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PEN America Literary Awards winner Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

The 2019 PEN America Literary Awards Winners

PEN America is thrilled to announce the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards winners. The following book award winners were announced live at the 2019 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2019, at the NYU Skirball Center in NYC, hosted by Hari Kondabolu. 

Debut authors and works by and about women prevailed in a year with a record number of submissions in the nation’s largest 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.

Novelist, poet, and essayist Sandra Cisneros, 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.”

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 the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater 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, the PEN/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. Read the full press release.

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. Our awards are juried by panels of esteemed, award-winning writers, editors, booksellers, and critics. Learn more about each of the PEN America Literary Awards judges here.

Learn about our 2019 lifetime and career achievement honorees »

PLEASE NOTE: The PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel will be honored and celebrated on April 7, 2019, at the JFK Museum and Library in Boston. Stay tuned for more details.

Watch the 2019 Ceremony

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

To the author of a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact, and that has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence. JUDGES: Jennifer Clement, Matthew Desmond, Natalie Diaz, Brenda Shaughnessy, Charles Yu

Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Mariner Books)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “In this brilliant debut collection of short stories, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah brings a new voice to old, vexing issues that continue to haunt American life: violence, racism, consumer lust, and more. The stories that form Friday Black combine the real and surreal, the concrete and the mythological, with such awful beauty and power that readers cannot but help question the sincerity of their convictions. Adjei-Brenyah twists the 2015 Charleston church massacre into a horror story of a different order, and the shocking result makes us question why we aren’t shocked more often. The 2012 slaying of Trayvon Martin forms the basis of another story, one in which murderous rage against black men is transformed into absurd entertainment, making us realize the terrible absurdity of white masculine fear. Adjei-Brenyah displays a 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.”




2019 Jean Stein Winner: Friday Black

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

To an author whose debut collection of short stories published in 2018 represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise. JUDGES: Chris Abani, Frances Hwang, Gary Lutz

Bring Out the Dog, Will Mackin (Random House)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “When, in his story ‘The Fire Truck,’ Will Mackin describes a man’s whistling as ‘a sound that seemed to penetrate everything and pull it slightly apart,’ he could easily be describing the harrowed poetry of sublimely wracking exactitudes in which he has released these wildly original clarion bursts of storytelling art. Mackin’s fiction situates the reader in the headspace of an elite soldier who records the realities and irrealities of contemporary warfare, as well as the most heartless and heartful eruptions of human nature on both sides, with an audacious, infrared clarity. Bring Out the Dog is the debut of a visionary and a virtuoso.”




2019 Bingham Winner: Bring Out the Dog

PEN Open Book Award ($5,000)

To an exceptional book-length work of any genre by an author of color, published in the United States in 2018. JUDGES: Hanif Abdurraqib, Cristina Arreola, Richie Narvaez, Kevin Nguyen, Elissa Washuta, Sunil Yapa

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Atria)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People is an original and thrilling debut short story collection that deftly explores race as both foundational and ancillary in the lives of bickering school moms and melancholic teenagers, weaving together stories of Black upper middle class lives in contemporary America. A book this smart, funny, sly, charming, and devastating is a gift. Both of the moment and utterly timeless, these stories and the ‘heads’ they inhabit do the necessary and thrilling work of the best literature: They expand the understanding of what it means to be a human and alive in this moment.”




2019 Open Book Winner: Heads of the Colored People

PEN Translation Prize ($3,000)

For a book-length translation of prose from any language into English published in 2018. JUDGES: Ezra Fitz, Barbara Harshav, Vincent Kling, Marian Schwartz, Ron Slate

Love, Hanne Ørstavik (Archipelago Books)
Translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “The judges are proud to honor Martin Aitken for his luminous translation 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. In a mere 125 pages, Ørstavik distills a tremendous sense of emptiness, loneliness, and yearning from Vibeke and her son Jon, and in Aitken’s elegant translation, the prose crackles like the icy environs of Norway itself. Ørstavik’s narrative shifts without warning between the voices and visions of her two protagonists, and the finesse of Aitken’s focus allows these transitions to take place with equal parts artistry and subtlety. What we have, in the end, with Love, is an extraordinary translation of an uncannily singular novel, one which the judges will be savoring for many years to come.”




