Announcing the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards Winners

PEN America is thrilled to announce the 2021 Literary Awards winners. The following book award winners were announced at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony on April 8, 2021, held virtually and hosted by Kara Young. You can view the ceremony in the above video.

Since 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards Program has honored outstanding voices in fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, biography, children’s literature, translation, drama, and more. With the help of our generous partners and supporters, this year PEN America conferred over 20 distinct juried awards, grants, and prizes, awarding more than $380,000 to more than 40 writers and translators. Learn more about the 2021 career achievement award winners and grant winners, announced earlier this year.

Our awards are juried by panels of esteemed, award-winning writers, editors, booksellers, and critics. Learn more about the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards judges here.

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

To a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact, which has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence.

Judges: Vievee Francis, Fred Moten, Tommy Orange 

Be Holding: A Poem, Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press)

From the judges’ citation: “Ross Gay’s Be Holding is nothing short of glorious. On its surface, the poem is an ode to Julius Erving, to a great move in basketball history, but this man and moment seamlessly unfold and transcend until before we know what is happening, we are transfixed, as if staring at a spinning ball on a finger, or as if kept midair with Dr. J, leaping off into all that Gay makes possible with language and memory, collective and personal. Be Holding is a wondrous, profound exploration of how much captured moments in time can mean. On video or in photographs, in basketball history as in museums, what we see isn’t only what we see. Frame by frame, Gay’s voice stays at once bouyant and bold, keeps us afloat even as we sink deeper into the poem. We come away from this work with a better understanding of gravity’s pliancy, of both Dr. J’s and Gay’s ability to lift what is heavy, expand on what time and amnesia have collapsed, pushing all who come to see, to behold a vision of our sometimes falling, sometimes floating, ever fateful lives.”

Be Holding book cover

PEN Open Book Award ($10,000)

To an exceptional book-length work of any literary genre by an author of color.

Judges: Toi Derricotte, Brandon Hobson, Katie Kitamura, Jamil Jan Kochai, Akil Kumarasamy, Solmaz Sharif

Inheritors, Asako Serizawa (Doubleday)

From the judges’ citation: “The variety of narratives in the Inheritors by Asako Serizawa is nothing short of remarkable. Whether Serizawa is constructing an incredibly tense scene between a Japanese veteran of the Pacific War and the mother of his missing comrade, or gently unraveling the forgotten memories of a dying immigrant, the precision and care with which she writes her sentences and builds her worlds never falters. In these stories are men and women haunted by the ghosts of the disappeared, the fires of war, and their own complicity in acts of world-shattering violence. Formally experimental and philosophically complex, Serizawa’s collection explores the nature of political and historical violence, immigration, Japanese and American nationalisms, assimilation, memories, death, loss, suffering, and, of course, inheritance itself, in all its terrible forms.”

Inheritors book cover

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

To an author whose debut collection of short stories represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future work.

Judges: Ben Marcus, Elizabeth McCracken, Ingrid Rojas Contreras 

Further News of Defeat: Stories, Michael X. Wang (Autumn House Press)

From the judges’ citation: “Michael X. Wang’s stories travel from the countryside to the city and back, from China to America, though time and space thrillingly; they are hilarious and tragic, political and domestic, beautiful and brutal, not in turn but miraculously at the same time. On every page technically nervy and beautifully written and startling—in language, character, telling detail—Further News of Defeat is intensely interested in the questions and sorrows and strange jokes of being a human being in the world.”

Further News of Defeat: Stories book cover

PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel ($10,000)

To a debut novel of exceptional literary merit by an American author.

