James McBride won the inaugural $50,000 Gotham Book Prize for Deacon King Kong. Honorable mentions went to The City We Became by N.K. Jemison, Luster: A Novel by Raven Leilani and You Again by Debra Jo Immergut.
"We created the Gotham Book Prize at the beginning of the pandemic to honor New York City and support the novelists who best captured the spirit of our city," said founders Howard Wolfson and Bradley Tusk. "It was an honor to come together with such a talented group of jurors as we discussed and debated what it means to live in New York City, especially during such a transitional time. James McBride's novel so perfectly embodies the essence of our city right now, reminding us that in hardship there is hope and love for each other and our communities. We hope this prize continues to inspire novelists to write about what makes our city so special so it continues to be a place where people all over the world dream of living or visiting one day."
"It's a thrill to be honored in your own hometown. It's like having your very own parade," said McBride. "This award landed in my lap nearly the same day as my late mother's 100th birthday (April 1). She was the subject of my first book, The Color of Water. She loved New York. Despite the hardship of raising 12 kids here, she always felt that there was no better place in the world. She would be prouder of this than anything I've done, just because it bears the stamp of our ragged, proud metropolis. If it were wrapped with yesterday's fish, in yesterday's Daily News, she'd still love it.
"The fact is, there are many writers who are equally if not more deserving of the Gotham Book Prize than I," he continued. "I hope my moment in the sun is seen by my fellow writers as a kind of victory for all of us, since there are plenty of buildings and monuments in this town honoring developers, and so few elements honoring what we do. That's why the Gotham Book Prize is important, because there's a novel in every page of New York life. The great Pete Hamill, one of the greatest writers this town ever produced, understood that well. We lost Pete last year. But the level of decency, humanity, kindness, talent, and courage that his writing life typified, is something every writer should aspire to. So this year, I hope he is remembered."
Deesha Philyaw won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press). She will receive $15,000, with the other shortlisted writers each getting $5,000. All five will be honored May 10 at the annual PEN/Faulkner Award Celebration, a live virtual event.
"Choosing from among our five exceptional finalists was a supremely difficult task for our judges," said awards committee chair Louis Bayard. "But we are confident that Deesha Philyaw's short story collection is a book that people will be reading and talking about and learning from for many years to come."
The judges noted that in her collection, "Philyaw speaks in the funny, tender, undeceived voices of her title characters, who have more in common perhaps even than they know, from love to loss to God. In the group portrait that emerges, Philyaw gives us that rarest and most joyful fusion--a book that combines the curious agility of the best short fiction with the deep emotional coherence of a great novel."
Noting that she was "deeply honored and thankful" to receive the award, Philyaw commented: "I wrote The Secret Lives of Church Ladies in hopes that Black women would see and hear themselves in my characters who are all, in some way, striving to get free. Winning this award during a time of unconscionable loss, grief, and injustice, I'm reminded just how tenuous our freedom is. I'm reminded of and encouraged by Toni Morrison's words: 'The function of freedom is to free someone else.' On the other side of this time of reckoning and the fight ahead, may we all be free."