2019 Translation Winner: Love

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

For a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English published in 2018. JUDGES: Sinan Antoon, Ewa Chrusciel, Peter Filkins, Katrine Øgaard Jensen

A Certain Plume, Henri Michaux (NYRB)
Translated from the French by Richard Sieburth
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “Among many very fine translations the judges had the pleasure to consider, Richard Sieburth’s translation of Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume stood out for its careful handling of tone and colloquial register in the deft navigation of the uncanny. Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp and Kafka’s Josef K., Michaux’s Plume stumbles and bungles his way through modern life, only to artfully sustain the dignified poise of the human amid the absurd machinations that seek to consume him. Not only does Sieburth’s translation do justice to Plume’s tightrope act above the abyss, it also restores the original shape of Michaux’s 1930 Un certain Plume, placing it convincingly in the modern pantheon through notes and an excellent afterword. Tone and timing are the chief catalysts of the prose poem, and Richard Sieburth has shown Henri Michaux to be a master of both.”

Honorable Mention: The judges also felt strongly that Karen Kovacik’s translation of Jacek Dehnel’s Aperture deserves a special Honorable Mention for her nimble translations of metrical, rhymed, free verse, and prose poems from the Polish. Dehnel’s sharp eye pierces to the core of contemporary life, laying bare emptiness and ennui like a skilled surgeon. Kovacik proves herself every bit his match in artistry and acumen.




2019 Poetry in Translation Winner: A Certain Plume

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

For a book of essays published in 2018 that exemplifies the essay form. JUDGES: Garrard Conley, Paul Reyes, Aisha Sabatini Sloan

Against Memoir, Michelle Tea (Feminist Press)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “Tea’s anti-memoir harkens back to the days when queer was truly counterculture. On subjects as varied as marriage and Minor Threat, in a manner quick-witted and unabashedly intelligent, these essays rove, plunge, and spike. Each seems to set out with almost uninhibited bravery as she walks the terrain of memory or explores the mysteries of pop culture, all with sober precision; in other moments, the prose barrels forward in jubilant riffs, rendered with the fast, energetic, and angry strokes of punk. One senses in her work not just the art of writing but the art of having fun while doing it. Tea uses her own experience to add a sense of proximity and emotional depth that, taken together, vault her sentences toward unexpected poetry. Something ineffable lives within these pages; any subject in her hands—be it a band, a crush, or getting lost in a faraway city—feels organic and alive. Tea is one of those rare writers whose style is immediately recognizable yet inimitable, whose voice is as singularly irresistible as the punk culture that shaped her.”




2019 Diamonstein Winner: Against Memoir

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

For a distinguished biography published in 2018. JUDGES: Nell Irvin Painter, Sam Stephenson, Rachel Syme

Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, Imani Perry (Beacon Press)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “Lorraine Hansberry packed a lot of ambition into a short life. When she died in 1965, at only 34 years old, she was already a New York legend: her award-winning drama, A Raisin in the Sun, about a black family living in segregated Chicago, became the first ever play by a black woman to debut on Broadway. But she did much more than write plays: Hansberry was also a devoted civil rights activist and venerated public intellectual, and a friend and colleague of James Baldwin, W.E.B DuBois, Nina Simone, and Malcolm X. Imani Perry’s Looking For Lorraine celebrates Hansberry, in all her accomplishments and appetites, but it does not shy away from the complexities and entanglements that made Hansberry’s life story as dramatic and serpentine as one of her plays. Perry approaches her subject with both empathy and a sharp, critical eye; this is a biography that exercises several muscles at once. Perry’s sentences are intimate, warm, and crisp; in considering Hansberry in all of her prismatic multiplicities, Perry has written a singular book.”