Judges: Ramona Ausubel, Jack Livings, Stuart Nadler

Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel, Kawai Strong Washburn (MCD)

From the judges’ citation: “Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a precisely observed, deeply humane novel that marries mythology, social and filial folklore, and the visceral realities of a single Hawaiian family teetering between poverty and comfort, disconnection and profound kinship. Washburn’s depictions are wide-ranging yet precise—he writes with equal beauty about gods and basketball, climbing and chemistry, imprisonment and desire. At the center is the luminous exploration of a family’s halting attempts to reconnect with a spirituality lost gradually over time. Sharks in the Time of Saviors offers its reader the unforgettable experience of discovering wonder on the page, both in its careful attention to detail, and also in the way that detail recasts our own reality. The novel reminds its readers that exile is not always geographical, but is, as often, a territory of the mind.”

Sharks in the Time of Saviors book cover

PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($15,000)

For a seasoned writer whose collection of essays is an expansion on their corpus of work and preserves the distinguished art form of the essay. 

Judges: Sandra Cisneros, John D’Agata, Adam Gopnik  

Had I Known: Collected Essays, Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)

From the judges’ citation: “Barbara Ehrenreich has committed her life to writing in defense of women, immigrants, people of color, people in the LGBTQ+ community, people who are homeless, minimum-wage workers, and those who can’t even aspire to that luxury. Often prescient, her essays in this latest collection span several decades, explaining how we got to where we are today. A brave and brilliant thinker, she is most remarkable for reminding us how to be human in savage times. Had I Known is a dazzling tribute to Ehrenreich’s unwavering commitment to that cause, her mastery of craft, and an expansive and exceptional career centering on the art of the essay.”

Had I Known book cover

PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection ($5,000)

To a poet whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence.

Judges: Sherwin Bitsui, Cynthia Cruz, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Keelan, Bao Phi   

Obit, Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

From the judges’ citation: “Victoria Chang’s Obit was an extraordinary collection among a pool of extraordinary collections for this year’s award. Obit’s conceptual brilliance is wired with intensity and intimacy. Chang writes about deep personal grief in a way that feels expansive and inviting, never sacrificing intelligence and heart. One of the strengths of this remarkable book is its resistance to reduction. Chang employs elements of journalism, essay, and poetry amid her columns of justified text. The traditional elegy is reformulated with the immediacy of an obituary notice. Chang shifts between lyrical prose poems and maverick tankas. A sensational, caesura-filled sequence of fourteen-liners reads as if she was channeling Sylvia Plath and Gerard Manley Hopkins at the same time. She shifts between familial elegies, self-elegies, and cultural elegies until the elegy becomes almost unrecognizable to itself. It is a love poem, testimonial, archive, catalog. Like the decorum of the elegy, the decorum of the obituary is disrupted by music, mischief, and defiance. The news of Obit alerts us to the death of ‘The Ocean,’ ‘The Bees,’ ‘Privacy,’ ‘Civility,’ ‘America.’ The news alerts us to the idiosyncrasy in the death of ‘Hindsight,’ ‘Clothes,’ ‘Tomas Tranströmer,’ ‘Victoria Chang.’ Mourning is enlivened by the poet’s mercurial meditations on language and loss. The shock of trauma is shaped into an alertness for life.

“The singularity of memorial loss merges with the ubiquity of quotidian loss, but these diurnal poems do not inspire resolution so much as resolve. A reader finds the societal and spiritual tethered to the everyday. William Carlos Williams famously wrote that men die for lack of the news found in poetry. Victoria Chang finds the poetry in the news of the obituary. She mines a resourcefulness instigated by grief. She reveals the levity tethered to gravity; the wonder tethered to uncertainty. ‘Death isn’t the enemy,’ Chang writes, ‘Knowledge of death is the enemy.’ Her poems are shaped by the knowledge of the unknowable. Somehow haunting and ecstatic, Obit is shaped by the skills of a remarkable poet.”

Obit book cover

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

For a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English.

