Courtesy of Francisco Delgado, Unsplash

The PEN America Literary Awards have, since their founding in 1963, brought together award-winning writers, editors, translators, and critics in dynamic and diverse panels of judges that determine the given year’s most resonant literature. Over the decades, the PEN America Literary Awards have expanded across genres, celebrating a wide range of writing and recognizing writers at every stage of their careers.



Tom Stoppard  courtesy of ru:Участник:KDeltaE under CC BY-SA 3.0

PEN America announced its major career achievement honors to be presented at the 2020 PEN America Literary Awards. Academy Award and four-time Tony Award winner Tom Stoppard will receive the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award for Leopoldstadt, a work of epic scale and deep personal resonance that Stoppard has said may be his final play. Leopoldstadt, set in the old Jewish quarter of Vienna, where Jews fled persecution at the turn of the 19th century, makes its world premiere on London’s West End this week, at a time when anti-Semitism is surging throughout Europe and the U.S.

The PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, honoring an author of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and/or drama with $50,000, will be given to M. NourbeSe Philip for writing that has, for four decades, merged vital formal experimentation and considerations of race, gender, colonialism, and African Diasporic identity. Playwright Tanya Barfield, critically lauded for works including The Call, Bright Half Life, and Blue Door, will accept the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award. Rigoberto González—poet, novelist, memoirist, critic, professor, and vocal champion of Latinx poets—will be honored with the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. The awards will be among those presented March 2 at The Town Hall, the largest venue in the history of the PEN America Literary Awards, in a ceremony hosted by Late Night host, comedian, and “influential recommender of books” (The New York Times) Seth Meyers.

Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America Director of Literary Programs, said, “Fostering and celebrating international literature is central to the mission of the PEN America Literary Awards; we seek to champion original and promising writers of the global community and promote their work to an American audience. This year, we are incredibly proud to honor such urgent and diverse voices, which we know have the power to awaken empathy and redefine public discourse.”

Tom Stoppard – Recipient of Honorary PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award

PEN America introduced the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award in partnership with venerated late filmmaker and comedian Mike Nichols’ dear friend Lorne Michaels last year, when it was presented to Kenneth Lonergan. It confers a prize of $25,000 to a writer whose work represents the year’s best writing for performance, exemplifying excellence and influence in the world of theater, television, or film. At the March 2 ceremony, Lonergan, Cynthia Nixon, and Christine Baranski will pay tribute to Nichols and present the award to this year’s winner, Tom Stoppard.

At once elegant and variegated in their intellectual pursuits, Tom Stoppard’s twistingly cerebral plays are also suffused with humor and heart. Traversing time to extract new meaning from history and the literary canon, Stoppard dauntlessly maps the potentials and limits of human experience. In a review of Nichols’ 1984 production of The Real Thing, The New York Times deemed him “an intellect that has few equals in contemporary theater.” The Times (UK) has called him “Britain’s greatest living playwright.”

Stoppard’s newest play Leopoldstadt takes place in the eponymous old Jewish quarter of Vienna—where Jews from the Pale of Settlement migrated the late 1800s and early 1900s, seeking refuge from pogroms—and follows one Jewish family there across the first half of the 20th century. Though Stoppard often looks outward for influence, as evidenced in his works’ many references to and mind-warping reconsiderations of our literary past, he has described Leopoldstadt as a rare “personal” work. (Stoppard grew up fleeing the rise of Nazism, and his four grandparents were killed in concentration camps.)

M. NourbeSe Philip ­– PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature

Founded in 2016 in collaboration with the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation, the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature is conferred annually to a living author whose body of work, either written in or translated into English, represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship. Previous winners of the award include Sandra Cisneros, Edna O’Brien, and Adonis.

This year’s PEN/Nabokov Award judges—Alexis Okeowo, George Elliott Clarke, Hari Kunzru, Lila Azam Zanganeh, and Viet Thanh Nguyen—have chosen poet, novelist, and essayist M. NourbeSe Philip, who has bent and pushed poetry and prose in exhilarating directions, via vivid and fragmentary portraits of the pluralities of African Diasporic experience and searing indictments of the oppressive structures—legal, linguistic, social—carried across history into our present. The Tobago-born, Canada-based writer’s many singular, varied works include She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks, and Zong!

Tanya Barfield – PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award

The PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award reflects Laura Pels’s dedication to supporting excellence in American theater as well as PEN America’s commitment to recognizing and rewarding the literary accomplishment of playwrights. Recent winners have included Larissa Fasthorse, Sibyl Kempson, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Young Jean Lee, and Anne Washburn. Tanya Barfield’s “exquisite” (Time Out), “thoughtful and engrossing” (The New York Times) works—with by their resonance, poignancy, and meticulous social observation—epitomize the qualities the award was established to celebrate.