2019 Bograd Winner: Looking for Lorraine

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

To honor a distinguished book of general nonfiction published in 2017 or 2018. JUDGES: Nana-Ama Danquah, McKenzie Funk, Syreeta McFadden, Christina Sharpe, Linda Villarosa

In a Day’s Work, Bernice Yeung (The New Press)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “Harrowing and deeply reported, In a Day’s Work forces readers to see the vulnerable women who too often go unseen, low-paid immigrants who pick produce, clean offices, and care for children and the elderly—and face devastating sexual violence and intimidation in the workplace. With great humanity and care for detail, Bernice Yeung makes clear the frequency and regularity of the abuse and the necessity of the efforts to unionize and support such workers. The book attends to the ways that women of color (from Latin America, South America, and the Caribbean) organize themselves and each other in the face of violence, intimidation, isolation, uncertain immigration status, shame, vulnerability, unfamiliarity with laws, and sexism in labor organizing. “There’s no way to defend yourself. […] That’s why you deal with everything, all of the harassment. […] You deal with it because you need the job,” says Georgina Hernández, one of In a Day’s Work’s many quiet heroes. Yeung has given us a book that is utterly necessary: sobering in the details and scope but hopeful in all of the ways that immigrant women come together to organize and collectively enact refusal.




2019 Galbraith Winner: Bernice Yeung

PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing ($10,000)

For a book that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience. JUDGES: Arianne Shahvisi, Jeff VanderMeer, Christie Wilcox

Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb (Chelsea Green)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “Sometimes the best thing humans can do for the environment is hand it over to another species. While it is widely known that beavers dam waterways, often in ways that frustrate human plans, it is rarely acknowledged that these nocturnal rodents can radically transform vast swathes of land, boosting biodiversity, recharging aquifers, purifying water, reducing pollution, and protecting against erosion and wildfires. Vast in scope but beautifully specific in detail, Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter is an important environmental saga with clear implications for modern-day ecological policy. This true natural history portrays the inequities of settler impact on North America on a broad scale through a particular creature and ecosystem—revealing that we once lived in a much different world, and that we will struggle to reclaim that world without interspecies cooperation. While maintaining a strong central storyline, Goldfarb offers eye-opening, fascinating vignettes about these industrious engineering rodents and the people whose lives are devoted to reintroducing, protecting, and championing them. At times tragic and at times hopeful, Eager is a charming, surprising, and compelling lesson in the intricacies of ecosystems, and the limits of human hubris.”


2019 Wilson Winner: Eager

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

To honor a nonfiction book on the subject of sports published in 2018. JUDGES: Chris Bachelder, Rafi Kohan, Carvell Wallace

The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey, Rowan Ricardo Phillips (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Hudson Booksellers | IndieBound

From the judges’ citation: “The Circuit is a dizzy, unbridled, obsessive book about a love for tennis told by recounting the minutiae of the 2017 men’s season. Phillips transforms details into poetry as he follows the season-long trajectory of a gaggle of players culminating in a showdown between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. A book lovingly built for fans and non-fans alike, Phillips is uncommonly generous with the reader, taking time to render the game’s fine points with a ceremonious attention that can only be described as devotion. Such observance turns sport narrative into near religious text, and set against the dark backdrop of a Trump election and the author’s own recovery from a heinous Achilles injury, the book becomes a meditation on all things gorgeous and grave about the fragile human spirit and all it seeks to—and fails—to accomplish.”




2019 ESPN Winner: The Circuit

PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature ($50,000)

The award will be conferred annually to a living author whose body of work, either written in or translated into English, represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship. JUDGES: Alexander Chee, Edwidge Danticat, Valeria Luiselli


From the judges: “Sandra Cisneros has said that she writes because ‘the world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning.’ In a formidable and awe-inspiring body of work, which includes fiction, memoir, and poetry, Cisneros brings us astounding and lyrical voices from burning, maligned, devastated, as well as reassembled houses, and nations. It’s hard to imagine navigating our world today without her stories and her voice guiding us towards needed much reclamation and endurance.”



