Valley writers win honors in this year’s Massachusetts Book Award competition

  • Northampton writer Ocean Vuong has won a first place Massachusetts Book Award in fiction for his debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.”  Photo by Tom Hines/courtesy Mass Center for the Book

  • Amherst poet Karen Skolfield has won this year’s Massachusetts Book Award for poetry for her collection “Battle Dress.”  Photo by Michael Medeiros/courtesy Mass Center for the Book

  • Grace Talusan, writer in residence at Brandeis University, has won first place for nonfiction for her memoir “The Body Papers,” by Restless Books, the publishing company founded by Amherst College professor and writer Ilan Stavans. Photo by Alonso Nichols/courtesy Mass Center for the Book

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2020 12:56:11 PM

The Valley has long been recognized as a hotbed for talented writers, and this year has been no exception: Six writers from the region have won first-place awards or runner-up honors in the 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards.

The Massachusetts Center for the Book, a public-private partnership located in Concord, each year issues awards in five categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, middle grade/young adult literature, and picture books/early readers.

Adding to a long list of honors he already has received for his work, Ocean Vuong of Northampton has won first place for fiction for his debut novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” written in the form of a letter from a young Vietnamese-American man to his single mother, an immigrant to the U.S. from Vietnam.

The semi-autobiographical “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” received nominations for a National Book Award and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Vuong, who teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also won several awards for his 2016 poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” and last year he won a MacArthur Fellowship, the five-year, $625,000 “genius grant.”

Another Massachusetts Book Award winner, this time for poetry, is Karen Skolfield of Amherst, whose collection “Battle Dress” looks back on her experience serving in the U.S. Army as well as the culture of the military and its place in U.S. society, including the fact that only a tiny percentage of Americans serve in it.

Skolfield, who also teaches writing at UMass, is the current poet laureate of Northampton.

Two other Valley novelists have won honors for their work. “Big Giant Floating Head,” by Northampton writer Christopher Boucher, is a work of experimental fiction that “is both heart-wrenching and hilarious as it follows a man’s struggle with love and loss,” according to the Center for the Book.

And Jennifer Acker of Montague has been recognized for her debut novel, “The Limits of the World,” a multi-generational look at an Indian-American family with roots in East Africa. Acker is also the founder and editor in chief of The Common, the literary magazine based at Amherst College.

In the Picture Books/Early Readers category, “Because,” written by Mo Willems of Northampton, and “Daniel’s Good Day,” written and illustrated by Micha Archer of Leverett, have both been named “Honor Titles.” Willems’ book explores the power and beauty of music, while Archer’s story depicts a close-knit community where people of different ethnicities, including young Daniel, all get along with one another.

Winning first place for nonfiction is “The Body Papers,” a memoir by Grace Talusan of Medford that examines a Filipino immigrant’s battle with cancer and childhood abuse and her determination to survive. Talusan’s memoir is published by Restless Books, a company founded by Ilan Stavans, the Amherst writer and longtime Amherst College professor of humanities and Latin American and Latino culture.

“We are honored to bring these books to the attention of Commonwealth residents,” Sharon Shaloo, executive director of Massachusetts Center for the Book, said in a statement. “We look forward to celebrating and promoting these titles virtually from [our] website this fall.”

The center, one of 50 book agencies — one from each state — that are all affiliated with the U.S. Library of Congress, helps develop and promote cultural programming aimed at advancing the value of books and reading, and also with improving the outreach of Massachusetts libraries.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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