Reconsidering the 2017 NBA Shortlist
In which I look at the last shortlist I read before joining bookstagram in 2018!
Hi, Y’all! Glad You’re Here—
Since joining Bookstagram, I’ve often been associated with the National Book Award for Fiction prize. I first became a part of the community in 2018, which was the same year that Lauren Groff was longlisted (and then shortlisted) for her short story collection,Florida. When the 2018 longlist dropped, I posted my reaction on my Instagram stories, which included me whisper-shouting my excitement in my cubicle at work, crying tears of joy, pacing around and spreading the good news, and over the course of just a few hours, I became known as the boy who cried over the NBA. While I have enjoyed this award for a good bit now, it wasn’t until I joined Bookstagram that I began reading all ten books longlisted. I read most of them, yes, but if I didn’t finish the longlist beforehand, I didn’t sweat about it and still made sure to read the winner. 2018 was the first year I had read all ten books before the winner was announced and I’ve done my best to keep up with this tradition since then.
Back in 2017—the year before I joined Bookstagram—I actually only ended up reading the shortlist. I’ve since read two of the books from the longlist and am making my way through the others for an upcoming newsletter, but I thought it would be fun to evaluate the short list of that year today, and consider how I viewed those books when I first read them, in comparison to now, with the time that’s passed and with how much my reading has changed since then.
Back in 2017, the first book I picked up wasThe Leavers by Lisa Ko, because my friend Annie B. Jones had an advanced reader copy and she wanted to get another person’s opinion on it. I still remember the excitement I had over reading a book before it had come out, such a rarity back then. The novel is about the disappearance of an undocumented mother—it’s a beautiful and heartbreaking work, and one that many praised for its topicality, at the time of its release.
I’ve already discussed the reasons why calling a book topical can sometimes be a bit clumsy—many of the issues we read about in books have been going on for a long time, it’s just that it’s only now been brought to mainstream attention—but I do think that this book resonated with many people who were just beginning to feel the ripple effects of the many changes happening at the beginning of the Trump administration. But Ko’s inspiration actually came from a 2009 New Yorker article, and these issues were present way before that.
When I first read this book, I still had a long way to go as a reader, and there was a lot I didn’t quite understand or appreciate. I remember finding it compelling, but missing a lot of the nuances relating to the complicated feelings the character of Deming had regarding his mother’s absence. I have since re-read the book and I find it to be a structurally interesting and moving book, well written and thought provoking. Like with any book about an absent mother, it resonates on a personal level. And interestingly enough, it’s not the only book on the longlist to have a son with a complicated relationship to his mother. (We’ll get into that later) Upon re-evaluation, I can absolutely see why it made the shortlist this year. I thought that, especially with the shift in perspective in section two, this book made really smart choices in how it decided to reveal information to the reader. The characters are so beautifully and realistically flawed. The more I think about this book, the more I love it.
The next book I read was one of my favorites of the year, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This was another one I read before the longlist was announced, and it’s all because of Kate Storhoff , who worked at The Bookshelf at the time. If you don’t follow her on instagram, I highly recommend her account (@katestorhoff )—she’s a smart, thoughtful reader and reads such a wide variety, and she always knew which books I would love. When she gave this one such high praise, I knew I had to pick it up.
Pachinko is a sweeping, 512 page historical novel, spanning seven decades and four generations of this Korean family in Japan. Lee writes in a detached third-person, which initially threw me—I had gotten far too comfortable with the super popular snarky first person narratives—but what initially felt like something that created distance actually became the thing that provided me more clarity as I went on. It only makes sense to choose third person for a novel that spans so many decades and features so many characters, as it helps keep a tonal and narrative consistency as it shifts from person to person, and also allows Lee to slip in much needed historical context without it feeling like the characters are unrealistically teaching us throughout the narrative. Reading it now, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but as I said earlier, I was a much different reader in 2017. I remember marveling that a book with third person could make me so emotional and connect so well to its characters.
What makes Pachinko so special, I think, is how it’s able to so powerfully express that feeling of a need for home, of safety and comfort, which is something that isn’t afforded to everyone. I think this was definitely one of the themes throughout the books featured on the 2017 shortlist. Out of the four books on the short list, this is the one I feel had the best chance of winning after Sing, Unburied, Sing. It’s compelling, beautifully written and captivating, and upon a re-read for the newsletter, it is just as good on a re-read, which I always think is a sign of greatness.
The book I initially had the least interest in on the shortlist was Dark At The Crossing by Elliot Ackerman. Before last year, I had this idea in my head that I hated war novels, any type of story dealing with war. I’ve since learned that I actually really appreciate stories that deal with the realities of war, that don't try to glamorize it or sensationalize it even, but that offers a glimpse into this experience and the impact it has on everyone involved. Many of my favorite books from the 1950’s and early 60’s ended up being books about war, mostly written by people writing from their own experiences. Ackerman is a former Marine Corps Special Operations Team Leader, and I do feel like that probably has something to do with his ability to approach the material in this way. Dark At The Crossing ended up being one of my favorite reads of 2017. I remember being so invested in these characters—the book often feels like a love story, one that is complicated by the impact of war. I didn’t know much about the war in Syria before reading this book, but I felt like Ackerman did a good job of relaying the information without it clouding the narrative. This is another book that deals with the idea of displacement, of belonging and home, the lack thereof.
