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The 2021 PEN America Literary Awards winners were announced in their first-ever online ceremony since the awards began 57 years ago. It was hosted by Kara Young and featured many guest appearances, including Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis. A total of $ 380,000 in prizes was awarded to a wide variety of writers, translators, poets, editors, journalists, and others. Although they were unable to host the usual festivities, the online ceremony can be viewed in full on Youtube!
PEN America was founded in 1922 with the intention of “promoting the international literary community” after the First World War. PEN originally stood for poets, essayists, and novelists, but today it honors a number of forms of expression and artists who work with words.
Before reading the winners, you can read our previous posts on the long list and short list of finalists!
PEN / Jean Stein Book Prize (75,000 USD)
A book-length work of a genre because of its originality, merit and impact that has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling a strong potential for lasting influence.
Winner: Hold: a poem by Ross Gay
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From the judges: “Ross Gay’s Be Holding is nothing short of delightful… a wonderful, in-depth exploration of how much captured moments can mean in time. “
PEN Open Book Award ($ 10,000)
An extraordinary book-length work of a literary genre by a color author.
Winner: Heir to Asako Serizawa
From the judges: “The variety of narratives in Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors is nothing short of remarkable … the precision and care with which she writes her sentences and constructs her worlds never wavers.”
The PEN / Robert W. Bingham Award for First Short Story Collection ($ 25,000)
For an author whose first collection of short stories represents outstanding literary accomplishments and holds great promise for future work.
Winner: Other news of the defeat: Stories by Michael X. Wang
From the judges: “Hilarious and tragic, political and domestic, beautiful and brutal, not in turn, but in a miraculous way at the same time … Further news about the defeat is an intense interest in the questions and worries and strange jokes about being a person in the world.”
PEN / Hemingway Award for Debut Novel ($ 10,000)
On a debut novel of exceptional literary value by an American author.
Winner: Sharks in the Time of Rescuers: A Novel by Kawai Strong Washburn
From the judges: “A closely watched, deeply human novel that blends mythology, social and childish folklore, and the visceral realities of a single Hawaiian family vacillating between poverty and comfort, separation and deep kinship.”
PEN / Diamonstein Spielvogel Award for the Art of Essay ($ 15,000)
For an experienced writer whose collection of essays is an extension of his body of work and who preserves the outstanding art form of the essay.
Winner: Did I know: Collected essays by Barbara Ehrenreich
From the judges: “Your essays in this latest collection are often forward-looking and span several decades. They explain how we got where we are today. As a courageous and brilliant thinker, she is most notable because she reminds us how to be a person. “
The PEN / Voelcker Prize for Poetry Collection (USD 5,000)
For a poet whose remarkable collection of poems represents a remarkable and accomplished literary presence.
Winner: Obit by Victoria Chang
From the judges: “Obit’s conceptual brilliance is associated with intensity and intimacy. Chang writes about deep personal grief in a way that feels expansive and inviting and never sacrifices intelligence and heart. “
PEN Poetry in Translation Award ($ 3,000)
For a book-length translation of poems from any language into English.
Winner: Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations by Amang, translated by Steve Bradbury
From the judges: “By bringing his fascinating dialogues with Amang to the collection, Steve Bradbury not only offers us excellent translations of the works of a spirited and highly skilled contemporary poet, but also positions the act of translation as an act of discovery.”
PEN Translation Award ($ 3,000)
For a book-length translation of prose from any language into English.
Winner: A land to die for: a novel by Abdellah Taïa, translated by Emma Ramadan
From the judges: “Ramadan makes every character’s pursuit of identity – trans, female, gay, black – with a compassionate ear, and beautifully translates the unsung voices that emerge from the French colonial wrecks.”
PEN / EO Wilson Literary Science Writing Award ($ 10,000)
For work that illustrates literary excellence on the subject of physical or biological sciences and conveys complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.
Winner: Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest for the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght
From the judges: “This is a compelling book that cleverly combines the cultural challenges of field research and the entangled worlds of man, technology and nature with novel-like skill.”
PEN / John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($ 10,000)
For a well-respected general non-fiction book published in 2019 or 2020 that has remarkable literary value and a critical perspective that sheds light on key contemporary issues.
Winner: Wayward lives, beautiful experiments: intimate stories of seditious black girls, disruptive women and strange radicals by Saidiya Hartman
From the judges: “Hartman brings these women to life with grace and intelligence … a triumphant, compelling, utterly original scientific work. It’s a brave, beautiful experiment. “
PEN / JACQUELINE BOGRAD WELD AWARD FOR BIOGRAPHY ($ 5,000)
For a biography of exceptional literary, narrative and artistic value based on careful research.
Winner: Stranger in the City of the Shogun: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley
From the judges: “This is an inspiring book in content and form … a work of great literary excellence and a compelling new life story in 19th century Japan.”
Check out the winners announcement, including the judges’ full statements on each of the winners!
PEN America has more than 7,500 members across the country and they fight for freedom of expression. You can learn more about them and check out their literary and free utterance programs on their website.