NEW YORK (Reuters) - Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for fiction on Wednesday for "Salvage the Bones," about a poor Mississippi family confronting Hurricane Katrina, while Stephen Greenblatt took the nonfiction prize for "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern."
Ward, a young, Southern writer, was honored for her second book, published by Bloomsbury USA, which was told in the voice of a pregnant black teenager.
"I wanted to do something with my time here that would have meaning," she said, explaining she began writing partly as a response to her brother's death.
"This is a life's work, and I am only at the beginning," she told the audience at the 62nd annual awards, among the most prestigious in U.S. publishing, presented by the National Book Foundation.
The judges cited Ward's use of "piercing metaphor and simile," saying, "This is storytelling as skilled as it wise."
Greenblatt's "The Swerve," which chronicles the 15th-century rediscovery of an ancient Roman epic by Lucretius, which subsequently fueled the Renaissance and inspired great minds from Galileo to Freud, was lauded as "a work of intelligence, generosity and passion."
The Harvard professor said his book, published by W.W. Norton & Company, was "about the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak across" distance, space and time.
In choosing its winners, the Book Foundation honored writers from backgrounds often among the disenfranchised. Three of the four winners were women, two of them African-American and one a Vietnam native.
Hurricane Katrina figured in two winners' work.
University of Kentucky creative writing professor Nikky Finney won the poetry prize for "Head Off & Split," which delves into African-American life from Rosa Parks to Condoleezza Rice, Katrina and family weddings.
She delivered an appropriately poetic, eloquent speech that actor John Lithgow, the show's host, called "the best acceptance speech for anything that I've heard in my entire life."
The young people's literature prize went to Thanhha Lai for "Inside Out & Back Again," a novel-in-verse based on her experience fleeing Saigon with her family during the Vietnam War and settling in Alabama.
The Literarian Award for outstanding service to the literary community was presented by writer Walter Mosley to Mitchell Kaplan, co-founder of the Miami Book Fair International, the nation's largest book fair.
Poet John Ashbery received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The 84-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner for "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror" said that even without the many honors he had won, "I think I would have continued writing just for the fun of it. Because it is fun, even though it's not supposed to be."
There were five finalists in each of the four categories, with each winner receiving $10,000.
Past National Book Award winners have included John Updike, Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison and rocker Patti Smith, last year's nonfiction winner for her memoir, "Just Kids."
Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Peter Cooney