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Winners’ Speeches from the 2019 Literary Awards Ceremony

For over 50 years, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored outstanding voices in fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, sports writing, biography, children’s literature, translation, and drama. Backed by partners and supporters, PEN America has this year conferred over 20 distinct juried awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes, awarding more than $370,000 to writers and translators. Watch and read transcripts of their acceptance speeches below.


Ben Goldfarb, winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing for Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter
This is really surreal. Thank you so much to PEN and the judges for debating long into the night, for this incredible honor named after one of my true literary and environmental heroes. Thanks to my wife Elise for accompanying me to countless beaver ponds on two continents. Thanks to Michael Metivier, my editor at Chelsea Green Publishing, and the entire Chelsea Green staff. They’re amazing. And most of all to my parents, Lisa and David, for their love and encouragement. This book is dedicated to them. They’re here tonight; they’re my dates. My wife’s out of town.

If you follow environmental news, you know that our planet situation is dire. The climate’s warming, the polluters are in power, and three species have gone extinct since this party began. And yet, this book begins with 400 million beavers being wiped out for their pelts. It ends with Jose the beaver returning triumphantly to the Bronx river in 2007. A century ago, you could have roamed the state of New York without seeing a bear, a turkey, or even a deer. Now we’ve got coyotes in Yonkers. Don’t feed them, please. Our rivers don’t spontaneously catch on fire. We can, for the most part, breath the air. The falcons in Central Park can sit on their eggs without cracking shells thinned by pesticides. Shout out, Rachel Carson.

I note this not to play Pollyanna, but because we have to remember that progress is possible. There are Congressmen who think we should discard the Endangered Species Act altogether because they claim, falsely, that nothing ever recovers. The default position of climate deniers is shifting from, it’s not happening, to, it’s happening, but fixing it is too hard, so why bother? When we point out that conservation works, we declare that attempting to save our planet is worthwhile. To me, the story of beavers and the story of so much North American wildlife isn’t a distraction from the darkness; it’s a defense of striving for the light. Thank you to you all for helping us imagine a better world. 


Imani Perry, winner of the PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography for Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry
My goodness. Let me begin by saying that this is an enormous honor. I’m grateful to PEN America, to the judges. I’m honored to have been amongst such an extraordinary group of finalists.

Sixty years ago this spring, a young black woman from Chicago’s South Side had a play premiere on Broadway: A Raisin in the Sun. She changed the world of American theater. She became the black woman with the most widely produced play for a black playwright in the entire 20th century, and yet we knew very little about her life. She died at age 34, which was a tragedy, and yet her story remained largely untold, and I aimed to change that with Looking for Lorraine. I dedicated the book to her for her brilliance.

It was only possible with the support of my extraordinary editor who responded to an email, not a formal proposal, Gayatri Patnaik at Beacon Press; my children, Framon Dealo and Asa Garner, who are beautiful and brilliant and patient with the mother who writes incessantly; and of course my family, my community at Princeton University.

But really, in so many ways, Lorraine herself was the constant driver and inspiration, so I want to accept this award for her brilliance, as I said, for her curiosity, for her playfulness, for her courage, for her intellectual, extraordinary voraciousness, for her pursuit of truth, of justice, for her identity, as a black, lesbian feminist, long before any of those things were recognized as things to be proud of in the public arena. I thank her for her existence as a beacon. And I thank her for giving me the opportunity to become more fully the only thing that I knew, for the entirety of my life, that I wanted to be was a writer. In some ways I studiously avoided that by becoming an academic. And in many ways Lorraine brought me to the fullness of who I am. And so I am enormously grateful to her for that and to all of you, thank you. 


