PEN America Approaches Its Awards Night With News Media Appearances

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Ahead of PEN America’s literary awards night, the organization’s president Jennifer Egan tells CNN, ‘I feel like the next phase is going to be an engagement with the truth.’

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jennifer Egan appeared Sunday (February 24) on CNN’s ‘Reliable Sources’ in her capacity as PEN America president

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

PEN’s Literary Awards Ceremony Is Tuesday
In many cases, literature can help draw attention to societal problems and political issues. But in recent appearances in mainstream news media, the PEN America leadership has been reversing that pattern, getting out ahead of its literary awards program with current affairs commentary on the air.

On Tuesday evening (February 26), PEN will hold its annual literary awards program at New York University’s Skirball Center. The list of honors is long and, in the aggregate, it will confer 22 awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes worth a total of more than US$370,000 in winnings. Categories among the literary awards range from debut short story collections to works by authors of color; from poetry in translation to essays; from biography and nonfiction to literary sports and science writing.

Additionally, there are “nomination awards,” and in those cases, we know already that they will be led this year by the Mexican-American author and poet Sandra Cisneros as recipient of the 2019 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, a prize that comes with $50,000. In 2018, the winner of the PEN/Nabokov was Margaret Atwood.

You can learn more here about the winners of this year’s “nomination awards” which will see not only Cisneros collect the Nabokov but also:

  • Larissa Fasthorse honored with the PEN/Laura Pels Foundation for Theater Award, US$10,000
  • Alexandra Watson of the Apogee Journal winnng the PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing, US$2,500
  • Jackie “Mac” MacMullan taking the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing, US$5,000
  • Jonah Mixon-Webster named the recipient of the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry, US$5,000

All of these recognitions and their importance will have been heralded by news.

We’ll follow with the many shortlists of finalists for the literature awards below.

PEN’s Jennifer Egan: ‘We’re Seeing the End of an Old Order’

Another prize that helped generate a media appearance over the weekend is the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award, normally announced at the organization’s gala later in the spring.

“The point of imprisoning a journalist is, plain and simple, to try to silence that person.”Jennifer Egan

The honor was won last year by the imprisoned Myanmar reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, accused of violating Nay Pyi Taw’s official secrets act. In the prior year, 2017, the imprisoned Ukrainian writer and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was named to receive the PEN/Barbey.

On Sunday (February 24), PEN America’s current president, Jennifer Egan, was on CNN’s Reliable Sources (you can see the full segment here), telling John Avlon who hosted that “Because there’s this increase in the persecution of journalists, it feels ever more important to do what we can to try to shine a light on those cases. The truth is that it can work.

“The point of imprisoning a journalist is, plain and simple, to try to silence that person. So if we create enough of a ruckus it becomes more uncomfortable to leave that person in prison than to release him or her.”

Of the last 42 winners PEN has named to its Freedom To Write Award, 37 have been released from detention.

“I think we’re seeing the end of an old order,” Egan told Avlon on Sunday.

“Suppression of the truth just seems like an impossible and outdated approach. If you look at something like climate change, it’s happening. You can deny it all you want, [but] we can all see it around us.

“I have so much faith in human ingenuity and American ingenuity that I feel like the next phase is going to be an engagement with the truth and a responsiveness to it, rather than an effort to flatten it out and eliminate complex thought.”

PEN’s Susanne Nossel: ‘Trump Is Essentially Violating the Law’

On February 10, PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources with security analysts Juliette Kayyem and Sam Vinograd, and explained that the bipartisan demand for an explanation for Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder from the White House falls under the Global Magnitsky Act.

That legally requires Donald Trump, in PEN’s media messaging, “to determine which individuals the US government has found to be responsible for any gross violation of Jamal Khashoggi’s internationally recognized human rights and state whether he [Trump] intends to impose sanctions on them.”

“There’s an outcry. And I don’t know how long the administration is going to continue to stonewall.”Suzanne Nossel

On Reliable Sources, Nossel pointed out to host Brian Stelter that the administration had been supposed to file its report on February 8, but instead, “They abdicated, they said, ‘We’re ignoring this,’ essentially violating the law. It’s a standoff.

“The world is demanding accountability. This case struck a nerve. I think it was the bone saw. I think it was [Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman’s] involvement with people like Jared Kushner and Sergey Brin. For MBS to be personally implicated and yet no response, it’s just not sitting well on the Hill, and it’s not sitting well with the American public.

“There’s an outcry. And I don’t know how long the administration is going to continue to stonewall.”

In her comments (you can see the full segment here), Nossel also noted that Jeff Bezos’ allegations of attempted extortion by American Media, parent company of the National Enquirer, were of special concern because they referred to an alleged effort to stop publication of news material protected by the First Amendment.

PEN’s formal statement on the matter issued earlier this month, read, in part: “By failing to meet Congress’ deadline for a report on the Khashoggi case, the Trump administration has demonstrated once again its abdication of leadership in defending internationally recognized human rights.