Sandra Cisneros



PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award

To a playwright working at the highest level of achievement in mid-career. JUDGES: Craig Lucas, Jacob G. Padron, Condola Rashad


From the judges: “Larissa FastHorse is prolific not only in her work—17 plays in a little over a decade—but in the ways in which she explores the human condition. She digs into intercultural rifts within and outside family, employing dance and song and myth and history. She writes for children and adults, calling on a spirit of public discussion with a Chekhovian-sized empathy. The human comedy is everywhere in her stories, side by side with a jaundiced eye about class and our great national shortfall set against our founding ideals. The genocidal history of the U.S. government is never far from her sights, and there is no certainty that the malignancy lingering there is far from done with us. FastHorse educates, tweaks, embraces, outrages and dances, sometimes all in a single scene. Some of her plays (like Hunka) obey Aristotelean unities and could happily live in any commercial venue like Broadway or the West End while others (A Cherokee Family Reunion, for instance) call for the intimacy and understanding of a community-driven theater. She is an exceptional playwright and deserves to be much more widely known.”



Larissa Fasthorse



PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing

To a magazine editor whose high literary standards and taste have, throughout his or her career, contributed significantly to the excellence of the publication he or she edits. JUDGES: Mark Doten, Kima Jones, Daniel A. Olivas


From the judges: “There are many journals and their editors who deserve recognition for the tireless and often unpaid work of running a nonprofit literary outfit. We could’ve named other, equally admirable, journals for this award but Alexandra Watson has demonstrated that within the pages of Apogee there is no room for timidity. From the life of Sandra Bland to migrant reamaginings, through visual art and poetry and prose, Alexandra Watson captures and curates around the concerns of her generation. Apogee is a lionhearted enterprise, one that deserves our full critical attention, and all of the resources that we can afford it.”



Alexandra Watson



PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing

To a living sports writer for their literary merit and dedication to sports writing with keen knowledge, insight, and a literary voice. JUDGES: Chris Bachelder, Rafi Kohan, Carvell Wallace


From the judges: “Since joining the Boston Globe as a sports writer at the age of 22, Jackie MacMullan has been one of the most respected and prolific journalists in the country. She established herself as a beat reporter for the Boston Celtics at a time when women were even more rare in the field than they are today and through her meticulous knowledge of the game, clear-headedness and honesty she was able to not only make a lane for herself but gain the respect and trust of the game’s biggest names. The result was first a deluge of sharp and agile columns covering everything from trade rumors to player profiles, to the details of specific plays, and then a series of books based on her unique ability to gather oral histories—the memoirs of Larry Bird, Shaquille O’Neal, Geno Auriemma, as well as the 2009 New York Times best seller When The Game Was Ours with Bird and Magic Johnson. Her 2018 epic, Basketball: A Love Story—written alongside Rafe Bartholomew drew upon nearly a thousand hours of interviews to create a deeply literary, profoundly intimate book that may well be one of the most ambitious and definitive  ever written about the game.”



Jackie MacMullan



PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry

To a poet whose distinguished and growing body of work represents a notable and accomplished presence in American literature. JUDGES: Daniel Borzutzky, Ilya Kaminsky, Airea D. Matthews


From the judges: “Jonah Mixon-Webster’s Stereo(TYPE) is vibrant. It’s full of life. It’s a book that shows us how to approach a violent nation, how to approach a racist nation, how to write a poetry that is intricately engaged with the trauma of the public sphere. Stereo(TYPE) is performative, formally innovative, visually innovative as it captures our national epidemics of racial violence and ecoviolence. Written as prose poems, as invocations, in unconventional typographies, in dialogic plays, as Frequently Asked Questions, as government brochures and concrete poems, Stereo(TYPE)’s depth and bravery reverberates from each breath, each word, each page.”



Jonah Mixon-Webster



PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers

Recognizing 12 emerging fiction writers each year for their debut short story published during a given calendar year in a literary magazine or cultural website and aims to support the launch of their careers as fiction writers.

