Namwali Serpell and Marlon James were announced winners at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes 2019 on Friday, April 17, 2020.

The Los Angeles Times Book Prizes were founded in 1980 by Art Seidenbaum, a Los Angeles Times book editor from 1978 to 1985. They are awarded annually in Best Biography, Best Current Interest winner, Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, Best Graphic Novel/Comics, Best History, Best mystery/thriller, Best Poetry, Best Science & Technology, and the Ray Bradbury Prize.

The finalists for 2019 edition, announced on February 19, featured Maaza Mengiste, Namwali Serpell, Marlon James, and Colson Whitehead in the fiction, first fiction, and Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction categories. The winners were announced online as a result of restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic on April 17.

The winners of the awards in the different categories are;

  • Best Biography – George Packer.
  • Best Current Interest winner – Emily Bazelon.
  • Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction – Namwali Serpell.
  • Best Graphic Novel/Comics – Eleanor Davis.
  • Best History – Stephanie E Jones-Rogers.
  • Best Mystery/thriller – Steph Cha.
  • Best Poetry – Ilya Kaminsky.
  • Ray Bradbury Prize – Marlon James.
  • Best Science & Technology – Maria Popova.

Namwali spoke about winning the prize with a video message shared by the LA Times Books Twitter account. She said,

I am thrilled to receive the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction for ‘The Old Drift.’ Thanks to the judges and thank you to my fellow finalists María Gainza and her translator Thomas Bunstead, Sarah Elaine Smith, Lila Savage, and De’Shawn Charles Winslow. It’s an incredible honour to be shortlisted alongside you.

These are dark times, strange times to be honoured for a novel that’s in part about an epidemic caused by a virus. The last third of The Old Drift is about the search for a vaccine for HIV-AIDS. It’s about how the powers that be try to usurp and profit from that search and how they eventually test that speculative vaccine on Zambians without getting their consent. But my novel is also about the people who protest that capitalist machine that endlessly chews up life and bodies. It’s about the people who refuse that will to power that is in effect a death drive.

These are dark times yes, but that darkness, that void, is also a break from business as usual, a crack out of which maybe a revolution will emerge. It feels impossible to do anything except survive right now and to help those around us to survive. But art is survival too; so I say make art, paint it, record it, dance it, write it down. It’s an over worn sentiment by now but I personally still take courage and consolation from Bertolt Brecht’s motto in the poems “in the dark times. Will there be also singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Thanks again and keep singing.

Marlon James on his part said, “there is something kind of ironic about winning an award in tribute to the creator of the original American dystopia when we are in a kind of dystopia … Makes me think even more about Ray Bradbury.”

Each of the winners receives a citation and US$1,000.