PEN America Literary Awards Announce the 2021 Finalists

In News by Porter Anderson

From these finalists for the PEN America Literary Awards, winners will be announced on April 8 and receive a total of more than US$380,000.

Dining tents in New York City’s Bryant Park, February 4. Image – iStockphoto: Massimo Giachetti

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

From 1,850 Submissions, 55 Finalists
A total of 55 titles in 11 categories have been named today (February 10) as finalists in the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards. They now are in contention for an aggregate purse of more than US$380,000. PEN America, of course, is the US affiliate chapter of PEN International.

An important and notably serious program among world publishing’s myriad awards programs each year, this series is also at times confusing because its sponsor-named categories vary widely in their nature and prize money. Some awards are funded for biennial presentation, rather than yearly.

This makes the PEN America Literary Awards more easily understood as a collection of honors rather than the annually consistent slate of recognitions you expect in such a program as the British Book Awards in London or the National Book Awards in New York.

In structure, these awards are closer to the discrete translation awards administered as a similar collection by the United Kingdom’s Society of Authors. Those are announcing their 2021 slate of winners, as it happens, on Thursday (February 11). PEN’s own translation award finalists in these lists today comprise work in seven languages from nine nations.

Overall, this year’s finalists are published by 48 imprints and reportedly include 20 debuts. We count 81 jurors all told, working in groups to handle each of the awards. The program has been in operation since 1963.

Jane Marchant

Jane Marchant, who directs the awards program, is quoted today saying, “From some 1,850 submitted titles, these 55 books represent … literature published during a time when the written word is urgently needed to support collective empathy and a better world.

“In these stories we see the banality of daily life; we see families, legends, religious rites, and cleansing; we see burials, wildfires, knife blades, emperors, gods, and divine favor. These books tell of real people, of a reality far beyond an expired canon. They remove barricades and show us our connected humanity.”

The winners are to be named on April 8 and, of course, will be revealed in a digital program amid the ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

2021 PEN America Literary Awards Finalists

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

This award goes to a book-length work of any genre “for its originality, merit, and impact,” deemed to have “broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence.”

Jurors: Vievee Francis, Fred Moten, Tommy Orange

  • Borderland Apocrypha, Anthony Cody (Omnidawn)
  • The Death of Vivek Oji: A Novel, Akwaeke Emezi (Riverhead Books)
  • Be Holding: A Poem, Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press)
  • The Freezer Door, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel, Kawai Strong Washburn (MCD)

PEN Open Book Award (US$10,000)

This honor goes to a book-length work of any literary genre by an author of color.

Jurors: Toi Derricotte, Brandon Hobson, Katie Kitamura, Jamil Jan Kochai, Akil Kumarasamy, Solmaz Sharif

  • A Treatise on Stars, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (New Directions Publishing)
  • Un-American, Hafizah Geter (Wesleyan University Press)
  • Wild Peach, S*an D. Henry-Smith (Futurepoem Books)
  • Inheritors, Asako Serizawa (Doubleday)
  • How to Pronounce Knife: Stories, Souvankham Thammavongsa (Little, Brown and Company)

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 “represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future work.”

Jurors: Ben Marcus, Elizabeth McCracken, Ingrid Rojas Contreras

  • Alligator & Other Stories, Dima Alzayat (Two Dollar Radio)
  • Adults and Other Children: Stories, Miriam Cohen (Ig Publishing)
  • You Will Never Be Forgotten: Stories, Mary South (FSG Originals)
  • A House Is a Body: Stories, Shruti Swamy (Algonquin Books)
  • Further News of Defeat: Stories, Michael X. Wang (Autumn House Press)

PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel (US$10,000)

This prize goes to a debut novel “of exceptional literary merit” by an American author.

Jurors: Ramona Ausubel, Jack Livings, Stuart Nadler

  • These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel, Maisy Card (Simon & Schuster)
  • Luster: A Novel, Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Shuggie Bain: A Novel, Douglas Stuart (Grove Press)
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel, Kawai Strong Washburn (MCD)
  • How Much of These Hills Is GoldA Novel, C Pam Zhang (Riverhead Books)

PEN/Voelcker Award for a Poetry Collection (US$5,000)

This award is for a poet “whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence.” 

Jurors: Sherwin Bitsui, Cynthia Cruz, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Keelan, Bao Phi

  • Conjure, Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)
  • Obit, Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)
  • The Age of Phillis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Wesleyan University Press)
  • Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, John Murillo (Four Way Books)
  • Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems, 2000–2018, Gerald Stern (W. W. Norton & Company)

PEN Award for Poetry in Translation (US$3,000)

As its title tells us, this award is for a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English.

