Women's History Month, 2017
For Women’s History Month, we asked two young writers (who also happen to be our fantastic interns) to look through our lists of authors honored by the National Book Awards and 5 Under 35 and highlight women writers who speak to them. This list includes contemporary voices like Jesmyn Ward and Caren Stelson, as well as the long appreciated writers Audre Lorde, Rachel Carson, and plenty of gems in between. Here’s to all the women writers who have been honored before and the women writers of the future!
The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice
National Book Award Longlist, Nonfiction, 2016
Patricia Bell-Scott recounts the story of a friendship between two changemakers, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and writer-activist Pauli Murray, who went on to co-found the National Organization of Women and was a protector of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Firebrand and the First Lady is an intimate account of how these two remarkable women first connected, and how their friendship and common goals of justice and equality changed America for the better. Bell-Scott is a scholar and Professor of Women’s Studies and Black Feminism at the University of Georgia.
The Sea Around Us
National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction, 1952
Rachel Carson won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for
The Sea Around Us in 1952. A moving examination of the ubiquity
of the natural world, the book spent 86 weeks on The New York Times
bestseller list. She was the first woman to win a National Book Award. At her acceptance speech she proclaimed, “If there is poetry
in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there,
but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
She was a National Book Award Finalist twice: in 1956 for The Edge of the Sea and in 1963 for Silent Spring, which led to a ban on DDT and influenced the creation of the EPA. Carson was one of the first to foresee the environmental degradation that has only increased since her death; her work remains vital to activists today.
Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett
National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction, 2004
In a highly personal glimpse into the reality of America’s prison-industrial complex, Jennifer Gonnerman tells the story of Elaine Bartlett, who had just been released from sixteen years in prison for a first offense drug charge. She returns to her fractured family in a Lower East Side housing project with no job or money, and her husband and son still in prison. Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett takes a hard look at the destruction that mass incarceration of black men and women leaves in its wake; it is an account of hardship, struggle, resistance, and ultimately, hope in the face of adversity. Gonnerman is a staff writer at The New Yorker and has won awards for her writings on the criminal justice system.
Maxine Hong Kingston
National Book Award Winner, General Nonfiction, 1981
Perhaps best known for The Woman Warrior, it was Maxine Hong Kingston’s masterpiece China Men that won her the National Book Award for General Nonfiction in 1981. The book, described by A. Robert Lee as “narrative genealogy,” focuses on the men of Kingston’s family, including her grandfather, who worked on the sugar plantations of Hawaii, and her brother, who served in Vietnam but was overlooked for honors. Kingston’s writing often focuses on intersecting identities and intersectional strengths, as well as the painful and beautiful histories of Asian immigration to the Americas. Kingston was the 2008 recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 2014 President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
National Book Award Winner, Children’s Books, 1980
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet was the third book in her famous Time Quintet and won the National Book Award for Children’s Books in 1980. Like many of her other books, A Swiftly Tilting Planet blends intense spirituality with an equally intense exploration of science; proof that faith and facts (which are so often pitted against each other) can coexist, and coexist beautifully. L’Engle is probably best known for A Wrinkle in Time, the title that preceded A Swiftly Tilting Planet in the Time Quintet series. A Wrinkle in Time was rejected more than 60 times before finally being published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1963. The books went on to change the face of science fiction and children’s literature, bridging spirituality, quantum science, and magic realism in a new and daring way.
From a Land Where Other People Live
National Book Award Finalist, Poetry, 1974
Audre Lorde is one of the defining feminists of our generation. She was a Finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry in 1974 for her collection From a Land Where Other People Live, a volume that deals with what it means to be a Black woman, mother, friend, and lover. She is also famous for her poems Coal, as well as essays and theory on Black Lesbian identity. Among her most famous quotes: “For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Faces in the Crowd
National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Honoree, 2014
Valeria Luiselli was a 2014 5 Under 35 Honoree for her debut novel Faces in the Crowd, a haunting book about disappearing and becoming. Faces in the Crowd follows a young mother in Mexico City, an aging author in Philadelphia who finds himself on the cusp of vanishing, and a young translator adrift in Harlem. Luiselli is also a prolific writer and activist, volunteering her time as a translator for undocumented children in America facing deportation. Her new book, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, explores the trials of young undocumented children through an extended questionnaire. She is a judge for the 2017 National Book Awards for Nonfiction.
Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom
National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction, 1988
Brenda Maddox chronicles the life of Nora Joyce, née Barnacle, the woman who would go on to marry James Joyce and inspire his most famous character, Molly Bloom. Under Maddox’s pen, Nora leaves behind her status as a woman overlooked by history and takes on a life of her own. Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom is an honest account of Nora’s life and her relationship with Joyce, an account that sees past the façade of the character Molly Bloom to look straight at the woman herself. Maddox is a recipient of the Silver PEN Award and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, among others.
Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson
Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas
National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction, 1994
Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson scrutinize the facts of the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill case in Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. Using unreleased documents and interviews with witnesses who were forbidden to testify in favor of Hill, Mayer and Abramson challenge the character of now-Justice Thomas and the Judiciary Committee who worked to confirm him. Strange Justice is an account of corruption in government, misled public opinion, and the consequences of thwarted justice. Mayer is an investigative journalist and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Abramson is a journalist and the former executive editor of The New York Times, the first woman to hold that position.
Diane Wood Middlebrook
Anne Sexton: A Biography
National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction, 1991
Diane Wood Middlebrook paints a multi-faceted, truthful portrait of
the unforgettable poet Anne Sexton in Anne Sexton: A Biography.
Controversial in its discussion of topics like incest and infidelity,
Anne Sexton reveals the many faces and forms of the woman herself: a
complicated mother who suffered from mental illness, a housewife, and
a poet whose works are still widely regarded today. Diane Wood Middlebrook
was a biographer, poet, and Professor of Feminist Studies at Stanford
The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol. VI
National Book Award Finalist, Biography and Autobiography, 1977
Anaïs Nin is one of the most influential writers of her time, particularly
as a diarist.
Embedded in the literary world, her The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Vol VI, (there are 16 volumes)
was a 1977 National Book Award Finalist. It serves both as an illumination into a brilliant
mind and an exploration
of a multi-continental literary community. Her journals spanned over sixty years,
beginning when she was 11 and continuing until shortly before her death at age 73.
In addition, Nin is one of the pioneers of female authored and oriented erotica;
Little Birds and the classic Delta of Venus completely transformed
the male-dominated conversation on female love and sexuality.
Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie
National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction, 2011
Guggenheim Fellow Lauren Redniss delves into both the personal
and public life of Marie Curie, chronicling her complex relationship
with Pierre Curie, their groundbreaking discovery of two new scientific
elements, and the tragic car accident that killed Pierre.
Redniss follows Marie’s story through her two Nobel Prize wins,
and even her scandalous affair with a married scientist.
Radioactive is the first graphic biography to be a National Book Award
Finalist for Nonfiction. The judges noted that “Redniss’
achievement is a celebration of the essential power of books to
inform, charm, and transport. In marrying the graphic and visual
arts with biography and cultural history, she has expanded the realm
Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972
National Book Award Winner, Poetry, 1974
Adrienne Rich was nominated for the National Book Award for Poetry a total of five times, winning in 1974 for Diving Into The Wreck: Poems 1971-1972. At the ceremony she delivered a collaborative address with Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, who were both National Book Award Finalists that year in the same category, stating that “We symbolically join together here in refusing the terms of patriarchal competition and declaring that we will share this prize among us, to be used as best we can for women.” Rich was a lifelong activist, notably turning down the National Medal of the Arts in 1997 in order to protest the potential defunding of the NEA.
