At the 2015 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on June 8, PEN announced the winner and finalists for the inaugural PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize, an annual award that recognizes a promising young writer of an unpublished work of nonfiction that addresses a global and/or multicultural issue.

The inaugural $10,000 prize—judged by John Freeman, Roxane Gay, and Cristina Henríquez—was awarded to Adriana E. Ramírez for her manuscript titled “Dead Boys.” In their citation, the judges wrote, “In this striking manuscript, Ramírez explores borders, violence, drug trafficking, the crimes that rise from the drug trade, and, most of all, dead boys and how they are slain, how they are mourned. Throughout, the ghost of her brother lingers, reminding us of the fragility of everything.”

Finalists for the prize include Melissa Petro for “Unbecoming,” Liz Quinn for “The Forgotten Midwives of Guatemala,” and Krystal Sital for “Incantations.” 

For more information on the winner and finalists’ honored projects, you can find their project summaries below, and stay tuned for featured excerpts from the works. 

Project Summaries for the 2015 PEN/Fusion Honorees


Adriana E. Ramírez for “Dead Boys”

Adriana E. Ramírez’s “Dead Boys” takes a hard stare at the bodies of those who have died too young, by accident or otherwise: nine people hanged by a drug cartel on the US-Mexico Border, a tragic death in the writer’s own family, the washed-up casualties of Colombian strife, and a young boy unable to outrun his fate from a loan shark. Though she asks her readers to accompany her through an unflinching look at violence in myriad forms, it’s in service to a greater mission – to understand how complex geopolitics can manifest in the individual stories of people from the three countries Ramírez calls her own—Mexico, Colombia, and the United States.

In the recounting of the boys’ lives and deaths, Ramírez hopes to find answers to the large and small questions surrounding these losses: How do the mothers of the Drug War dead understand their sons’ fates? How does a boy select what to wear on the day he knows he will die? How does homeland affect destiny? “Dead Boys” is about looking at the face of extreme violence, about how a person handles death with and without the privilege of distance.


Melissa Petro for “Unbecoming”

Unbecoming” is a memoir about one woman’s experiences in the sex industry, the steps she took to transition out of sex work and become a public school teacher, and how revelations of her sex work past ended her career in elementary school education. The title refers to the charges the DOE filed against her which ultimately led to the loss of her career: Conduct Unbecoming a Professional. Above all, it is a story about stigma and how storytelling helps us to overcome past experiences that threaten to define us.

For coming forward about her history without pseudonym or apology, Melissa Petro was ridiculed in the national press, shamed by her former employer, and ultimately forced to resign from a career that she’d loved. The message was clear: if you have a history such as hers, and an opinion on the matter that differs from the common view, keep it to yourself. Or else. Since losing her job, she’s dedicated herself to promoting the opposite of that message— a message that everyone, particularly people who’ve been historically rendered invisible, have the human right to be seen as well as heard, and that true social change comes about by listening without judgment or condescension to the communities we purportedly seek to help.

Liz Quinn for “The Forgotten Midwives of Guatemala”

In 1946, at the age of eleven, Miriam Portillo vowed to become a midwife. She lived in Sololá, in rural Guatemala. She had watched as her mother nearly died during the birth of her younger brother. Fourteen years later, Miriam graduated from the Midwifery School of Guatemala’s University of San Carlos. She was one of the last women to do so. In 1961, despite elevated rates of maternal and infant mortality, the school was quietly closed. Miriam and her colleagues were never told why. Over the coming decades, as the midwives’ jobs disappeared, they blamed obstetricians, nurses, and a notorious anticommunist dictator. But they never knew with certainty what had happened to their beloved alma mater.

Nearly fifty years later, on the last day of 2004, Liz Quinn, a new college graduate, moved to Guatemala from Boston. Serendipity led her to Miriam and a feisty group of her elderly colleagues. Liz was charmed by their persistent school spirit and intrigued by the mysterious disappearance of the Midwifery School. She befriended the women and has devoted the last decade to uncovering the lost history of Guatemalan midwifery. Years of archival research and dozens of interviews have shown that the midwives’ speculations were not so far afield. Digging deeper, Liz eventually realized that the nurses and obstetricians and the anticommunist dictator shared a common benefactor: her own homeland, the United States.

Krystal Sital for “Incantations”

Whirling through memories that crash and recede like waves upon a coastline, Krystal Sital sifts through recollections of women from three generations—her grandmother’s, her mother’s, and her own. Trying to capture a past that once seemed so concrete, her world begins to shift before her, bringing into focus the women in her family.

While Sital grew up idolizing her grandfather and romanticizing memories they had created in Trinidad, when he fell into a coma, his wife Rachael parted her lips to reveal a tyrant their granddaughter never knew existed. Rachael confided to her granddaughter the repeated acts of violence unleashed upon her—only when he thought she was dead would he stop beating her. Sital begins to see that the grandfather and the Trinidad she loved were little more than illusion, and her mother and grandmother held the key to understanding their family’s past so she could have a future.

Set in urban New Jersey and the mountain regions of Trinidad, Incantations is the unearthing of human desire and endurance. Sital records these oral tales, giving voice to the voiceless while maintaining that victim and villain are carefully rendered and realized individuals. Through horrific cycles of violence that spin from the depths of one sea to another, this is a story of mothers and daughters suppressing their souls for survival.

Publishers and editors who wish to express interest in any of these projects are invited to contact PEN’s Literary Awards Coordinator Arielle Anema at [email protected].