Judges: Daniel Borzutsky, Marissa Davis, Meg Matich 

Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations, Amang (Phoneme Media)
Translated from the Chinese by Steve Bradbury

From the judges’ citation: “There is a lot of talk about innovative translation, but rarely can we point to a book that profoundly breaks new ground. Raised by Wolves is one such work—it recursively dissects itself, laying its insides bare as it reveals the process of conversation and negotiation that takes place behind, before, and beyond the verses on the printed page. In bringing his intriguing dialogues with Amang into the collection, Steve Bradbury not only offers us excellent translations of work from a spirited and deeply skilled contemporary poet, but also positions the act of translation as one of discovery—having as its compasses our relationships to one another, our home languages, and our own personal histories. In doing so, Amang and Bradbury bring forth a new literary model: translation that uses documentary to confess its own lyrical, actively empathetic, and at times splendidly messy collaborative process—all crafted with rigor, humor, and grace.”

Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations book cover

PEN Translation Prize ($3,000)

For a book-length translation of prose from any language into English.

Judges: Jacqui Cornetta, Somrita Urni Ganguly, Ana L. Méndez-Oliver, Amanda Sarasien, Niloufar Talebi, Sevinç Türkkan

A Country for Dying: A Novel, Abdellah Taïa (Seven Stories Press)
Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan

From the judges’ citation: “The jury is delighted to celebrate Emma Ramadan’s translation of A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa, a Moroccan novelist writing in French. Ramadan deftly captures the polyphonic complexity of the original in its portrayal of two North African sex workers and an Iranian revolutionary: immigrants living in Paris with all their ghosts, loves, and longings. Ramadan renders each character’s quest for identity—trans, female, gay, black—with a sympathetic ear, beautifully translating the unsung voices emerging from the French colonial wreckage. The jury also congratulates Seven Stories Press for bringing this vital and important work to readers in English.”

A Country for Dying: A Novel book cover

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

For a work that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.

Judges: Nassir Ghaemi, Christine Kenneally, Erin Macdonald, Banu Subramaniam

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan C. Slaght (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

From the judges’ citation: “It is an honor to present the 2021 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award to Jonathan C. Slaght for his fascinating chronicle following the elusive Blakiston’s fish owl. In beautiful and lyrical prose, Slaght presents a detailed and absorbing account of the joys and challenges of a conservation biologist. His lush narrative transports the reader to the wilds of Eastern Russia, chronicling the harsh winters and winds, and the utter joy of owl duets. This is a compelling book that deftly weaves the cultural challenges of field research, and the entangled worlds of humans, technology, and nature with novelistic dexterity.”

Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl book cover

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

For a distinguished book of general nonfiction published in 2019 or 2020, possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues.

Judges: Roxane Gay, Thomas Page McBee, Dunya Mikhail, Eric Schlosser, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Laura Wides-Muñoz

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, Saidiya Hartman (W. W. Norton & Company)

From the judges’ citation: “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman combines lyrical storytelling with a historical examination of the lives of young black women in the early 20th century. Hartman brings these women to life with grace and intelligence, probing the shape of their lives, and how their choices were all too often constrained by race, class, and gender. But she also allows these young women to be more than statistics or tragic stories. She imagines their joys alongside their sorrows. And she tries to create space for their voices to rise above the reality that, for many of these women, “Beauty and longing provided the essential architecture of her existence. Her genius was exhausted in trying to live.” Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a triumphant, compelling, utterly original work of scholarship. It is a bold, beautiful experiment.”

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer book cover

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

For a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research.

Judges: Nicholas Buccola, Karl Jacoby, Nell Painter, Anna Whitelock

Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World, Amy Stanley (Scribner)

From the judges’ citation: “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World is a remarkably accomplished work that transports the reader into a world at once entirely unfamiliar, yet familiar in its narrative of a woman determined, against social norms and expectation, to live her own life. In her depiction of Tsuneno, Amy Stanley both introduces us to a new female heroine and highlights the universality of human experience despite the cultural and linguistic divides between East and West. This is an inspiring book both in content and form. Beautifully written, Stranger in the Shogun’s City conjures the past through masterly weaving challenging and fragmentary sources. It is a work of great literary excellence as well as a compelling new history of life in 19th-century Japan.”

Stranger in the Shotgun City book cover

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