As has become a tradition on the eve of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the Times’ Book Prizes were awarded in 14 categories. Rather than a live ceremony on the campus of USC, where the Festival is held, the awards were done virtually for the second year.
Of greatest interest to readers of this blog is the winner of the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The award went to Deesha Philyaw for her debut story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia University Press), which was a National Book Award finalist and won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award earlier this month.
According to the Times, “Judges called the book ‘a remarkable debut collection of stories … fiercely Black and beautiful,’ which ‘linger in the mind long after we read them… It announces a powerful new voice on the literary landscape.’
“In her [acceptance] speech, Philyaw said she wrote the book ‘in hopes that Black women would see and hear themselves in my characters and their stories. I wrote it to be a balm, an affirmation, a celebration and a guidepost for getting free. In what has been a devastation year, we’re all looking for comfort, solace and healing, all of which we can find in the shelter of each other and in books.’”
The PEN/Faulkner judges explained their choice by saying, “In The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her masterful debut collection of stories, Deesha 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,” this year’s judges, Charles Finch, Bernice L. McFadden, and Alexi Zentner, wrote in a prepared statement. “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.”
Philyaw will appear at the online Festival of Books on April 23 discussing “Fiction: The Art of Short Story” with Carribean Fragoza, Ben Okri, and Shruti Swamy, with Dorany Pineda moderating. RSVP for free at events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks.
Below is the full list of the 2020 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes winners:
- Innovator’s Award: Book Industry Charitable Foundation
- Robert Kirsch Award: Leslie Marmon Silko
- The Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose: Andrew O’Hagan, “Mayflies”
- Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction: Deesha Philyaw, “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies”
- The Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction: Stephen Graham Jones, “The Only Good Indians”
- Biography: William Souder, “Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck”
- Current Interest: Isabel Wilkerson, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”
- Fiction: David Diop (translator Anna Moschovakis), “At Night All Blood is Black: A Novel”
- Graphic Novel/Comics: Bishakh Som, “Apsara Engine”
- History: Martha S. Jones, “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All”
- Mystery/Thriller: S.A. Cosby, “Blacktop Wasteland”
- Poetry: Victoria Chang, “Obit”
- Science & Technology: Sara Seager, “The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir”
- Young Adult Literature: Yusef Salaam and Ibi Zoboi, “Punching the Air”