Justin Torres’s Queer Novel Blackouts Won a National Book Award

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Justin Torres received the top prize for fiction at this year’s National Book Awards on Wednesday night, shortly before joining a public statement condemning the continued bombing of Gaza by Israel.

Torres’ latest novel Blackouts is “a moving work of queer ancestry and possibility,” as Them’s Sarah Neilson wrote in October. The novel focuses on the friendship between a younger man and a dying queer elder who helps him decipher lost knowledge in the real-life nonfiction book Sex Variants. Torres was previously named one of the National Book Foundation's “Five Under 35” young fiction writers in 2012, for his debut novel We the Animals.

“I need to thank my man, David Russell, for putting up with my excessive lamentations about this book and my own abilities [...] he’s the smartest person I’ve ever spoken with, and it has paid dividends,” Torres joked to cheers from the audience.

But Torres’ acceptance speech was brief. He yielded much of his time to a collectively prepared statement, delivered by Aaliyah Bilal — who was also nominated for her novel Temple Folk — on behalf of herself, Torres, and other finalists. Torres preceded his remarks by inviting the participating authors onto the stage (since “we’ve been sitting for a long time,” he said with a smile).

“On behalf of the finalists, we oppose the ongoing bombardment of Gaza and call for a humanitarian ceasefire to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinian civilians, particularly children,” Bilal read. “We oppose anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian sentiment and Islamophobia equally, accepting the human dignity of all parties, knowing that further bloodshed does nothing to secure lasting peace in the region.”

The publishing world, as is the case in many industries, has seen bitter divisions over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, in which Israeli airstrikes have killed over 11,000 people, most of whom are women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The Hamas-led October 7 attack killed an estimated 1,200 Israelis, according to government estimates. Book events have since been canceled and some boycotted over their organizers’ and participants’ comments about the violence. The 92nd Street Y canceled a planned event with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen in October over pro-Palestinian statements Nguyen made on Instagram; that same week, the Frankfurt Book Fair canceled a talk by Palestinian author Adania Shibli, pointing to the violence as an explanation. Shibli said organizers falsely claimed she supported the cancellation of her own event.

The author’s follow-up to *We the Animals* takes the reader on a surreal dive into the archive.

This year’s National Book Awards was already a public mess but for totally different reasons. Drew Barrymore was slated to host the ceremony, but the National Book Foundation dropped her in September after Barrymore voiced her intent to return to TV in violation of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. On the other hand, that also meant the ceremony had a new host: Reading Rainbow icon LeVar Burton, who issued a passionate argument against book banning and also threw some digs at those who would remove LGBTQ+ books from schools and libraries.

“Are there any Moms for Liberty in the house? No? Good," Burton joked, according to NPR. “Then hands will not need to be thrown tonight.” But Burton also got serious, addressing the audience at the close of the evening directly after Bilal read the authors’ collective statement.

“I am so grateful to have lived long enough to see this snapshot of literature in America today,” Burton said in closing, turning to applaud the assembled finalists.

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