Stories from the island of Hispaniola were winners Thursday night at the National Book Critics Circle awards: Dominican-American Junot Diaz took the fiction prize for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" and Edwidge Danticat of Haiti was cited in autobiography for "Brother, I'm Dying."
The general nonfiction prize went to Harriet A. Washington's "Medical Apartheid," while the winner in biography was Tim Jeal's "Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer." The poetry award went to Mary Jo Bang for "Elegy," and the criticism winner was Alex Ross' "The Rest is Noise."
Diaz, whose novel tells of a young, obese Dominican immigrant and his tragicomic quest for love, was on his way to Venezuela on Thursday night for personal reasons and his award was accepted by Sean McDonald of Riverhead Books. He joked that "some distinct shouting" could probably be heard all the way from Caracas, or at least the muffled sounds of "the vestigial part of his brain being blown."
Danticat — known for such fiction as "The Dew Breaker" and "Krik? Krak!" — said she was a bit out of place in nonfiction, telling her fellow finalists that "I feel like I'm visiting your category" and promising "to speak well of this world" when she got back to writing fiction.
Jeal spoke of the many years working on his book about the famed explorer Henry Stanley, a process he described as "mammoth" and "irksome."
Bang offered a more personal memory. She recalled a sixth-grade play in which she was to portray the season of spring and "slink across the stage in diaphanous scarves." The play was canceled after a parent protested, thinking Bang would only be wearing scarves.
So, on Thursday, she thanked the critics for "restoring my moment on stage."
Two honorary awards also were presented. Literary critic Sam Anderson of New York magazine received the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and Emilie Buchwald, co-founder of the Milkweed Editions publishing house, won the Ivan Sandrof Life Achievement Award.
The National Book Critics Circle, founded in 1974, has about 500 members. There were no cash prizes.