National Book Award Winner, Nonfiction, 2010
Patti Smith’s memoir lays bare her formative years in New York City, chronicling her growth from uncertain young woman to legendary performer and artist. Smith paints a captivating portrait of her life in 60’s and 70’s New York: her encounters with musical and literary icons, as well as her pursuit of poetry, art, and music. The book also illustrates her crucial friendship and romance with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, a relationship that would shape the incredible woman and the artist she was destined to become. At its core, Just Kids is a vivid and poetic reflection on life, love, art, and growth.
National Book Award Finalist, Arts and Letters, 1967
Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, which contains many of her most famous essays (including “On Style” and “Against Interpretation”) was a Finalist for the National Book Award for Arts and Letters in 1967.
She would go on to win the National Book Award
in 2000 for In America. Sontag was a prolific writer of fiction,
non-fiction, and plays, as well as a director of films. She was a
lifelong activist, head of PEN America, and often brought her
activism to the frontlines; she once staged Waiting for Godot
in Sarajevo during The Siege of Sarajevo, prompting residents to
name a street after her in 2004. She was one of the foremost chroniclers of the AIDS epidemic, and wrote extensively on human rights and leftist ideology.
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story
National Book Award Longlist, Young People's Literature, 2016
Using archival photos and extensive interviews,
Caren Stelson tells the true story of Sachiko Yasui’s survival
of the Nagasaki atomic bomb on August 9, 1945, who was six-years
old when the bomb dropped. Stelson chronicles Sachiko’s long
journey from sorrow and pain to find peace and healing.
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story brings
necessary humanity and jarring reality to long term suffering
from radiation. Sachicko was an often overlooked casualty of World War II.
Alice James: A Biography
National Book Award Finalist, Autobiography/Biography (Paperback), 1983
Jean Strouse unveils the life of Alice James, the overshadowed sister of Henry and William James. Eclipsed by the success of her brothers and struggling with mental illness, Alice James was reduced to a mere footnote in history. In Aice James: A Biography, however, she is revealed to be a witty writer and social commentator in her own right. Weaving together Alice’s writings and insights, Strouse creates a complex portrait of the James family. Strouse has held MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships and is a biographer and critic.
Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette
National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction, 1999
Judith Thurman narrates the life of Colette,
the French stage performer and prolific author who went
on to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Beginning with Colette’s childhood, Judith Thurman weaves together
scenes from her subject’s colorful life, including Colette’s
public affair with Napoleon’s niece, her seduction of her
young stepson, her flirtations with Nazis under occupied Paris,
and, of course, her ceaseless writing of brilliant novels and plays.
Thurman is a staff writer for The New Yorker and won the
1983 National Book Award for Nonfiction for Isak Dinesen:
The Life of a Storyteller.
The Color Purple
National Book Award Winner, Fiction, 1983
Alice Walker won The National Book Award for Fiction in 1983 for her groundbreaking epistolary novel The Color Purple, which follows the lives of black women living in the south as they navigate domestic abuse, racism, and their own powerful sexualities. Walker is considered one of the foremost feminists of her time. She is also a prolific writer of poetry and essays; her work carves out a dialogue on black feminism, queerness, spirituality, and the ongoing legacy of slavery.
Salvage the Bones
National Book Award Winner, Fiction, 2011
Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones follows a working class black family in Mississippi whose lives have been severely disrupted by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. One of the most incisive and human voices of modern American culture, her other books include The Men We Reap, which explores the untimely death of many of the black men in her life, and The Fire This Time, an anthology she edited examining race in America. Her new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, her first since Salvage the Bones, is out September 2017.
Eliza Siegel is an intern at the National Book Foundation. She is a first-year at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she plans to study Creative Writing and Urban Studies. She is a reporter for her local newspaper, Woodstock Times, and hopes to one day pursue investigative journalism and poetry.
Annesha Sengupta hails from Richmond, VA, and is currently studying English and Creative Writing at NYU. She's previously been published in Tin House's The Open Bar, and serves as the editor of The Minetta Review. She tweets sparingly @anneshamitha.