PEN America is pleased to announce the ten finalists for the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, founded by Barbara Kingsolver. The award is presented biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that promotes fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. The winner, chosen by judges Laila Lalami, Brando Skyhorse, and Kathy Pories of Algonquin Books will be announced on March 1 and will be honored at the 2016 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony in New York City on April 11. The winner will receive a $25,000 prize as well as a publishing contract with Algonquin Books.


Nancy Agabian, “The Fear of Large and Small Nations”

Mary Beath, “Paradox Valley”

Nadine Bjursten, “By These Limbs”

Aneesha Capur, “A Cartography of Hope”

Rebecca Clarren, “Kickdown”

Lisa Ko, “The Leavers”

Jessi Lewis, “She Spoke Wire”

Thomas Miller, “Nightrunner”

Gail Vida Hamburg, “Liberty Landing”

Dawn Zera, “Earth Teach Me”

About the Finalists

Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak, a collection of poems and performance texts, and Me as her again: True Stories of an Armenian Daughter, a memoir honored as a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Nonfiction and shortlisted for a William Saroyan International Prize. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Hye-Phen Magazine, Hyperallergic, Kweli Journal, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Queering Yerevan, among other publications. Nancy teaches creative writing at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU and at Heightening Stories, her workshops focusing on social issues as well as craft.

Mary Beath is the author of Refuge of Whirling Light, winner of the Wrangler Award for Poetry, and Hiking Alone: Trails Out, Trails Home, a collection of personal essays, both from University of New Mexico Press. She grew up in Washington, DC and graduated from Duke University and Rhode Island School of Design. After a decade in New York City, she moved to Albuquerque, NM, where she’s run a successful illustration/design/writing studio, lent her energies to environmental causes, and explored geographies where people and the land shape each other. “Paradox Valley” is her first novel.

Nadine Bjursten‘s first novel “By These Limbs” is the story of an Iranian woman’s need for love and stability in a world upended by the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the increasing threat of nuclear proliferation. Raised north of New York City in Garrison, Bjursten has spent more than seven years writing about, traveling in, and researching Iran. Before that she served as Managing Editor of the Washington, DC- based journal Arms Control Today and as Assistant to the President of the Global Security Institute. She now lives in Lund, Sweden with her family.


Aneesha Capur is the author of Stealing Karma (HarperCollins India), which was included in the Top 5 Fiction Picks in The Hindu, listed as Essential Reading in the Sunday Guardian and featured on CNN-IBN. Aneesha has participated in the Bookworm International Literary Festival in Beijing and the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali. Aneesha has an MFA from Warren Wilson College and an MBA from Wharton. She has attended writers’ conferences at Bread Loaf and Squaw Valley among others. Aneesha was born in India and spent most of her childhood in Kenya. She lives in San Francisco.

Rebecca Clarren writes about labor, public health and the environment for national magazines such as, Mother Jones, The Nation, High Country News and Orion. The winner of the Hillman Prize for Magazine Writing and an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, her work is frequently supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. “Kickdown” is her first novel. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband and two young sons.


Lisa Ko’s fiction has appeared in Apogee Journal, Copper Nickel, Storychord, Narrative, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, The Asian Pacific American Journal, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, and the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers.

Jessi Lewis grew up on a blueberry farm in rural Virginia with brothers, bees and dogs. She teaches writing for West Virginia University and writes commentary on book culture. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review. Her essays, short stories and poems have been published or are forthcoming in Yemassee, Appalachian Heritage, and Flyway, among others. 



Thomas F. Miller is retired from going to an office and lives with his wife of 47 years on the shoulder of a knob in rural Kentucky. He is a certified public accountant, devoted many years to social change work in Appalachia and Africa, worked 14 years with the Ford Foundation and lived ten years in East Africa. In 2015 he earned a Masters of Fine Arts degree from Eastern Kentucky University. Miller is currently seeking publication of his debut novel “Nightrunner”; a realistic literary novel set in East Africa, and is working on its sequel, “Sarra”. The two novels focus on the lives of ordinary people and how they cope with the many injustices they face in daily life. Parallels are drawn to similar challenges faced by the people of Appalachian Kentucky. They are also a love story between two people different in every way – race, economic class, education level and age.

Gail Vida Hamburg is a novelist, journalist, multimedia writer, and academic. She is the author of an indie-published novel, The Edge of the World (Mirare Press, 2007), about American foreign policy and war making. Her film writing includes, The Journey Home, a screenplay about African-Americans exiled from America, and a print story adapted for the 2001 film, Mesmerized. Her theater work includes the forthcoming Hush, a political rock musical featuring the music of Clara May. Gail holds an MFA in Literature and Writing from Bennington Writing Seminars. She is on faculty at Roosevelt University, Chicago.


After years as a journalist, editor and public relations specialist in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City, Dawn Zera turned her attention to more creative pursuits, including work on the fiction manuscript, “Earth Teach Me.” Currently, she is an adjunct professor of writing at the University of Scranton, Marywood University, and King’s College, all in northeast Pennsylvania. She is happiest experiencing life in the great outdoors, accompanied by her sons, Alexander and Ben. Zera earned her M.A. and M.F.A. from the Wilkes University creative writing program, where she paid tuition by working as a graduate assistant.