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Bookshelves at the Newfield Elementary School on August 31, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut.  | John Moore/Getty Images

The list includes Rumaan Alam and Jenn Shapland.

On Tuesday, the National Book Foundation announced the 2020 finalists for the National Book Awards. This year’s finalists for the five awards include Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind in the fiction category and Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers in the nonfiction category.

Notably, some of the year’s buzziest literary fiction from the Big Five trade publishing houses — including books like The Vanishing Half and Luster — didn’t make it to the final round. Instead, the list of 25 finalists (which is decided by a rotating panel of 25 judges, this year including Roxane Gay) draws heavily from small press books. And although university presses often show up in the nonfiction category, Deesha Philyaw’s novel The Secret Lives of Church Ladies comes from West Virginia University Press, meaning we get the unusual sight of a small university press book in the fiction finals.

The 2020 NBA finalists will be the last books shepherded through the publishing industry’s awards season by outgoing National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas. Lucas, who joined the National Book Foundation in 2016 as the first person of color at its head, has overseen a massive jump in both the foundation’s national profile and the number of books by authors of color that it honors. In interviews, she’s copped to intentionally working to make the awards a big deal — she’s said that she wants to make them like the Oscars — but she has always denied that she’s actively worked to diversify the awards’ shortlist. “It’s not a concerted effort,” she told Vanity Fair in 2017. “We’re not trying to do that and we’re not trying not to do that either, we’re just picking great judges.”

Lucas is leaving the National Book Foundation to work as senior vice president and publisher of the two literary imprints Pantheon and Schocken Books. “I always joke that I’m like a house renovator,” she told the New York Times after the news of her move broke. “You go into a classic old beautiful house that’s totally fine, and you figure out how to bring it into the future and make sure it’s steady and strong and modern. The idea is loving tradition but also loving the future.”

The winners of this year’s National Book Awards will be announced on Wednesday, November 18, in an online ceremony. Here is the full list of finalists.

Finalists for Fiction

Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind

Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible

Deesha Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown

Finalists for Nonfiction

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, The Undocumented Americans

Les Payne and Tamara Payne, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X

Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory

Jenn Shapland, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers

Jerald Walker, How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

Finalists for Poetry

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, A Treatise on Stars

Tommye Blount, Fantasia for the Man in Blue

Don Mee Choi, DMZ Colony

Anthony Cody, Borderland Apocrypha

Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem

Finalists for Translated Literature

Anja Kampmann, High as the Waters Rise. Translated from the German by Anne Posten

Jonas Hassen Khemiri, The Family Clause. Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

Yu Miri, Tokyo Ueno Station. Translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles

Pilar Quintana, The Bitch. Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

Adania Shibli, Minor Detail. Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

Finalists for Young People’s Literature

Kacen Callender, King and the Dragonflies

Traci Chee, We Are Not Free

Candice Iloh, Every Body Looking

Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, When Stars Are Scattered

Gavriel Savit, The Way Back


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Author: Constance Grady

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