Martin Aitken, winner of the PEN Translation Prize for his translation from the Norwegian of Love by Hanne Ørstavik

Well, I was certainly wondering what to say if, and all of a sudden I’m standing here. I was thinking about a whole load of names, the likes of Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Herta Müller, Inger Kristensen, a whole host of names, an endless list. Authors whose writing would be completely unfamiliar to us if it weren’t for the transformative, transcendental power of translation. Thanks indeed to PEN for recognizing that and acknowledging it. An enormous debt of gratitude to the author, Hanne Ørstavik for writing such a compelling, passionate, insightful, and utterly heart-wrenching novel, and for entrusting it to me. Thanks to our intrepid publisher, Jill Schoolman, of the fabulous Archipelago Books here in New York. Thanks to NORLA, the people of NORLA for tirelessly promoting Norwegian literature abroad. Thanks too to the Danish Arts Foundation for occasionally making sure I’ve got something to eat. Anybody else? Well there are loads of people out there. Thank you to them all, thank you to PEN, and here’s to Love. Thank you.


Michelle Tea, winner of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Against Memoir

I’m having a full-body gay gasp at all of this. Wow, this feels very incredible to me. Thank you, PEN America. I’ve so much admiration for the incredible social justice work that you do, and to even be a tiny part of your gigantic story is such a huge honor. Thank you so much to the judges for doing this.

I write largely about people outside the mainstream. I always have done that. It’s so hugely touching and validating when my work gets recognized on a level like this. I mean, this has never happened, so actually right now, it feels very validating.

I want to thank my team at the Feminist Press, who are incredible. Lauren Hook, Jisu Kim, Jamia Wilson, they’re such an awesome press, and it’s and honor and it’s inspiring to work with them. I want to thank the people who inspired me to write the pieces in Against Memoir, the Hags, the lesbian street gang from San Francisco, many of whom have passed away; Stacy Quijuss, Fiver, Johanna; people who let me write their stories, Kelly Beardsley, Jonny Wray, Valerie Solanis. She didn’t let me, but I did it. Jody Caravalia.

And I really want to thank my husband-y, wife-y, genderqueer spouse Dashel, who gives me so much support. Like all writers I have immense impostor syndrome and constantly wonder what I do with my life and when I’m going to get a real job, and they always support me and can see that the work I’m doing is valuable even when I can’t. So, thank you, I love you so much. And thank you everybody. I love being a writer, thank you all writers!


Nafissa Thompson-Spires, winner of the PEN Open Book Award for Heads of the Colored People

Wow, I didn’t expect to win. So I wanted to give a cute, Olivia Colman-like Oscar speech, but I’m really afraid I’m going to melt into a puddle of stress sweat, so I’m just going to keep it really brief and say I want to thank my husband Derek whose research was a big part of this collection. I actually took my title from his scholarship on 19th century black writers James McCune Smith in particular, my editor Dawn Davis who’s here with me as well, and my agent Anna Stein at ICM. And I want to say I really appreciate that people are finding so much empathy and seeing themselves in a book about weird black people that I didn’t think was going to do the way it’s been doing, and I’m just really grateful. So, thank you PEN. Thank you everyone, all the other writers who are finalists for this. I appreciate you and I’m so glad that we’ve had a kind of mini cohort this year as debuts in particular. So, thank you.


Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for Friday Black

Hi guys. My name is on here. I’m not gonna lie, I’m pretty shook right now. I’m just trying to think of something funny to say, but it’s hard because I might vomit any time. If that happens, don’t worry. I think someone in my group has Altoids. You got Altoids? My book came out October 23 of this year, and so much has happened so fast it’s hard for me to really keep track of the way sort of a dream is manifesting. And one clear evidence of that is how bad I’ve gotten with emails. Sorry, to my editor, who’s here. I have to thank her first, thanks to Naomi Gibbs, who took a chance on this book. Also thanks to my editor, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, she’s here. To give an example of the kind of supporter she is, I said I was hungry earlier today, and while I was sitting someone gave me a chocolate bar and said, “This is from Meredith.” So, thank you for that, Meredith.

