Three Alumni Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Awards

Rebecca Pinwei Tseng
September 22, 2021

The National Book Foundation announced the longlist for the 2021 National Book Awards, nominating School of the Arts alumni Baba Badji ‘15 and Jakob Guanzon ‘17 and Journalism School alumna Paula Yoo (‘92 JRN) for the historic literary prize.

Ghost Letters by alumnus Baba Badji, published by Parlor Press in 2021, made the longlist for Poetry. The debut collection of epistolary poems, composed in French, Wolof, Arabic, and English, captures the complexities of the African diaspora and reflects Badji's life and childhood in America. Contending with belonging, history, immigration, race, and religion, each poem is a letter to a ghost mother, who appears “as land, as bloodline, as birth, as the lightning strike that indelibly scars the earth's surface.”

Of the collection, Associate Professor Shane McCrae writes: “In Ghost Letters, one emigrates to America again, and again, and again, though one also never leaves Senegal, the country of one's birth; one grows up in America, and attends university in America, though one also never leaves Senegal, the country of one's birth; one wrestles with one's American blackness in ways not possible in Senegal, though one never leaves Senegal, the country of one's birth; and one sees more deeply into Americanness than any native-born American could. Ghost Letters is a 21st century Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, though it is a notebook of arrival and being in America. It is a major achievement.”

Badji is a Senegalese-American poet, translator, researcher, and PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He came to America when he was eleven years old. He currently lives in St. Louis, but his permanent homes are Senegal, where his extended family remains, and New York City. His research and teaching interests center on the links between the various forms of postcolonial studies, with a particular focus on translation, literature, and Négritude in Anglophone and Francophone cultures. His work has appeared in Europe NowFree Verse EditionsTransverse JournalSnapdragon JournalFoothill Journal, and elsewhere.

Abundance by alumnus Jakob Guanzon, published by Graywolf Press in 2021, made the National Book Award longlist for Fiction. Guanzon’s debut novel follows the lives of Henry and his son, Junior, who are forced to live out of a pickup truck after being evicted from their trailer on New Year's Eve. Guanzon, drawing attention to the few resources Henry has and the difficulty of day-to-day survival, structures the novel's chapter headings to begin with the cash in Henry’s pocket​​—the first chapter is titled $89.34.

Mark Doten writes in praise of Abundance, "We live in an era where the richest see their net worth leap by billions as mass unemployment, hunger, and homelessness devastate America. Jakob Guanzon’s remarkable debut offers a deep understanding of a life of precarity, where survival is counted in dollars, dimes, pennies.” Maxim Loskutoff also notes the novel’s searing look at the inequity embedded within the socioeconomic structures of the United States: “A furious and evocative condemnation of the foundation of our society—money—and the cycles of poverty in which so many are trapped. This heart-rending story of an unhoused father’s struggle to provide for his son one dollar, even one penny at a time, in the margins of an American city, will forever change the way readers see our country."

Jakob Guanzon was born in New York and raised in Minnesota. He holds an MFA in Fiction from the School of the Arts and lives in New York City. Abundance is his first novel.

Paula Yoo (JRN ‘92) made the longlist for Young People's Literature for her non-fiction book, From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry: The Killing of Vincent Chin and the Trial that Galvanized the Asian American Movement (Norton Young Readers, 2021).

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry follows the murder of Chinese-American man Vincent Chin in 1982 by two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, and the trial and verdict that followed. Anti-Asian sentiment was rampant in 1982, due to increased layoffs in the automotive industry believed to be caused by competition from Japanese car companies. Ebens and Nitz, after pleading guilty to manslaughter, received only a $3,000 fine and three years' probation. Angered by the lenient sentence, activist and journalist Helen Zia, alongside several Asian American lawyers and community activists, formed American Citizens for Justice, a grassroots mobilization that rallied with Black activists, churches, and synagogues to protest the verdict. Asian American communities across the country further led demonstrations that resulted in the first federal civil rights trial involving a crime against an Asian American.

From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry examines how Chin's death and the injustice of the aftermath was a pivotal moment in civil rights history. The book received starred reviews from both Booklist and Kirkus Reviews, with Kirkus Reviews stating, "Based on in-depth research, [From a Whisper] superlatively conveys the context and significance of the accessible and compelling account of a tragedy that resonates through the decades." In praise of the book, Gene Luen Yang writes, "A vivid, heartbreaking account of one of the most important moments in Asian American history. I couldn’t put it down."

Paula Yoo is an award-winning children’s picture book author and novelist, a prolific TV writer/producer, and a freelance violinist. From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry is her debut YA nonfiction book. She lives in Los Angeles.

Established in 1950, the National Book Awards is an annual literary prize that honors the best books in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Translated Literature, and Young People’s Literature. The shortlist will be announced on October 5, 2021. The winners will be announced at the 72nd National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner, which will be held in-person at Cipriani Wall Street and virtually broadcast on November 17, 2021.