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Susan Choi Wins National Book Award for ‘Trust Exercise’

Susan Choi won the National Book Award for fiction on Wednesday night for “Trust Exercise,” a novel set in the 1980s at a competitive performing arts school, where two students fall in love. The judges praised the novel for blending “the intellectual rigor of post-modern technique with a story that is timely, mesmerizing, and in the end, unsettling.”

Ms. Choi, a Pulitzer finalist in 2004 for her novel, “American Woman,” said in an acceptance speech that she was still surprised and grateful to be able to write for a living.

“Given what we’re all facing today and what many people are facing in an even more intense sense, I find it an astonishing privilege that this is what I get to do for a living,” she said.

“Trust Exercise,” Ms. Choi’s fifth novel, was embraced by critics and tackles the issue of sexual consent. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner called it a “psychologically acute” book that “enlists your heart as well as your mind. Zing will go certain taut strings in your chest.”

The award for nonfiction went to Sarah M. Broom for “The Yellow House,” her memoir about her New Orleans home and how her family scattered after Hurricane Katrina. In an emotional acceptance speech, Ms. Broom credited her mother, who raised 12 children, for instilling in her a love of language. “She was always wolfing down words, insatiable,” she said of her mother. “Which is how I learned the way words were a kind of sustenance.”

The awards, now in their 70th year, were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street in New York, with more than 700 guests attending a ceremony hosted by the actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton. The mood was buoyant, reflecting a relatively optimistic moment in the publishing industry, and the event was relatively free of controversy, in contrast with this year’s other notable literary awards. In October, the Nobel committee was criticized for its decision to award the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who has stoked outrage for his remarks defending Serbia’s actions in the Balkan wars. The literary world was also divided over the Booker Prize this year, after judges decided to break their own rules and award it to two authors, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo.

The National Book Award, established in 1950, is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the United States.

This year’s fiction finalists represented a stylistically and thematically diverse cross-section of contemporary literature, among them two debut authors: Kali Fajardo-Anstine, for her story collection “Sabrina & Corina,” which explores the lives of Latinas in Colorado, and Julia Phillips, for her novel “Disappearing Earth,” about two sisters who disappear in Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Also among the finalists were Marlon James, for his novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf,” and Laila Lalami, for her novel “The Other Americans.”

Memoirs were heavily represented in the nonfiction category this year, occupying three of the five finalist spots. In addition to the winner, “The Yellow House,” the finalists included the memoirs “Solitary,” the memoir of Albert Woodfox, who spent more than four decades in solitary confinement, and Carolyn Forché’s “What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance,” a poet’s recollection of her journeys to El Salvador. Those memoirs competed with Tressie McMillan Cottom’s essay collection, “Thick,” and David Treuer’s history “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present.”

The Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s novel “Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming” won the prize for translated literature, which he shared with his translator, Ottilie Mulzet. The category was added in 2018, opening the prize up to fiction and nonfiction works that are translated into English and published in the United States. This year’s finalists in translated literature included works originally written in Arabic, Finnish, French and Japanese, among them the Yoko Ogawa novel, “The Memory Police,” Khaled Khalifa’s “Death Is Hard Work” and Scholastique Mukasonga’s “The Barefoot Woman.”

Martin W. Sandler won the prize for young people’s literature for his book “1919 The Year That Changed America,” an account of a tumultuous year of labor strikes, Prohibition and women’s suffrage. The poetry prize went to Arthur Sze for his collection “Sight Lines.” “We need poetry now more than ever,” Mr. Sze said, calling it “an essential language.”

The novelist, essayist and critic Edmund White received the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, an award that has in previous years gone to literary legends like Toni Morrison, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. Mr. White, who is best known for his works “A Boy’s Own Story” and “The Beautiful Room Is Empty,” was an early pioneer of gay literature and helped to bring stories centered on same-sex couples into the mainstream.

Accepting the award, which was presented by the actor and director John Waters, Mr. White described how he struggled to get his novels published because they featured gay characters.

“My gay subject matter was offensive especially because I didn’t write about hustlers or criminals or drag queens, but rather about the middle-class guy sharing an office with you,” he said.

The Literarian Award, which recognizes service to the literary community, was awarded to Oren Teicher, the former chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit trade organization. The award was presented by the novelist Ann Patchett, who co-owns an independent bookstore in Nashville and noted that Mr. Teicher has a tradition of working at the counters of independent stores during the holidays. “This is a guy who knows how to sell a book,” she said.

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