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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THE YEAR OF THE WOMAN IN LITERATURE: LONGLISTS FOR 2019 PEN AMERICA LITERARY WARDS ANNOUNCED

British writer, Virgina Woolf (1882-1941) 1902/public domain photograph by George Charles Beresfor

“Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics.” Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own



PEN America released the longlists for its 2019 Literary Awards with 90 titles in the running for juried prizes honoring literary work including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and translation. Conferred by the country’s only organization that both celebrates literature and defends free expression, the PEN America Literary Awards honor literary excellence and celebrate voices that challenge, inform, and inspire. Prizes for debut fiction, international literature, science writing, sports writing, biography, essay writing and more will be awarded at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2019 at the NYU Skirball Center in New York City.

The majority of the semi-finalists this year are women, including in categories long dominated by men, such as biography, where seven out of the 10 books longlisted are by women and six are about women. Longlisted works include: Zadie Smith’s Feel Free (Penguin Press); Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know; Jenny Xie’s Eye Level (Graywolf Press); Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (Knopf); Jhumpa Lahiri for her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Trick (Europa Editions); Morgan Jerkins’ This Will Be My Undoing (Harper Perennial); Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux); and many more.

In a period of time marked by nationalism and isolationism the PEN America Literary Awards continues its long-standing recognition of the finest writing in translation, with awards bestowed for both prose and poetry. This year, Sevinç Türkkan’s translation of Aslı Erdoğan’s The Stone Building and Other Places (City Lights) is longlisted at an especially poignant time, as Aslı Erdoğan awaits trial in Turkey and PEN America advocates for her release.

“With a record number of submissions to our Awards, including from small, medium, and large presses, the competition for this year’s awards is more intense than ever,” said Nadxieli Nieto, PEN America Literary Awards Program Director. “The renewed interest in literature and translation in this political moment is a testament to the power of readers and writers to advocate for new ideas, challenge the old ones, and propose new futures. Coming during a year when so many women have broken their silence to tell long-suppressed stories, our judges’ choices reflect the strength and breadth of women’s contributions across every category of literature.”

Finalists for the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards will be announced in January, and winners will be revealed at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony on February 26 at the NYU Skirball Center in New York. Announcements about finalists and winners of the following awards are forthcoming: the PEN/Jean Stein Book of the Year Award, PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature, PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry, PEN/Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, PEN/Pels Theater Award, PEN/Magid Award for Excellence in Editing, and the PEN/ ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award. Ticket sales for the Ceremony go on sale today and are available to the public here.

For over 50 years, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored many of the most outstanding voices in literature across such diverse fields as translation, fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, sports writing, biography, children’s literature, and drama. With the help of its partners and supporters, PEN America will confer 22 distinct awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes in 2019, awarding more than $370,000 to writers and translators.

The full 2019 PEN America Literary Award longlists and more information about the Literary Awards program are available HERE.

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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. 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.




Wednesday Writing Prompt will return on January 16, 2019.  

What would you find pleasant or helpful on The Poet by Day in 2019?  What have you found helpful to date? Link HERE to let me know.




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Poet and writer, I was once columnist and associate editor of a regional employment publication. I currently run this site, The Poet by Day, an information hub for poets and writers. I am the managing editor of The BeZine published by The Bardo Group Beguines (originally The Bardo Group), a virtual arts collective I founded.  I am a weekly contributor to Beguine Again, a site showcasing spiritual writers. My work is featured in a variety of publications and on sites, including: Levure littéraure, Ramingo’s PorchVita Brevis Literature,Compass Rose, Connotation PressThe Bar None GroupSalamander CoveSecond LightI Am Not a Silent PoetMeta / Phor(e) /Play, and California Woman. My poetry was recently read by Northern California actor Richard Lingua for Poetry Woodshed, Belfast Community Radio. I was featured in a lengthy interview on the Creative Nexus Radio Show where I was dubbed “Poetry Champion.”


The BeZine: Waging the Peace, An Interfaith Exploration featuring Fr. Daniel Sormani, Rev. Benjamin Meyers, and the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi among others

“What if our religion was each other. If our practice was our life. If prayer, our words. What if the temple was the Earth. If forests were our church. If holy water–the rivers, lakes, and ocean. What if meditation was our relationships. If the teacher was life. If wisdom was self-knowledge. If love was the center of our being.” Ganga White, teacher and exponent of Yoga and founder of White Lotus, a Yoga center and retreat house in Santa Barbara, CA

“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” Lucille Clifton

LGBT Cultural Pioneer Edmund White and Irish Novelist Edna O’Brien to be Honored for Lifetime Achievement

PEN America announced last week that it will honor author and LGBT cultural pioneer Edmund White with the annual PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

White at the 2011 Brooklyn Book Festival courtesy of David Shankbone under CC BY 3.0

EDMUND WHITE  (b. 1940) is an American novelist, memoirist, and an essayist on literary and social topics. Much of his writing is on the theme of same-sex love. His books include The Joy of Gay Sex (1977) (written with Charles Silverstein, a writer, therapist, lecturer and gay activist), his trio of autobiographic novels, A Boy’s Own Story (1982), The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997), and his biography of Jean Genet. His website is HERE.  His Amazon page is HERE.

If you are viewing this from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to watch this video.


The 2018 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature will go to the extraordinarily prolific Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, whose acclaimed work broke down social and sexual barriers for women in Ireland and elsewhere.

Edna O’Brien at Hay Festival 2016 courtesy of Andrew Lih under CC BY-SA 3.0

EDNA O’BRIEN, DBE (b. 1930) is an Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer. Philip Roth described her “the most gifted woman now writing in English”, while the former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, cited her as “one of the great creative writers of her generation”.