Man, I’m so happy. This is an overwhelming honor for me, and I thought that it’d be important to say: Seven years ago today, Trayvon Martin was murdered. I was in college at the time. I went to SUNY Albany, and I remember feeling really helpless, feeling like I couldn’t do anything, feeling a really persistent pain. And so in response to that, me and a good friend of mine—he was supposed to come, I don’t know if he got in. Junior, did you get in?

[Junior] I’m right here!

Alright, cool. We made this pamphlet. He took pictures and I wrote words, trying to express how we felt, maybe galvanize the campus, make something happen. And we stayed up until three in the morning and distributed these pamphlets anonymously. And I remember I went to bed feeling this sort of self-righteous glad about it. Feel like, we fixed racism today and let’s go to bed. And we got up trying to see what happened and expecting that people had some big conversation, and maybe unsurprisingly, nothing happened. I saw a janitor throwing them out. We had pretty much just littered, and I didn’t like that feeling at all.

In writing this book, I think what was important about doing that pamphlet, even though I am now out of the pamphlet game, I felt very precisely that I wanted these stories to be out in the world, even if my name wasn’t attached to them. I felt like maybe they could do something. I felt like maybe they could help somebody feel seen. Maybe they could push the conversation in a direction that mattered. I thought maybe if I imagined a world a little bit worse than ours, maybe collectively we could imagine a world that’s much better.

And so, it’s a big honor for me to have this chance to be here today. I think there’s so many people I want to thank, and I can’t get to them all. But all these writers, for me it’s incredible just to be down with y’all, to be honest. I feel really lucky. I feel really blessed.

I remember when I got to college, I didn’t have a laptop, and I felt all these kids would pop out their Macs every class, and I remember just feeling like, I don’t know, some sort of jealousy or resentment. I remember that next semester, my older sister, who’s here today, she got me this Lenovo Netbook, and I got to write stories on it and I felt like a writer for it. So thank you, Adoma, she’s here.

That’s just one example of the amazing support I’ve had at all these levels, trying to do this impossible thing. So thank you guys for making me feel like I can do it, and thank you for inspiring me everyday. Thank you for doing this thing, thank you for making this magic that has saved me time and time again. Thank you guys.


Richard Sieburth, winner of the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for his translation of A Certain Plume by Henri Michaux

My thanks to PEN America and to the judges of the PEN Poetry in Translation Prize, and above all my thanks to Edwin Frank, the guiding light behind NYRB Classics and NYRB Poets, to whom I actually dedicated this book in friendship and admiration.

Plume the hero of this volume of prose poems by Henri Michaux, or rather A Certain Plume, as he’s called in this first 1930 edition, takes his French moniker from feather or pen or more precisely quill, so it’s more than appropriate that this Monsieur Plume should have received this PEN prize for poetry in translation

The International PEN—or should we say plume—Club was founded in London in 1921. Its original initials P.E.N. separated by periods stood for poets, essayists, and novelists. Its current acronym PEN, sans periods, has now acquired further internal redoublings and alliterations, for it now stands, according to Wikipedia, for poets, playwrights—P; editors, essayists—E; and novelists—N, to which should probably be added a further category that we’ve just had in N for nonfictionalists.

Of course totally absent from the PEN acronym remains the letter T for translators, or traitors, whose addition would provide us with the far more preferable PENT International, or perhaps rePENT America, or in the even sexier Italian the PENTimento club, a perfect club for translators, those masters of revisionary regret.

Thanks again. After nearly 20 years, this is my second PEN prize in the translation category. Back in 2000, I received it from my edition of Gerard De Nerval, and tonight it’s Monsieur Plume’s turn. There’s even a poem in this book, where “In Memory of Me,” shows participation in the 1936 PEN Club Congress in Buenos Aires. Plume is the quote “guest of honor” at the Bren Club, the Bren being a light machine gun invented in England in the early 30s, presumably for the assassination of poets.


