PEN/Jean Stein Grants for Literary Oral History

The PEN/Jean Stein Grants for Literary Oral History recognize literary works of nonfiction that use oral history to illuminate an event, individual, place, or movement. Past winners include Sharony Green, Loida Maritza Pérez, Nyssa Chow, and Aleksandar Hemon.

We’re pleased to announce that beginning with the 2021 grant conferral, we will confer two PEN/Jean Stein Grants for Literary Oral History with increased cash prizes of $15,000 each. All of the submission materials and guidelines will remain the same.

The grants are made possible by a substantial contribution from American author and editor Jean Stein, whose groundbreaking work helped popularize literary oral history. Her books include American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy (1970), Edie: An American Biography (1982), and West of Eden: An American Place (2016).

Applications for the 2023 cycle closed on June 1, 2022. Winners will be announced in the fall.

Grant Recipients

PEN America has awarded grants to six winning projects to date. 

2022 Grant Recipients

Judges: Crystal Mun-hye Baik, Gracen Brilmyer, Joe Richman

Simar Preet Kaur, A Hyphenway in the Sky
From the judges’ citation: “A work of remarkable creativity and dedication, Simar Preet Kaur’s A Hyphenway in the Sky uncovers a precarious world that few experience or know about: the journeys of truck drivers traveling along India’s Manali-Leh Highway, a 475-kilometer winding road that borders China and Pakistan. An expansive project that encompasses eight years of place-based oral histories conducted with over 300 truck drivers across 91 trips, A Hyphenway in the Sky is a ‘history of truckers and a history of place by truckers.’ Alongside her beautifully wrought writing and captivating photographs, Kaur crafts an ‘on-the-move’ oral history–methodology necessitated by the context of her research, including extreme weather and climate, limited access to resources, and the navigation of gender and class relations. A Hyphenway in the Sky exemplifies all that is possible from an imaginative practice that challenges conventional notions of oral history, while also centering the unique lives and rich stories of India’s truck drivers and a mountainous landscape.”

Deborah Jackson Taffa, Whiskey Tender
From the judges’ citation: “At a historic moment shaped by a global pandemic, extractive economies, and climate catastrophe, Deborah Jackson Taffa’s Whiskey Tender offers a powerful reckoning that centers the experiences of Native peoples in Turtle Island (North America). A creative memoir that interweaves her experiences as a Native woman with stories told by her family, community, and land across Navajo, Yuma, and Laguna Pueblo nations, Taffa’s poetic work examines how settler histories of genocide against Native peoples are intimately entwined with gendered and sexual violence perpetrated against Native women. Whiskey Tender—an original work told through a strong voice full of clarity and pain as well as humor—expresses the vast scale of violence that Native peoples, particularly women, navigate on a daily basis, ranging from the body to community, land, environment, and nation. More than ever, Whiskey Tender is an urgently necessary work that reveals Taffa’s considerable skill as a gifted writer, story gatherer, and storyteller and where, as Taffa shares, ‘remembrance is political.’”

2021 Grant Recipients

Judges: Chris Abani, Alex Kotlowitz, and Alice Wong

Helen Benedict, Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece
From the judges’ citation: “With more displaced people in the world since World War II, Helen Benedict’s Map of Hope and Sorrow feels both timely and necessary. Through the lives of six refugees in Greece, the gateway to Europe, Benedict is chronicling the journey of those fleeing war, hunger, and political persecution. As a journalist, she has made a career of telling other people’s stories. Here though given that the book is about people who have been dispossessed of all that they have, she felt it essential to have them tell their stories in their own words or, as she writes, ‘to retain control over their memories.’ These deeply intimate stories are told with such grace and openness, a testament to Benedict’s skills as an interviewer and journalist.”

Brett Ashley Robinson, Re-Enactment
From the judges’ citation: “Cities and institutions across the country are confronting overdue reckonings from their past. For the city of Philadelphia, the MOVE bombing of 1985 continues to reverberate today. Brett Ashley Robinson’s goal in conducting oral histories from communities impacted by the event isn’t just to preserve and document history—it’s to provide a vehicle for collective reflection and grief. Re-Enactment uses oral histories creatively as a performance and an invitation to share, question, and heal. Robinson’s project goes beyond a single text—it will become a living history as future participants add their stories with access in mind such as an audio version, website, and free printed copies available by mail. This project is truly for the people. Re-Enactment builds community while documenting it.”

Previous Recipients

2020 Sharony Green, The Baa Haas
Judges:
Kate Bernheimer, Heid E. Erdrich, and Alessandro Portelli

This manuscript is not under contract. To request a manuscript excerpt, please contact awards@pen.org.

From the judges’ citation: “Dedicated with academic and compassionate care to an underrepresented black population of Bahamian descent in Florida, The Baa Haas beautifully reflects the values of literary oral history. Sharony Green is simply a wonderful storyteller. In the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston’s Every Tongue Got to ConfessThe Baa Haas gives the community access to public discourse and gives readers access to an unforgettable history. Here are true stories of the history and reality of a diminishing population. Here is an intersectional story at a time of geographic and economic trauma. As is often the case, the ‘margin’ turns out to be central to our understanding of the world in which we live.”

2019 Loida Maritza Pérez, Beyond the Pale
Judges: Mary Marshall Clark, Paul Ortiz, and Pam Sugiman

This manuscript is not under contract. To request a manuscript excerpt, please contact awards@pen.org.

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.”

2018 Nyssa Chow, Still.Life.

2017 Aleksandar Hemon, How Did You Get Here?: Tales of Displacement

ELIGIBILITY AND SUBMISSION GUIDELINES

Applications for the 2023 cycle closed on June 1, 2022. Winners will be announced in the fall.

Who is Eligible
  • The submitted project must be the work of a single individual, written in English.
  • The project must be an unpublished work-in-progress that will not be published prior to April 1, 2023, as the grants are intended to support the completion of a final book.
  • The project must be a work of literary nonfiction.
  • Oral history must be a significant component of the project and its research.

NOT eligible: Scholarly or academic writing.

How to Submit

The online submission form requires the following, submitted as one pdf file:

  • A 1-2 page, single-spaced description of the work, answering: Why is this project important, and why did this author chose to undertake this project? 
  • A 1-2 page, single-spaced statement answering: Why and how is oral history used in the project?  
  • A 1-2 page, single-spaced statement answering: How will this grant aid in the completion of the project? (This space can additionally be used to discuss any permissions, rights, contracts, publication timelines, or other aspects of your project.)
  • A CV for the author of the project, which should include information on previous or forthcoming publications.
  • An outline that includes the work completed thus far and the work remaining. The outline should include the names of participants.
  • Unedited transcripts of the project interviews (6-10 pages) relating to the writing sample.
  • A writing sample from the project (20-40 pages, double-spaced) which utilises the submitted project interviews.

Applications for the 2023 cycle closed on June 1, 2022. Winners will be announced in the fall.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Do the writing sample and transcription need to cover the same material?

A: Yes. The transcript and writing sample should best represent the project’s overall goals, subject matter, and process, and should be the same materials and/or scene so that the judging panel may understand how you are utilising oral history throughout the project.