O’Brien’s works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole.Her first novel, The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II.The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, and O’Brien left Ireland behind.

O’Brien  received the Irish PEN Award in 2001. Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for a short story collection. Faber and Faber published her memoir, Country Girl, in 2012.  Her Faber & Faber author’s page is HERE. Her Amazon page is HERE.

If you are viewing this from an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to watch this video.


PEN America will also honor:

  • poet Kamau Brathwaite with the PEN/ Voelcker Award,
  • translator Barbara Harshav with the PEN/ Manheim Medal for Translation, and
  • author Dave Kindred with the PEN/ ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing.

The PEN/ Laura Pels Foundation for Theater Awards will be conferred on playwrights:

  • Luis Alfaro for Master American Dramatist,
  • Sibyl Kempson for American Dramatist in Mid-Career, and
  • Mike Lew for Emerging American Playwright.

White, O’Brien, and PEN America’s other career achievement award winners will accept their prizes at the 2018 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, February 20, at the NYU Skirball Center near Washington Square Park. Featuring readings, performances, and edge-of-your-seat live announcements of the winners for the year’s prizes, this annual celebration of literature and free expression has become one the city’s premier literary events drawing the biggest names and the hottest new voices in literature. Special guests, finalists, and presenters in attendance will include:

  • Tanwi Nandini Islam
  • Yahdon Israel
  • Hari Kunzru
  • Victor LaValle
  • Colum McCann
  • Lynn Nottage
  • Philip Roth
  • Layli Long Soldier
  • Monique Truong
  • Kevin Young
  • David Zirin
    … and many more

Hosted by author, social activist, and political commentator
Sally Kohn

A full list of finalists for the 2018 PEN America Literary Awards is available HERE . All book award winners will be announced at the ceremony. Purchase tickets HERE. I understand that this is the first year tickets are being made available to the general public. Student tickets are discounted.


Compiled with thanks to PEN America, White’s website, Faber & Faber, Wikipedia and Amazon.

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.


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2018 PEN AMERICA LITERARY AWARDS, a literary lens on human experience and a spotlight on women’s voices; Ursula K. Le Guin on shortlist for “No Time to Spare”


PEN America announced the finalists for the 2018 Literary Awards last week, revealing a diverse roster of authors and works to recognize today’s best literature and translation spanning genres and continents.

For the first time, the finalist pool for the prestigious PEN/ Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction is comprised entirely of women and includes:

  • Hannah Lillith Assadi for Sonora (Soho Press),
  • Venita Blackburn for Black Jesus and Other Superheroes: Stories (University of Nebraska Press),
  • Carmen Maria Machado for Her Body and Other Parties: Stories (Graywolf Press),
    Emily Fridlund for History of Wolves (Grove Atlantic), and
  • Jenny Zhang for Sour Heart (Lenny).

The announcement also included finalists for the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Award for book of the year, one of the largest U.S. literary prizes, established last year by the late author and oral historian. Addressing some of the key themes of our time from fraudulent news to systemic racism, the list includes:

  •  White Tears by Hari Kunzru (Alfred A. Knopf),
  • We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates (One World),
  • Whereas by Layli Long Soldier (Graywolf Press),
  • Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News by Kevin Young (Graywolf Press), and
  • The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau).

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018), whose death on January 22nd in Portland is deeply felt, is shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award, Art of the Essay for her No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, which is the collected writing from the blog she started at 81 years.

According to the New York Times obit, Ms. Le Guin published twenty novels, a dozen poetry collections, over one-hundred short stories, seven collections of essays, thirteen children’s books, and five volumes of translation. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination is a worthy addition to every writer’s bookshelf. Recommended.

The video below is of Ms. Le Guin’s wisdom-filled acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters at the 65th National Book Awards on November 19, 2014.

“We will need writers,” she says, “who remember freedom . . . poets, visionaries … the realists of a larger reality.”

(If you are viewing this post from an email subscription, it’s likely you’ll need to link through to the site to watch the video.)

The new film adaption of Ms. Le Guin’s science fiction fantasy, A Wrinkle in Time, is due out in theaters on March 9.)

Ms. Le Guin’s photograph © 2003 by Joyce Scrivner


PEN, Exc. Dir. Suzanne Nossel

“It is fitting that our Literary Awards this year spotlight five new women’s voices in fiction, as well as a dazzling diversity of writers for our flagship Stein prize and in other categories,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “PEN America’s Literary Awards celebrate some of the greatest fruits of free expression—stories that inspire, spark empathy, and change minds. At a time when the fabric of our discourse is being torn by polarization, technological change, and political upheaval, literature has the power to help us see past impasse and imagine a different future.” 

Winners of the 2018 PEN America Literary Awards will be revealed at the February 20 ceremony at the NYU Skirball Center in New York.  The ceremony will feature performances of honored works and will be followed by a champagne toast. Link pen.org/2018finalists for the complete list of finalists. PEN announced that for the first time it is offering a limited number of tickets to the general public. PURCHASE TICKETS.

For over fifty years, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored many of the most outstanding voices in literature across such diverse fields as fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, sports writing, biography, children’s literature, translation, and drama. With the help of its partners and supporters, PEN America will confer twenty-four distinct awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes in 2018, awarding more than $350,000 to writers and translators.

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Sources: Ms. Le Guin’s website, PEN America, Amazon, Wikipedia, and the New York Times. PEN America nonprofit logo by Mltellman under CC BY-SA 4.0 license; photo credit Suzanne Nossel by PEN America under CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

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.


ABOUT THE POET BY DAY