On the NBA website, I found the judges citation for this book, which reads:
“Elliot Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing begins with a question the Turkish guards at the Syrian border pose to Haris, the young Arab American veteran determined to cross: why, after escaping the war in Iraq for America, would he want to then leave to fight—and probably die—in Syria? The novel answers this question by taking us inside a singular and urgent story that connects the war in Iraq, anti-Muslim hatred in America, and the Syrian Civil War.”
This was a book that I loved, but that I had a hard time articulating what made it worthy of being on the shortlist—I think the citation does a better job than I could have. But I do think the book is very accessible and compelling, for anyone who might initially be thrown off or intimidated by the subject matter.
The next book on the shortlist was the short story collection Her Body and Other Partiesby Carmen Maria Machado. I really enjoyed this collection—also, if you haven’t read her memoir, In The Dream House, I highly recommend it—and I think Machado writes with such an electric energy, crafting such surprising and smart stories that are always unexpected and connect the weirdness with humanity. I feel like out of all of the books on the shortlist, this is the one where the social commentary feels the least obvious, maybe? It’s still there, but it’s abstracted by the various frameworks Machado uses to hold her stories. I think the reason her weirdness works so well is because of her clarity on a sentence level. There’s a leanness to the language that helps keep the stories tight and clear, even when she leans hard into the more fantastical elements. I think it’s always easier for us to look at the harsher realities of humanity through a more fantastical lens, and Machado addresses a lot of the experiences relating to women and to queerness with a slant. This is such a strong story collection, and one that I think was more than deserving of being shortlisted for the NBA.
The last book on the shortlist is the winner, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing—this win actually made Ward the first woman to be a two-time NBA Fiction winner. While I still think her sophomore novel, Salvage The Bones, is a better novel on a technical level, I connected with Sing, Unburied, Sing in more personal ways. The book opens with Jojo, a thirteen year old boy living with his grandparents, and his attempts to come into his own, to “be a man”. His mostly absent mother, Leonie, who struggles with addiction and the death of her brother, fills many of the alternating chapters. The novel picks up speed when the white father of Leonie’s kids is released from Prison and she takes them, along with a friend, to go pick him up. I think Ward is a brilliant writer, and I love how she writes her characters. They’re always so complex and believable and complicated. They always feel like people who have existed long before we met them, and who will continue to exist once the book is done. I think that’s a powerful thing.
The book deals with police violence and with systemic racism, with grief and loss. Since the book’s release, it’s already become one of those books that is dissected and discussed from every angle, and I feel like we’ll end up seeing it introduced in a lot of classroom discussion over the years. A while back, I wrote about how coming-of-age stories rarely win the NBA, but how they tend to have a lasting impact. I think it’s partly because out of all of the experiences people write about, we all recognize the experiences of coming of age. The fact that Jesmyn Ward won the NBA with two coming-of-age stories speaks to how strong her work is.
When I first read Sing, Unburied, Sing, I remember being so intrigued by the character of Leonie. The dynamic between her and Jojo reminded me a lot of me and my Momma. While Leonie and my Momma had wildly different experiences, they aren’t that different from each other. Reading about Leonie’s personal struggles and how they informed her behavior helped me look at my Momma and her absence from my own life in a different way. I had always seen my Momma as selfish and couldn’t grasp why she did the things she did, but as I read Leonie’s chapters and realized how much grief and trauma impacted her on a daily basis, I began to question what all I didn’t know about my Momma. Being able to see a dynamic that was similar to mine, to my family’s, helped me reframe my life in a way that helped me to love my family more. And because the book reminded me so much of my own life, it also offered a lot of clarity in realizing how, even when your life is very similar to someone else’s, aspects of your identity can still give you certain privileges that someone else may not have. While I think fiction from marginalized voices is too often used as a form of education while discounting its artistic merits, I think if you’re able able to appreciate it as an art form that also helps you situate yourself in the greater world, that’s a beautiful thing.
All of the books on this shortlist, from The Leavers to Sing, Unburied, Sing, are really strong and interesting stories, and I can see why they were chosen for this year. What I find most interesting about the shortlist as a whole is the way each book feels like its challenging the very idea of the Great American Novel, expanding it and creating a new awareness of what it means to be a person in this country. Even the books that aren’t set in America, like Pachinko and Dark At The Crossing, still draw parallels to the experience of living in the U.S. or of the global impact the U.S. has had. Her Body and Other Parties borrows from police procedurals and children’s stories to explore the experiences of being queer and of being a woman, and Sing, Unburied, Sing takes the idea of a road novel and recontexualizes it in a really smart and powerful way. I feel like, for this being the first year following Trump’s election, this list of books almost feels like a response. And while I know all of the books were likely already in the process at the time, it seems like their significance would feel more important than ever.
I know that I always say I’m processing my thoughts on everything I’ve written each week, but it’s because I can’t ever stop thinking about and reconsidering the ideas I discuss. if this newsletter and the evaluation of the books and this award have taught me anything, it’s that new informations and insights can change everything about the way I feel on a certain subject. I plan on researching these books more before I write about the books featured on the longlist, so I can consider the longlist as a whole in the next week or so, so stay tuned for that. But if you haven’t read the books on this shortlist yet, I highly recommend them all. I think they’re just stellar.
If you have any thoughts or anything you wanna chime in on, feel free to leave a comment below! As always, thanks for reading!
Until next time,
I'm shocked that I haven't read any of these yet and really need to fix that! The only one that wasn't already on my radar is Dark at the Crossing but the rest are books I've been interested in for a bit and need to read. As always, great breakdown and analysis of them!