James McBride, the 2013 National Book Award winner for fiction, describes his career as having “began in the homes of women in Teaneck, N.J.” That’s what he told me after taking home the prestigious literary prize from the National Book Foundation for his historical novel, The Good Lord Bird, last night. The memoirist and novelist explained that his 1995 best-selling book, The Color of Water—an ode to his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, a Jewish immigrant from an Eastern European shtetl who became a twice-widowed single mother of 12 interracial children in 1960s New York City—was first embraced by coffee klatches in suburban New Jersey. He said he “would never be here” without them.
In his acceptance speech, McBride evoked a sense of history, speaking of his gratitude to those who came before him, like E.L. Doctorow and Maya Angelou, who both received awards as well last night. McBride, whose novel beat out 407 works of fiction, expressed his hope to “further widen the trail they have set for us.” McBride added modestly that all his fellow nominees—Rachel Kushner, Jhumpa Lahiri, Thomas Pynchon, and George Saunders—are “fine writers” who he would have been happy to see win, though adding that “it sure is nice to be here” on stage as winner.
The non-fiction award was won by George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer beat out historian Wendy Lower, whose book, Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, managed something that seems all but unthinkable in 2013: to uncover new angles from which to study the Holocaust. Her work documents the participation of more than 500,000 German women in Nazi atrocities, and is based on archives and documents that have been opened to the public in recent years. (Lower spoke with Vox Tablet about the book earlier this month.)
The highlight of the evening, though, was the Dvar Torah-style commentary delivered by Maya Angelou as part of her acceptance speech (she won an award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, presented to her by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison). Angelou sang a 19th century African American spiritual hymn and discussed the meaning of the portion of Genesis 9:12-17 in which God places a rainbow in the sky after the flood. The rain, Angelou explained, “had persisted so unrelentingly that people thought it would never cease. In an attempt to put the people at ease, God put a rainbow in the sky.” The clouds persist, she said, so people think they can’t see a change in the sky. And yet the rainbow comes out, she told the audience, adding, “You are a rainbow in my cloud.”