Rowan Ricardo Phillips, winner of the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing for The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey

Hi, so I wrote this book not intending to write this book. I tore my Achilles tendon, and I couldn’t really do anything. I was really high on oxycodone. And by the time the Australian Open in 2017 was kicking off and I don’t want to get too sporty because I’m a poet. I’m not I’m not that sporty, but there’s this great narrative and pathos in sports and thinking about it, and we got really excited because we thought we’d see a grand spectacle. We’d see the Williams sisters play in the women’s final and we’d see Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play in the men’s final in Melbourne in the Australian Open, and just at that time the executive order came down and the day that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal played was the same day that people streamed to the airports to start to protest, and they brought their kids and they’re out there particularly the Northeast in the cold.

And I’m somebody who’s always wondered with tennis, but all sports really, kind of like where the world, the real world, begins in the fantasy that is Sport ends, and it seems such a rich and necessary hole to kind of fall into, and that’s where this book really started. Not on the grass of Wimbledon and not on the clay of Roland-Garros, but rather there where you wonder after you’ve watch a wonderful tennis match at 5:00 in the morning or 5:30 in the morning, where are you going to go? What are you going to do after that, and what it all means?

So I just I really want to thank my wonderful wife Noria who’s here, and my wonderful daughters Imogen and Astrid for getting up with me at those ridiculous hours and just kind of really being there and going to the US Open with me and all those crazy things. I’d like to thank my folks for passing on this wonderful game to me, that as wonderful as it is, was still a colonial inheritance for them and something that I made sense of on the strangest courts you’d find in parts of New York City.

I’d like to thank my wonderful publisher and editor Jonathan Galassi, and I’d also like to thank Laird Gallagher and Chloe Texier-Rose and everyone at FSG who helped put together just a really beautiful book. All the editors at the Paris Review, Dave Shaftel, and of course also Caitlin Thompson at Racquet, just really all of you other finalists, of course and the judges and PEN.

I accept this gift not as a prize, but really just kind of as a sign that we find synergy in our deeds that action’s the only testament for moral behavior. Writing’s the only action that I know where I feel like a really ethical and moral person. Thank you for sharing this moment with me, and for those of you who have spent any time with this book or on a tennis court or enjoying the intermission with their better half, just thank you, and I hope that we can meet more in the years to come on the page and hopefully doing the right thing. Thank you very much.


Will Mackin, winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection for Bring Out the Dog

All right, good evening, everybody. I don’t have notes and I’m a retired sailor, so everybody buckle up. Gonna be a rough ride. Thank you PEN America. Thank you to the judges, and I’m very honored, especially considering the talent of fellow finalists. I’ve ordered all your books and I’m reading them, and I’ve just been blown away. So very honored to be up here.

My book is about a Seal Team at war. I happened to be part of a Seal Team. The genesis of the book though started when I was trying to join the team. There’s a long process, had to volunteer, had to be invited to interview. The first interview took place in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at JSOC headquarters, which is Joint Special Operations Command. There were a few people interviewing for the job and they went first, and while I waited I was in a break room, just like any normal break room. There was a refrigerator, a microwave, a table, some chairs. I sat at a table.

There were a number of books on the table, and they’d all been written by ex-commandos, ex members of this team that I had been a part of, and as I waited I leafed through them. I didn’t bother to read anything. I just went right to the pictures, and it was all what you’d expect what you’ve probably seen: young men heavily armed in godforsaken parts of the world with little black bars over their eyes and they were all smiling. And as I was looking through these books the guy who came in to get me to bring me to the interview opened the door and he saw me reading, and he was surprised. He said, “We don’t write fucking books.” Right then I knew I had to write a fucking book.

It took some time though, and I had a lot of love and support along the way. First and foremost, I want to thank my mom, who’s here tonight. I want to thank my wife Elena, my son Eli, my daughter Sarah. I want to thank my editor Andy Ward who’s up in the cheap seats somewhere, my agent Esther Newberg, good friend George Saunders, and Deborah Treesman. Thank you.