Jurors: Daniel Borzutsky, Marissa Davis, Meg Matich

  • Lean Against This Late Hour, Garous Abdolmalekian (Penguin Books)
    Translated from Persian by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Idra Novey
  • Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations, Amang (Phoneme Media)
    Translated from Chinese by Steve Bradbury
  • Sense Violence, Helena Boberg (Black Ocean)
    Translated from Swedish by Johannes Göransson
  • Katabasis, Lucía Estrada (Eulalia Books)
    Translated from Spanish by Olivia Lott
  • A New Orthography, Serhiy Zhadan (Lost Horse Press)
    Translated from Ukrainian by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin

PEN Translation Prize (US3,000)

This award is for a book-length translation of prose from any language into English.

Jurors: Jacqui Cornetta, Somrita Urni Ganguly, Ana L. Méndez-Oliver, Amanda Sarasien, Niloufar Talebi, Sevinç Türkkan

  • Our Riches, Kaouther Adimi (New Directions Publishing)
    Translated from French by Chris Andrews
  • That Hair: A Novel, Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida (Tin House)
    Translated from Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker
  • Ornamental, Juan Cárdenas (Coffee House Press)
    Translated from Spanish by Lizzie Davis
  • Girls Lost, Jessica Schiefauer (Deep Vellum)
    Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel
  • A Country for Dying: A Novel, Abdellah Taïa (Seven Stories Press)
    Translated from French by Emma Ramadan

PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay (US$15,000)

This award recognizes “a seasoned writer whose collection of essays is an expansion on their corpus of work and preserves the distinguished art form of the essay.”

Jurors: Sandra Cisneros, John D’Agata, Adam Gopnik

  • Had I Known: Collected Essays, Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)
  • Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, Vivian Gornick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays, Robert Michael Pyle (Counterpoint Press)
  • Terroir: Love, Out of Place, Natasha Sajé (Trinity University Press)
  • Maybe the People Would Be the Times, Luc Sante (Verse Chorus Press)

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

The EO Wilson is awarded for a work “that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.”

Jurors: Nassir Ghaemi, Christine Kenneally, Erin Macdonald, Banu Subramaniam

  • The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin Press)
  • Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers, Emily Levesque (Sourcebooks)
  • The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, Sonia Shah (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan C. Slaght (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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

This award is for “a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research.”

Judges: Nicholas Buccola, Karl Jacoby, Nell Painter, Anna Whitelock

  • Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Sudhir Hazareesingh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, Ben Hubbard (Tim Duggan Books)
  • The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Peniel E. Joseph (Basic Books)
  • 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz, Heather Dune Macadam (Citadel)
  • Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World, Amy Stanley (Scribner)

PEN/John Kenneth Galbraight Award for Nonfiction (US10,000)

The John Kenneth Galbraight Award recognizes “a distinguished book of general nonfiction possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues.”

Jurors: Roxane Gay, Thomas Page McBee, Dunya Mikhail, Eric Schlosser, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Laura Wides-Muñoz

  • The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom (Grove Atlantic)
  • Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico, Beth C. Caldwell (Duke University Press)
  • Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, Saidiya Hartman (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker (Doubleday)
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)
The Coronavirus in the United States

At this writing, the 7:23 p.m. ET (0023 GMT Thursday) update of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees 27,279,523 cases in the States’ population of 328 million, with 471,184 fatalities.

As Roni Caryn Rabin and Sheryl Gay Stolberg are reporting at The New York Times tonight, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC)–now under the direction of the Joe Biden administration’s appointee, Rochelle P. Walensky, today has issued new research guidance indicating that “transmission of the virus can be reduced by up to 96.5 percent if both an infected individual and an uninfected individual wear tightly fitted surgical masks or a cloth-and-surgical-mask combination.”

New elements of masking guidance have taken on heightened attention in the States as numbers quickly climb in the key variants’ presence in the country. The Biden White House COVID-19 Response team, led by senior advisor Andy Slavitt, has made gains in genomic sequencing in order to get more clarity on variants.

As of reporting updated at 7:55 p.m. ET Wednesday by Jay Croft and Christina Maxouris for CNN, “So far, about 10 percent–almost 33.8 million Americans–have received at least one dose of the two-part vaccines, according to the CDC. About 10.5 million people have been fully vaccinated.”


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

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.