Israel-Hamas War Sows Disruption at the National Book Awards

As the cultural fallout from the war in the Middle East continues, several finalists for the National Book Award plan to call for a cease-fire in Gaza during the ceremony on Wednesday. Two sponsors have decided not to attend the ceremony after learning authors were planning a political statement.

“I don’t want to look back on this time,” said Aaliyah Bilal, a finalist in the fiction category and one of the authors planing to speak out, “and say that I was silent while people were suffering.”

Rumors that authors would take a stand regarding the Israel-Gaza conflict during the ceremony were flying in the days leading up to the event, but it was unclear what the statement would include, leaving several sponsors concerned.

On Tuesday, the National Book Foundation sent a message to the sponsors and those who purchased tickets, alerting them to the likelihood that winners were planning to issue political statements from the podium. The letter said that one group decided to withdraw its sponsorship altogether.

“This is by no means unprecedented in the history of the National Book Awards, or indeed any awards ceremony, but given the extraordinarily painful moment we are in, we felt it best to reach out in case you have any questions or concerns,” wrote Ruth Dickey, executive director of the foundation.

Sponsors who have withdrawn after learning about the planned statements include Zibby Media. Zibby Owens, the founder of Zibby Media, wrote in an essay published on Substack that her company had withdrawn because she was afraid the remarks at the ceremony would take a stance against Israel, noting that “we simply can’t be a part of anything that promotes discrimination, in this case of Israel and the Jewish people.”

Bilal said that a number of finalists are planning to take the stage at the end of the ceremony as one person reads the statement. In framing the call for a cease-fire, she said, she and other writers want to demonstrate their sensitivity to losses on all sides.

“It was very important, as we were constructing it, that we were clear that we are sensitive to all of the antisemitism going on in this moment,” Bilal said of the statement. “We don’t want to contribute to inflaming that.”

It’s not the first time that politics have taken center stage at the National Book Awards. In 2016, the award ceremony took place shortly after Donald Trump was elected president. Many of the winners spoke about the challenges of living in politically and culturally polarizing times, and some, including the fiction winner Colson Whitehead, directly criticized Trump, referring to the “blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland.”

In recent years, authors have also given pointed speeches that address racism and the treatment of migrants in the United States, and the lack of diversity in the publishing industry.

The literary world tends to be politically liberal, and in the past has often been aligned on issues like immigration and racial equality. But the current conflict in Israel and Gaza has proved polarizing.

Last month, the 92NY, one of New York’s leading cultural institutions, faced a backlash over its decision to cancel an appearance by the novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen after he signed an open letter criticizing Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. In response to that cancellation, other writers, including the poet Paisley Rekdal and the critic Andrea Long Chu, pulled out of scheduled events at 92Y, and some staff members resigned. Other events featuring Palestinian artists and writers have been canceled, including at the Frankfurt Book Fair, leading some literary figures to warn against censoring Palestinian voices.

The National Book Awards, now in its 74th year, is one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country. This year’s ceremony, hosted by LeVar Burton, an actor and literacy advocate, is set to take place on Nov. 15 in New York. The event typically draws some 700 people, and awards are presented in five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, translated literature and young people’s literature.

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