family who told us we could sit outside in their field but couldn’t shelter in their house, and then made our way to an intersection where another family, again white, took us in,” she said. “To say the least, it was traumatic.”