The National Book Award is one of the most prestigious awards in the country. The mission of the award, according to their website, is to “celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience, and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.” And this year, Washington and the Pacific Northwest have an impressive showing on it.
Three Greater Seattle-area writers and two area independent presses have titles on the longlist, which was announced in September, and Seattle-based poet Don Mee Choi made the shortlist, announced Oct. 6, for “DMZ Colony,” which was published by local press Wave Books. Tacoma-based poet Rick Barot’s “The Galleons” (Milkweed Editions) made the longlist in poetry, and Portland-based author Vanessa Veselka, who lived in Seattle for several years, was longlisted for her novel “The Great Offshore Grounds” (Knopf). In addition, Port Townsend publisher Copper Canyon Press published another longlister, Victoria Chang’s “Obit.”
Choi is the author and translator of several books, chapbooks and essays across genres. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Choi works as an advisory editor for Action Books’ Korean Literature Series, translates for International Women’s Network Against Militarism, and teaches adult basic education at Renton Technical College’s community partnership site in downtown Seattle. Her latest collection — a sister book to 2016’s “Hardly War” — explores the Korean Demilitarized Zone through poetry, translation, prose and visual art, with the intent of disruption and disobedience as political reckoning.
“I’m currently driven by my vision of completing a trilogy on geopolitical poetics, which includes my new book, ‘DMZ Colony,’ and the previous one, ‘Hardly War,’” Choi said in an October interview with The Seattle Times. “I plan obsessively about what I need to get done … this is just a way of coping with my doubts.
“To be honest, I’m shocked that my book ‘DMZ Colony’ was nominated,” Choi said, just days before being named a finalist. “I’ve never dreamed that a book of mine would be nominated for anything.”
Choi says she works from home and translates poetry on weekends. “I lack perspective and expectation in general, so I’m not sure what this nomination means, really.” Doubtlessly, this was a win for her publisher. “However, I’m thrilled for Wave Books. Everyone at the press has given incredible care to this book. And I’m forever grateful that my drawings in watercolor were printed in color!”
Catherine Bresner, the publicity and marketing coordinator for Seattle-based Wave Books, is just as excited.
“We are thrilled that, for the second year in a row, Wave has a title on the National Book Award longlist,” Bresner said. (Mary Ruefle’s “Dunce” was on the list last year.) “And we are most excited for Don Mee Choi, and for the well-deserved attention this will bring to her work.”
And, hopefully, for work in Washington state at large.
Rick Barot is the poetry editor of New England Review, director of the Rainier Writing Workshop, and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. He has been writing poetry for more than 20 years, and has been honored with awards and nominations many times, including the Grub Street Book Prize, Lambda Literary Award, and just this year, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. “The Galleons” is his fourth book of poetry, and explores themes of colonialism, immigration and inheritance in the context of the Philippines, where Barot was born, and in American and European colonizers.
“The starting point for ‘The Galleons’ was the death of my grandmother in 2016,” says Barot. “She died when she was 92 years old and she had lived a big part of her life in the Philippines and then immigrated here. She lived a kind of adventurous, wonderful life that [also] had this dramatic engagement with world history.”
The death of his grandmother got Barot thinking about how big forces like colonialism and capitalism “contextualize any human life.” He wanted “to make sense of the long life she lived in these larger sort of seemingly abstract contexts, like colonialism and capitalism.”
When asked about what it means to him to be nominated for the prestigious National Book Award, Barot explained that “it’s incredibly gratifying. To have the book be chosen on a list like this one with nine other books is a great honor. A writer’s life is pretty lonely and poetry has such a small audience, so to get this kind of attention is just really wonderful.”
In the fiction category, Vanessa Veselka’s sweeping “The Great Offshore Grounds” is the author’s sophomore novel, after 2012’s PEN / Robert W. Bingham prizewinning debut “Zazen.” The book takes place largely in Seattle, and follows two 30-something sisters, their adoptive brother, their mother and a host of side characters on an epic emotional and physical journey involving tall ships, emotional trauma, sex, motherhood and the realities of poverty in a country that continues to experience a growing, oppressive wealth gap — thanks in large part to the likes of figures like Seattle’s own Jeff Bezos.
“I spent many of my formative years in Seattle, all through the ’90s,” said Veselka, whose work has appeared in publications from GQ to Best American Essays. Her writing is driven by “existential questions I can’t answer, questions that bother me.”
What are those queries? “Does the American experiment work? What does exceptionalism mean? I try to answer these through characters with these questions in their lives.”
“I didn’t come up in writing in the traditional sense,” Veselka said. “I’ve done a lot of jobs. Part of it what I enjoy about writing, about that familiar world of living hand-to-mouth, comes from love of the absurd, of dark comedy, of the lengths characters have to go to — and sometimes they’re making bad decisions.”
Veselka said the nomination for the National Book Award feels like a gift. “This novel took eight years to write, and it was a long journey to find a publisher. There’s a true sweetness to it coming into the world getting and read and valued by people who are my peers. It’s an incredibly sweet thing to be recognized and seen. The trajectory of how every book finds its people is the most important thing. Yes, the bigger number is financially better, but I’m so grateful for any reader.”
Rounding out the list is Copper Canyon Press, based in Port Townsend, which has become one of the most respected independent poetry publishers in the country.
“Copper Canyon Press has been very fortunate with National Book Award in poetry recognition,” said Michael Wiegers, executive editor for the prolific press, which this year found the longlist with Chang’s “Obit.”
Copper Canyon has won the National Book Award in poetry four times over the last 20 years, including last year’s award for Arthur Sze’s “Sightlines,” and the press has fielded several finalists, too. Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” for instance, was a co-finalist with “Sightlines” last year and went on to win the Pulitzer. “Yet it never gets old,” Wiegers says, “and we are beyond thrilled each time one of our books is nominated.”
“When I first read the manuscript for Victoria Chang’s book, ‘Obit,’ I knew we had something special on our hands” Wiegers said. “After her father’s stroke, and the death of her mother, Chang wrote an obituary for her mother. Along the way she discovered that much about her life with her parents had died, so she continued with elegies for the many parts of their lives together. During the pandemic, such poems of loss, mourning and celebration of loved ones have become a necessary tonic for these times.
“It’s a very special and timely volume of poems and it’s of no surprise that she should be recognized by the National Book Foundation’s judges.”
Washington and the Pacific Northwest’s literary history — and its present scene — is rich, and this year’s National Book Award nominees are just the latest piece of evidence of this trove of creativity. With such initiatives as Seattle’s UNESCO City of Literature designation, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and the continuous resource that is the Seattle Public Library, the region’s support of writers and creators will hopefully only increase.