The Connecticut Book Awards returned from a five-year hiatus with a rousing ceremony and the selection of winners from among finalists in four categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry and Young Readers. The competition was coordinated by Connecticut Humanities and the Connecticut Center for the Book, and the awards ceremony was held Sunday at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford.
West Hartford author Okey Ndibe was awarded the 2017 Connecticut Book Award for Non-Fiction for Never Look an American in the Eye, published by Soho Press. The Fiction winner was Robert H. Patton of Darien for Cajun Waltz, published by Thomas Dunne Books. In the Young Readers, The Weight of Zero, written by Karen Fortunati and published by Delacorte Press, was selected. The Poetry winner was Fugitives by Danielle Pieratti, published by Lost Horse Press.
One hundred nine titles were submitted as candidates for the Book Awards between January 1 and April 19, 2017 and after review against the guidelines, one hundred titles were admitted into the judging process. Books published in 2016 were eligible for the awards.
Each category had five judges with expertise in the literary arts. They reviewed the titles over three months using criteria appropriate to the category. Seventeen titles made it to the finalist list. Nominated authors must currently reside in Connecticut and must have lived in the state at least three successive years or have been born in the state, or the book must be substantially set in Connecticut.
In accepting the award, Ndibe, a journalist and educator, said that “literature is central to what binds us together as a community.” Ndibe’s funny, charming, and penetrating memoir tells of his move from Nigeria to America, examines the differences between Nigerian and American etiquette and politics; recalls an incident of racial profiling just thirteen days after he arrived in the US, in which he was mistaken for a bank robber; considers American stereotypes about Africa (and vice-versa); and juxtaposes African folk tales with Wall Street.
Fortunati, who described her debut novel as a “story of hope and resilience” in accepting the award, recently completed Trinity College’s master’s program in American Studies. She recalled that as part of her studies, she visited the Mark Twain House & Museum, which made the ceremony location especially fitting.
The book’s subject is mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder, and “it explores the shame, stigma and anxiety that often complicate the management of this chronic condition,” Fortunati explains on her website. “The issue is personal to me having witnessed the impact of depression and bipolar disorder in relatives and friends. My goal was to write a story of hope for teens who struggle with mental illness.”
Pieratti, who teaches English at South Windsor High School, relocated to Connecticut from upstate New York five years ago. She said “I have been nurtured by this state since I moved here,” and expressed appreciation to her colleagues in South Windsor. She has taught at the college and high school level, and was recipient of the Idaho prize for Poetry in 2015. Her poetry “explores the mundane moments and materials that make up ordinary days and finds there the ambiguities of mystery, shadow, and song,” the CT Center for the Book indicated.
Cajun Waltz, the Fiction winner by Robert H. Patton, is set in southwest Louisiana, a “tale of family, music, love, and picturesque mayhem” that explores “three generations of the volatile clan” as they “grapple with the region’s economic struggles and racial tensions.”
In addition to the award recipients, Gray Jacobik, University Professor Emerita at Eastern Connecticut State University, received Lifetime Achievement recognition in Poetry.
The awards were presented annually between 2002 and 2011, and were re-established by CT Humanities this year. The nominated books for the 2017 Connecticut Book Awards, by category:
- Back Lash by Chris Knopf
- I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb
- Shadows of Paris by Eric D. Lehman
- Cajun Waltz by Robert H. Patton
- Beneath a Shooting Star by Susan Harrison Rashid
- Rare Light by Anne Dawson
- Never Look an American in the Eye by Okey Ndibe
- The Lost White Tribe by Michael Robinson
- The Banquet by Gray Jacobik
- Barrel Children by Rayon Lennon
- The Meeting House by Marilyn Nelson
- Fugitives by Danielle Pieratti
- All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor
- The Weight of Zero by Karen Fortunati
- Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood
- The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson
- Good Night, Bat! Good Morning, Squirrel! by Paul Meisel
Images above (L to R): Okey Ndibe, Karen Fortunati, Danielle Pieratti, Robert H. Patton