Although the winners of the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were announced in January at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston, the two authors were recognized at the ALA Annual Conference in Orlando at a ceremony Saturday evening. The awards are made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and are administered by ALA’s Booklist and the Reference and User Services Association.
Sally Mann, the nonfiction awardee for Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (Little, Brown, 2015), was unable to attend because of the tragic death of her son Emmett on June 5. However, Michael Sand, who edited some of her books at Little, Brown, accepted the medal on her behalf.
The winning author of the fiction medal, Viet Thanh Nguyen, was on hand to accept the prize for his debut novel The Sympathizer (Grove/Atlantic, 2015).
Billy Collins, poet laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003, presented a literary keynote address as part of the opening ceremony. The winner of the 2004 Mark Twain Poetry Award for humor in poetry, Collins laced his speech with amusing and touching poems, some of them from his forthcoming collection, The Rain in Portugal (Random House, 2016). He recited a poem titled “Books,” which celebrates libraries and bookstores and includes the lines:
“Poetry occupies a discreet part of the page …
Poetry is a displacement of silence / Prose is a continuation of noise”
In looking through his book to find another poem to read, Collins admitted he liked to “flip through books of poetry to look for a short poem, just as you might look in the work of an abstract impressionist artist for the painting of a chicken.” Of Irish-American heritage, he bemoaned the 800 years of oppression when the Irish had no symphonic music, architecture, or painting. “But they had poetry,” he added, “and because it was portable you could internalize it and it became yours.”
Sand praised Mann’s work, not only Hold Still, but her other titles he helped edit, including What Remains, Deep South, and Remembered Light. What struck him about Mann’s work was her “innate determination to get things right and be herself, no matter the expectations or social norms. She has an ear for language, a frightening intelligence, and a willingness to experience life deeply.”
Sand read a letter from Mann that expressed her strong appreciation and thanks for receiving the Carnegie Medal and her regrets for not being able to attend, explaining that she could not be here “without shedding tears.”
Nguyen praised the San José (Calif.) Public Library where he grew up: “I always thought of the library as my true home.” He added that it was a “place with markers (like the children’s and adult sections) but no boundaries.”
Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American whose family fled to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975, said that The Sympathizer was his answer to standard Hollywood narratives of the Vietnamese War. “On the library shelves there were few books about people like me,” he said. “The only way to do justice to injustice is to confront the issue so the reader will not be spared” any shocks or atrocities. Ultimately, he said, he wrote his book because of his “desire to be included—the result of being excluded” for so long.