Cover Malinda Lo takes home the National Book Award for Young People's Literature (Photo: @malindalo/Twitter)

Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club was chosen among the five shortlisted finalists to win the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Chinese American author Malinda Lo took home the award for Young People’s Literature at the 2021 National Book Awards for her novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club. Lo was chosen among the five shortlisted finalists which include Shin Yin Khor, Kyle Lukoff, Kekla Magoon and Amber McBride.

Her winning novel, Last Night in the Telegraph Club follows 17-year-old Lily Hu in 1950’s America. She starts to have feelings for Kathleen Miller while spending time at a lesbian bar called the Telegraph Club though it’s a time when it’s not safe for two girls to fall in love—especially in Chinatown. But Kath and Lily are willing to risk everything for their love to see the light of the day.

The jury—led by professor Cathryn Mercier of Simmons University—picked the book as it “glows with desire and hums with sensuality as sapphic romance flashes against fear and intolerance. In lustrous detail, Malinda Lo materialises Chinese American, Lily and white Kath’s love story during the rise of 1950’s McCarthyism. Lo’s exquisite prose contrasts Lily’s unhurried discovery of her sexuality against Kath’s unquestioned belonging at the Telegraph Club. Lo beckons readers, sentence by restrained sentence, into this incandescent novel of queer possibility.”

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In her speech, Lo couldn’t hide her excitement. “It has been an incredible experience to be part of the National Book Awards. First, I want to thank the judges...I am so, so honoured,” she says. “Last Night at the Telegraph Club began as a short story and I want to thank my friend, Sandra Mitchell for giving me the opportunity to write that story,” she adds.

She went on to thank her agent and her publisher, adding “so many people have worked behind the scenes to get this novel so thank you.” She also thanked her family for their help as “parts of this novel are in Chinese and I wouldn’t have been able to write them without the help of my parents and my aunt. To my grandmother, you may not be in this world anymore but you are here with me in every book. To my wife, Amy, thank you for the ways that you've supported me.”

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Lo also mentioned that while there’s now growth in queer literature, it’s also been challenging. “When my first novel came out in 2019, it was one of 27 young adult books about LGBTQ characters or issues published that year. This year, hundreds of young adult LGBTQ books have been published, the growth has been incredible but the opposition towards our books has also grown,” she says.

As a queer author herself, Lo not only writes about LGTBQ characters but she also does research on diversity, co-founding Diversity in YA, a website and book tour to promote and celebrate diverse representation—of people of colour and LGBTQ and disabled characters— in young adult literature.

“This year, schools across the country are facing significant right-wing pressure to remove books about people of colour, LGBTQ people and especially transgender people from classrooms and libraries. I urge every one of you watching to educate yourselves about your school boards and vote in the elections. 2022 is coming and we need your support to keep our stories on the shelves,” she adds.

She ends her speech with a powerful call to action, “Don't let them erase us.”

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