The judges of the 2020 award—Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Kirsten Greenidge, and Naomi Iizuka—write, “With a unique emotional vividness and political nuance, Barfield’s body of work-to-date explores the complications of lives lived on the margins of belonging or between so-called ‘identities.’…Whether it’s the black tenured math professor in Blue Door (2006) coming to terms with the literal haunting of his ancestors or the couple attempting to adopt an African child battling the specters of their own white privilege in The Call (2013) or the intersectional lovers in Bright Half Life (2014) possessed by the spirits of their younger selves in a newfound era of marriage equality, Barfield’s worlds are full of ghosts and it is only through a confrontation with them that the living truly learn what it is to live.”

Leigh Silverman—who directed the premieres of Blue Door, The Call, and Bright Half Life—will present the award to Barfield at the ceremony on March 2. Actor Kerry Butler, star of The Call, and award-winning actor, writer, and singer-songwriter Eisa Davis (Pulitzer Prize finalist for Bulrusher) will perform excerpts from Barfield’s work.



Rigoberto González – PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

Rigoberto González courtesy of Carlos Parker under CC BY-SA 3.0

“I think, How clever time works, overlapping people’s lives at certain stages, and as some eyes are waking up, others are already closing, securing the continuity of the world. My mother and I were connected for twelve years. She also lived during a time I didn’t exist. And I, in turn, must now keep living when she does not. And yet my father, who still shares the same wheel of time, is more like my parallel line.” Rigoberto González, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Miriposa

Sample some of Rigoberto’s poems HERE.

The PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, established by a bequest from Hunce Voelcker and given in even-numbered years, confers $5,000 to a poet whose body of work represents a notable and accomplished presence in American literature. The poet honored by the award is one who has expanded the scope of American poetry and continues to mature with each successive volume of poetry. Rigoberto González will be honored at the Ceremony on March 2, and will share a special reading of his poetry. Rigoberto González has authored five poetry collections, as well as two bilingual children’s books, and ten fiction and non-fiction books. A professor in the MFA program for Creative Writing at Rutgers University-Newark, he has served as a Faculty Member of CantoMundo; is a Founding Member of the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta, a collective of Chicanx/Latinx writers; and is a monthly columnist on Latinx literature for NBC Latino online as well as critic-at-large for The Los Angeles Times.

As this year’s panel of judges—Cornelius Eady, Deborah Paredez, Linda Gregerson, and Monica Youn—writes, González has “devoted his writing life not only to the development of his astonishing voice as a poet and non-fiction writer but to his astute and discerning craft as a reviewer and steadfast advocate for other Latinx voices.”

The judges continue, “Rigoberto González is one of our great mythmakers, cutting to the core of historical narratives and present-day calamities, exposing the faultlines of greed and violence, love and hunger, cruelty and corruption, family and tribe that pattern human experience. The son and grandson of migrant farm workers, and claiming a cultural heritage of lyricism and activism, he is attuned to the voices of the dead and the living, and he counsels us ‘To reach the dead // walk toward the structures still standing, / their windows still looking in.’”



About the PEN America Literary Awards

The PEN America Literary Awards have, since their founding in 1963, brought together award-winning writers, editors, translators, and critics in dynamic and diverse panels of judges that determine the given year’s most resonant literature. Over the decades, the PEN America Literary Awards have expanded across genres, celebrating a wide range of writing and recognizing writers at every stage of their careers.

In recent years, the PEN America Literary Awards ceremony has evolved from an auditorium event for winners and their families into a preeminent gathering of the city’s writing and publishing luminaries and passionate book lovers, who unite to celebrate diverse voices and catapult new writers to prominence. The ceremony encompasses live winner announcements, dramatic readings from selected award-winning works, and a moving In Memoriam segment, which recognizes the literary greats lost over the last year. Recent ceremony participants and attendees include Hari Kondabolu, Matthew Broderick, Candace Bergen, Lorne Michaels, Zadie Smith, Diane Sawyer, and Steve Martin.

While the career-achievement awards are announced in advance, the honors for individual works are announced from the stage. PEN America has previously announced Finalists for the 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, honoring a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact, and conferring a prize of $75,000 to its author. In their selection of Finalists, the 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award judging panel—Marilyn Chin, Garth Greenwell, Rebecca Makkai, Michael Schaub, and William T. Vollmann—have elevated works that have reshaped the boundaries of form and signaled strong potential for lasting literary influence. The 2020 Finalists include Anne Boyer for The Undying (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Yiyun Li for Where Reasons End (Random House), Ilya Kaminsky for Deaf Republic: Poems (Graywolf Press), Rion Amilcar Scott for The World Doesn’t Require You (Liveright), and Chris Ware for Rusty Brown (Pantheon). The 2020 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award winner will be announced live at the March 2 ceremony.

PEN America has also released Longlists for other 2020 Literary Awards, which can be found here.

Tickets for the Ceremony can be purchased here.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. This organization 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.


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