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National Book Critics Circle select 'Americanah,' 'Five Days at Memorial' as winners

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(Read caption) 'Americanah' won the National Book Critics Circle fiction prize, while 'Five Days at Memorial' took the NBCC nonfiction award.

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Stories about love, race, and natural disaster dominated the scene at the National Book Critics Circle awards Thursday in a night of surprises for the esteemed organization’s annual ceremony.

Americanah,” the story of love interrupted when a young Nigerian woman immigrates to the US for college, won the prize for fiction, beating out Donna Tartt’s popular novel, “The Goldfinch,” as well as three other finalists, including Ruth Ozeki's "A Tale for the Time Being".

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“Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink’s account about the patients and families who took shelter at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina, won for nonfiction. (See Books Editor Marjorie Kehe’s interview with Fink here.) Other nonfiction nominees included George Packer for "The Unwinding" and David Finkel for "Thank You for Your Service."

For autobiography, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo,” took the prize, beating out other nominees including Jesmyn Ward for "Men We Reaped," Sonali Deraniyagala for  "Wave," Aleksandar Hemon for "The Book of My Lives," and  Rebecca Solnit for "The Faraway Nearby." "Voodoo" is an account of Los Angeles author Amy Wilentz’s journeys to Haiti covering the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.

For biography, Leo Damrosch won for “Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World". Other nominees in the biography category included Scott Anderson for "Lawrence in Arabia" and John Eliot Gardiner for "Bach."

Italian scholar Franco Moretti's “Distant Reading” won the criticism award and Frank Bidart's “Metaphysical Dog” won the poetry prize.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was Adichie’s win for “Americanah." The author is no stranger to accolades, however. Her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” was longlisted for a Man Booker prize; her second, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” won the UK’s Orange Prize; and in 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Her NBCC award-winning novel “Americanah” tells the story of a Nigerian blogger who returns to her home country after studying in America to meet her childhood sweetheart. But it is as much a tale about race as it is about love. In the book, a fictional African-American writer in New York complains, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.” As reviewer Steven G. Kellman wrote in the Barnes & Noble review of the novel, “Americanah is an attempt to do just that, with trenchant observations about social distinctions in not just one country, the United States, but Britain and Nigeria as well.”

In an interview with the LA Times last year, Adichie said the book drew on her own experiences living as an African among Americans.

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“I feel as though being African, I can laugh at certain things that maybe if I were African American I wouldn't,” she said. “I don't know race in the way an African American knows race…. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see something about your own reality that you don't.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.