“The president and his administration either do not understand the dangers of allowing Saudi Arabia to get away with such a heinous act in violation of international law, or they do not care.  Or, in the worst case, they are actively trying to shield the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman from accountability for an assassination the CIA has concluded the crown prince ordered,” as reported by the Washington Post’s Shane Harris, Greg Miller, and Josh Dawsey.

“PEN America continues to call for an independent, international investigation to lay the groundwork for accountability.”

PEN America 2019 Literary Awards Finalists

PEN/Jean Stein Book Award (US$75,000)

This honor is for a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact.

  • Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner Books)
  • The Carrying: Poems, Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions)
  • Citizen Illegal, José Olivarez (Haymarket Books)
  • The Overstory: A Novel, Richard Powers (W. W. Norton & Company)

Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover (Random House)

PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a Debut Short Story Collection (US$25,000)

This award is given to an author whose debut collection of short stories published in 2018 represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.

  • White Dancing Elephants, Chaya Bhuvaneswar (Dzanc Books)
  • A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley (Graywolf Press)
  • Some Trick, Helen DeWitt (New Directions)
  • Half Gods, Akil Kumarasamy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Bring Out the Dog, Will Mackin (Random House)

PEN/Hemingway Award for a Debut Novel

This prize is for a debut novel published in 2018.

  • Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi (Grove Press)
  • The Driest Season, Meghan Kenny (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • Severance, Ling Ma (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • There There, Tommy Orange (Alfred A. Knopf)
  • Cherry, Nico Walker (Alfred A. Knopf)

PEN Open Book Award (US$5,000)

This award is for a book-length work of any genre by an author of color, published in the United States in 2018.

  • Cape Verdean Blues, Shauna Barbosa (University of Pittsburgh Press)
  • How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, Tyrese Coleman (Mason Jar Press)
  • Teeth Never Sleep, Ángel García (University of Arkansas Press)
  • Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Atria)
  • Eye Level, Jenny Xie (Graywolf Press)

PEN Translation Prize (US$3,000)

This award honors a book-length translation of prose from any language into English published in 2018.

  • Nevada Days, Bernardo Atxaga (Graywolf Press), translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
  • Disoriental, Négar Djavadi (Europa Editions), translated from the French by Tina Kover
  • The Stone Building and Other Places, Aslı Erdoğan (City Lights), translated from the Turkish by Sevinç Türkkan
  • Love, Hanne Ørstavik (Archipelago Books), translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
  • Trick, Domenico Starnone (Europa Editions), translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri

PEN Award for Poetry in Translation (US3,000)

This prize recognizes a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English published in 2018.

  • The Shutters, Ahmed Bouanani (New Directions). translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
  • Aperture, Jacek Dehnel (Zephyr Press), translated from the Polish by Karen Kovacik
  • Today, Juan Gelman (co•im•press), translated from the Spanish by Lisa Rose Bradford
  • Negative Space, Luljeta Lleshanaku (New Directions), translated from the Albanian by Ani Gjika
  • A Certain Plume, Henri Michaux (NYRB), translated from the French by Richard Sieburth

PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay (US$10,000)

This prize recognizes a book of essays published in 2018 that exemplifies the essay form.

  • We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival, Jabari Asim (Picador)
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Impossible Owls, Brian Phillips (FSG Originals)
  • Feel Free, Zadie Smith (Penguin Press)
  • Against Memoir, Michelle Tea (Feminist Press)

PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography (US$5,000)

This nod goes to a distinguished biography published in 2018.

  • Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters Changed Our World, Andrea Barnet (Ecco)
  • Neruda: The Poet’s Calling, Mark Eisner (Ecco)
  • Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, Lauren Hilgers (Crown Publishing)
  • Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, Imani Perry (Beacon Press)
  • Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, Joshua Rivkin (Melville House)

PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction (US$10,000)

This award goes to a book of general nonfiction published in 2017 or 2018.

  • One Person, No Vote, Carol Anderson (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • American Prison, Shane Bauer (Penguin Press)
  • Amity and Prosperity, Eliza Griswold (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)
  • The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, Dunya Mikhail (New Directions Publishing)
  • In a Day’s Work, Bernice Yeung (The New Press)

PEN/EO Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing (US$10,000)

This prize honors literary excellence in a book on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.

  • The World in a Grain, Vince Beiser (Riverhead)
  • The Beginning of Everything, Andrea Buchanan (Pegasus Books)
  • Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb (Chelsea Green)
  • Blue Dreams: The Science and the Story of the Drugs that Changed Our Minds, Lauren Slater(Little, Brown and Company)
  • She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Carl Zimmer (Dutton Books)

PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing (US$5,000)

This recognition honors a nonfiction book on the subject of sports published in 2018.

  • The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, Howard Bryant (Beacon Press)
  • The Big Fella: Babe Ruth and the World He Created, Jane Leavy (Harper)
  • The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey, Rowan Ricardo Phillips (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Limits of the Known, David Roberts (W. W. Norton)
  • Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City, Albert Samaha (Public Affairs)

The comedian Hari Kondabolu is to appear as the host of the awards ceremony on Tuesday.


More from Publishing Perspectives on PEN America is here. And more on publishing and literary awards is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.