Most of the finalists at this year’s National Book Awards used the platform to collectively advocate for a halt to Israel’s bombing of Gaza during the ceremony yesterday in New York.
According to The Guardian, behind the scenes, sponsors withdrew their support in anticipation of the event. Aaliyah Bilal, nominated in the fiction category for her novel “Temple Folk”, delivered the prepared statement as 20 out of the 25 finalists across fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s literature and translated literature joined her on stage.
She read, “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.”
“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.”
It was revealed on Wednesday that a sponsor had pulled out of the event following notification from the National Book Awards about the anticipated advocacy.
Zibby Owens, the CEO of Zibby Media, a sponsor, announced in an online statement, that she was “warned” the nominees “had gotten together as a block and decided to use their platform when winning speeches to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel agenda”. She also added that she believed the expression “free Palestine” had “come to mean the antagonisation of an entire religion, not just a place.”
Moreover, a second sponsor, the book subscription service Book of the Month, informed the New York Times that it would not be present at the ceremony but affirmed its ongoing support for the event.
Meanwhile, Historian Ned Blackhawk, recipient of the non-fiction prize for his work, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History”, expressed his profound gratitude for the spirit of generosity, collaborative support and intense solidarity demonstrated by all the finalists in the last two days.
The National Book Foundation released a statement addressing the matter this week, writing, “At this time of so much pain and suffering in our world, we believe writers’ words — and the insight and inspiration they bring — are more important than ever”, and also noting that political statements, if made, are by no means unprecedented in the history of the National Book Awards or other prize ceremonies.
Currently in its 74th year, the National Book Awards are recognised as one of the most esteemed literary honours in the United States. The award ceremony often serves as an opportunity for authors to address political issues that resonate with them. However, the responses to the Israel-Gaza war have created divisions within the literary community.
Over 11,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israelis in Gaza since the launch of its military offensive on 7 October. More children have been killed by the Israeli forces in three weeks of bombing than in all the conflicts over the past three years.
Israel stands accused of war crimes, including disproportionate attacks on civilians, collective punishment through blockade of humanitarian aid, and forced displacement of 1.5 million people – indicative of ethnic cleansing.