“The Rickies” (Nimrod Journal), Sarah Curry
“Mother and Child” (The Sun), Laura Freudig
“The Manga Artist” (The Iowa Review), Doug Henderson
“Good Hope” (Auburn Avenue), Enyeribe Ibegwan
“Cicadas and the Dead Chairman” (Epiphany), Pingmei Lan
“Without a Big One” (Kweli Journal), John Paul Infante
“Last Days, Part 1” (Black Warrior Review), Tamiko Beyer
“Tornado Season” (Alaska Quarterly Review), Marilyn Manolakas
“Bad Northern Women” (Conjunctions), Erin Singer
“The Unsent Letters of Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal” (Conjunctions), Kelsey Peterson
“Today, You’re a Black Revolutionary” (The Rumpus), Jade Jones
“Vain Beasts” (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet), A. B. Young


Prizes, Grants, and Fellowships for Works-in-Progress

For a literary novel-in-progress that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. JUDGES: Hillary Jordan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Kathy Pories

Katherine Seligman, If You Knew (work-in-progress)

From the judges citation: Maddy Donaldo, homeless at 18, has made a family of sorts in the dangerous spaces of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She knows who to trust, where to eat, when to move locations, and how to take care of her dog. It’s the best definition of home she has. But when she unwittingly witnesses the murder of a young homeless boy and is seen by the perpetrator, her relatively stable life is upended. Suddenly, everyone from the police to the dead boys’ parents want to talk to Maddy about what she saw. As the adults pressure her to give up her secrets and reunite with her own family before she meets a similar fate, Maddy must decide whether she wants to stay lost or be found. Against the backdrop of a radically changing San Francisco, a city which embraces a booming tech economy while struggling to maintain its culture of tolerance, If You Knew follows the lives of those who have no good place to go. As judge Hillary Jordan says, “This book pulled me deep into a world I knew little about, bringing the struggles of its young, homeless inhabitants—the kind of people we avoid eye contact with on the street—to vivid, poignant life. The novel demands that you take a close look. If you knew, could you still ignore, fear or condemn them? And knowing, how can you ever forget?”

For a literary work of nonfiction that uses oral history to illuminate an event, individual, place, or movement. JUDGES: Nana-Ama Danquah, McKenzie Funk, Syreeta McFadden, Christina Sharpe, Linda Villarosa

Loida Maritza Pérez, Beyond the Pale (work-in-progress)

From the judges citation: “Loida Maritza Pérez’s beautifully told story of Dominican life, Beyond the Pale, is rooted in her own discovery of her father’s telling of a version of the truth, which she believes until the end of his life was a lie. The natural drama of the father/daughter relationship reveals the dynamic ways in which memory has been manipulated across the generations in the troubled physical and spiritual borderlands between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Perez’s revelation/her journey in recognizing this mistake takes us into the harsh history of colonization and resistance. The unraveling of tall tales demonstrate how important oral traditions, folktales and Santaria itself is ‘as a form of resistance’ in told form. This reminds oral history audiences that the roots of our field is in orality (vs. written texts and highly professionalized transcripts). Additionally, the book is very well written, in a genre that is true to the oral traditions Pérez comes from.”

For an author of children’s or young adult fiction, whose work is of high literary caliber, designed to assist a writer at a crucial moment in his or her career to complete a book-length work-in-progress

Noni Carter, Womb Talk (work-in-progress)

From the judges citation: “While a number of the manuscripts considered were quite strong, Noni Carter’s Womb Talk stood out above all the others. Written in fifteen-year-old Sarai’s letters to her aborted child, Womb Talk is a story that’s relevant to today’s world as its readers are able to witness Sarai’s journey of healing, while also touching on the difficult subjects of abortion, sexual assault, sexuality, and mental health, told through the eyes of a black, lower class teenage girl. This truly unique and experimental manuscript blends various elements and styles of writing, from the historical to the speculative. The powerfully lyrical, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful voice is arresting and captivated the judges from the start.”

View all PEN/Heim grant winners here >>