Debut Writers and Women Writers Sweep Up the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards

“Don’t write about what you remember; write about what you are unable to forget.” Sandra Cisneros



Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Wins Book of the Year PEN/Jean Stein Award With Largest Prize | Playwright Kenneth Lonergan Receives Debut PEN/Mike Nichols Award for Performance Writing | Sandra Cisneros Honored for Illustrious Career That Transcends Genres, Cultures, and Languages

Yesterday, PEN America announced the winners of the 2019 Literary Awards at a  ceremony where literary luminaries and publishing tastemakers celebrated emerging writers and paid homage to established voices. Debut authors and works by and about women prevailed in a year with a record number of submissions in the nation’s largest, most comprehensive literary awards program.

The worlds of Hollywood and literature converged with the debut of the PEN/ Mike Nichols Award for Performance Writing, conferred on film director, playwright, and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan for his exemplary portfolio of work in 2018, including two Broadway stage productions that ran simultaneously:“The Waverly Gallery,” originally produced in 1999, which follows an aging leftist activist as she battles Alzheimer’s, and“Lobby Hero,” originally produced in 2002, which chronicles the story of personal ambitions amid a murder mystery. The award, established by PEN America and Saturday Night Live creator and director Lorne Michaels, highlights transformative works that enlighten and inspire audiences in the tradition of venerated film and theater director, producer, and comedian Mike Nichols, who passed away in 2014. Matthew Broderick, who presented the award to Lonergan, said: “I always saw Mike as a teacher, and I find myself feeling the same way about Kenny. It’s not every day you get to present an award named for a dear friend, to a best friend.”

Mexican-American Writer, Sandra Cisneros

Novelist, poet, and essayist Sandra Cisneros (one of my personal faves), author of The House on Mango Street, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, and many more beloved works, was lauded for a lifetime of extraordinary literary contribution and presented with the PEN/ Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. Judges Alexander Chee, Edwidge Danticat, and Valeria Luiselli noted her “formidable and awe-inspiring body of work, which includes fiction, memoir, and poetry,” adding that “it’s hard to imagine navigating our world today without her stories and her voice guiding us toward much needed reclamation and endurance.” Maria Hinojosa, presenting the award, recalled advice Cisneros had given her: “Don’t write about what you remember; write about what you are unable to forget.”

Cisneros dedicated her award to all those who have touched her life and shaped her as a writer: “Writers, poets, editors, truth tellers who offer light in the time of darkness; librarians and booksellers, patron saints in the age of distraction; the 6th grade teacher whose name I cannot remember, whose kindness I will not forget.”

In a shortlist dominated by debut writers, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah emerged as the winner of the PEN/ Jean Stein Award for book of the year, with the largest prize at  $75,000, for his short story collection Friday Black. Praised for its combination of “the real and surreal, the concrete and the mythological,” the judges lauded Adjei-Brenyah’s “cool control over his prose and dialogue while allowing his imagination to abandon constraints and conventions, exploring genetic enhancement, frenzied retail work, and soft friendships. At turns horrifying and funny, tender and savage, these stories stick with you, probing the American psyche and persistently asking more of us.” In his remarks, Adjei-Brenyah shared that: “In writing this book, I wanted these stories to be out in the world even if my name wasn’t associated with them. Maybe someone would feel seen, push a conversation that needed to happen… If we can imagine a world much worse than ours, we can collectively imagine one that is much better.”

Celebrating debut short story collections, the PEN/Bingham Prize was awarded to Will Mackin for Bring Out the Dog, portraying the devastation, absurdity, surrealism, and compassion in modern warfare, drawing from Mackin’s own experiences as a U.S. Navy veteran. Nafissa Thompson-Spires took home the PEN Open Book Award for Heads of the Colored People, her debut collection of short stories, a funny, sly, and devastating collection that examines the precariousness of black lives in the United States; and Imani Perry won the PEN/Bograd Weld Award for Biography for Looking For Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, an insightful, sharp, and empathetic exploration of the life of Hansberry—writer, cultural icon, and the first black female author to have a play performed on Broadway. Michelle Tea took home the prestigious PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essayfor the “singularly irresistible” voice of Against Memoir. Translator Martin Aitken won the PEN Translation Prize for his “luminous translation from the Norwegian of Hanne Ørstavik’s haunting novel Love, which follows the distant, orbiting lives of a mother and son like a telescope through one cold winter’s night.”

“Rather than a traditional celebration of achievement, PEN America’s juried awards probe the depths of the contemporary canon to identify and elevate essential voices and bring them to the widest possible audience,” said PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel. “The PEN America Literary Awards are set apart by the alchemy of venerated names among the ranks of both winners and judges, and the bracing new talents whose careers are rocket-boosted by gaining recognition just as they burst on the scene.”

Katherine Seligman won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her manuscript If You Knew, an urban noir exploring issues of homelessness and community in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. In addition to a prize of $25,000, Seligman will receive a publishing contract with Algonquin Books.

Lifetime achievement and career awards were conferred upon authors, journalists, editors, playwrights, and poets. Jackie “Mac” MacMullan was awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing, in recognition of the literary quality of her sportswriting, her exemplary use of the oral history form, and her many years as a newspaper columnist; she is also the first woman to receive this award. Larissa FastHorse received thePEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award in recognition of her exemplary and prolific output in a little over a decade that examines modern families, histories, languages, cultures, and communities. The Apogee literary journal’s Alexandra Watson won the PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing for her exemplary stewardship of the publication, and for foregrounding writers of color and engaging with issues of race, gender, and class through the “Alternate Canon” series. Celebrating great promise in an early career poet, thePEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry was conferred upon Jonah Mixon-Webster for the high literary character of his debut collection, Stereo(TYPE), which explores the intersection of space and body, race and region, and sexuality and class; and wrestles with the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan.

In closing the ceremony, PEN America President Jennifer Egan reminded the audience that “the daring works we celebrate today are a testament to the freedom we have to write them.”

The sold-out ceremony was studded with musical, poetic, and dramatic performances, and riveting, live announcements of each winner. The evening included performances by Sweet Megg & Wayfarers, a dramatic rendition of FastHorse’s Urban Rez and What Would Crazy Horse Do by Jake Hart and Sera-Lys McArthur, and a moving tribute to literary icons lost in 2018. Comedian, filmmaker, and Ceremony host Hari Kondabolu brought roaring laughs, and sent the audience home with sound advice: “please get home safe: no reading and driving!”

All of the winners of the 2019 Literary Awards can be found HERE.

Photographs from the Literary Awards Ceremony will be available here. The video will be available on pen.org.

For over 50 years, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored many of the most outstanding voices in literature, bestowing 20 distinct awards across genres from fiction and drama to sports and science writing, with cash prizes totaling more than $370,000 to writers and translators. This annual fête of literary excellence has become one of the defining literary events of the year.

This post is courtesy of PEN America. Photo credits: Sandra Cisneros courtesy of ksm36 under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Nafissa Thompson-Spires courtesy of her publisher via her Amazon page.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org


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