Announcing the 2021 PEN America Literary Grant Winners

“PEN America Grant Winners” in centered text; golden rays sticking out from each corner

PEN America is delighted to announce the 2021 grant winners. With the help of our partners, PEN America confers over 20 distinct awards, grants, and prizes each year, supporting writers and translators of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s literature, oral history, and more.

Our awards and grants are juried by panels of esteemed, award-winning writers, editors, translators, and critics, who are committed to recognizing their contemporaries, from promising debut writers to those who have had a continuous, lasting literary impact. You can learn more about the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards judges here.

The following grant winners will be supported as they continue their works-in-progress, and we look forward to seeing these thought-provoking and challenging examples of literary excellence brought to the world.

Publishers, agents, and editors who wish to express an interest in any of these projects are invited to contact the PEN America Literary Awards team at [email protected].

PEN/Jean Stein Grants for Literary Oral History ($15,000)

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. The grants are made possible by a substantial contribution from American author and editor Jean Stein, whose groundbreaking work helped popularize literary oral history. Beginning this year, we will confer two grants with increased cash prizes of $15,000 each.

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.”

PEN/Phyllis Naylor Grant for Children’s and Young Adult Novelists ($5,000)

The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Grant for Children’s and Young Adult Novelists is offered annually to an author of children’s or young adult fiction for a novel-in-progress. The grant is made possible by a substantial contribution from PEN America Member and prolific author, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. The award was developed to help writers whose work is of high literary caliber and assist in the novel’s completion. The author of the winning manuscript is selected blindly by judges and will receive a $5,000 grant.

Judges: M.T. Anderson, Naomi Danis, and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Arno Bohlmeijer, Scared—Mad—More!
From the judges’ citation: “The judging panel is delighted to award the grant to Arno Bohlmeijer for his MG novel-in-progress, Scared—Mad—More! Bohlmeijer’s distinctive and original narrative voice told a story both tender and powerful about a child navigating friendships, challenging family relationships, and feelings of isolation in a sometimes confusing world. We found ourselves drawn in by the vulnerability and winsome eccentricity of Sparrow, the narrator, who sees the extraordinary in the ordinary all around her. We look forward to hearing the end of her story someday.”

PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants ($3,575)

Now in their 18th year, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants promote the publication and reception of translated world literature into English. Established by a gift from Priscilla and Michael Henry Heim in response to the dismayingly low number of literary translations appearing in English, the fund has supported almost 200 projects.

For the 2021 cycle, the judges reviewed 348 eligible applications from a wide array of languages of origin, genres, and time periods. Selected from this vast field of applicants are 10 projects, including Serbian, French, Nepali, Bulgarian, Icelandic, Hindi, and more, and each translator will receive a grant of $3,575 to support the translation’s completion.

Judges: Kareem James Abu-Zeid, Peter Constantine, Karen Emmerich, Nicholas Glastonbury, Elisabeth Jaquette, Tess Lewis, Aditi Machado, Sawako Nakayasu, Wanda Phipps, Jeremy Tiang, Lara Vergnaud, and Jeffrey Zuckerman

Natascha Bruce’s translation from the Chinese of Owlish and the Music-Box Ballerina by Dorothy Tse
From the judges’ citation: “Owlish and the Music-Box Ballerina is the story of a professor’s doomed love affair with a doll called Alice, but in reality, it is the story of Hong Kong. Romance opens Professor Q’s eyes to a new, exciting side of his city, while closing them to inconvenient truths such as the growing student protest movement. When Alice takes on a life of her own, the fairy tale—as is so often the case—is revealed to be laced with menace, and readers must reckon with their own complicity. In this debut novel by the award-winning, avant-garde fiction writer Dorothy Tse, what begins with the soothing tones of a bedtime story takes a sharp turn into two biting, second-person chapters, before culminating in a devastating and unforgettable final scene. A timely and politically important work, Owlish and the Music-Box Ballerina is a rallying cry dressed up like a fairy tale, and translator Natascha Bruce navigates its wordplay and tonal shifts with grace and skill.”

Rohan Chhetri’s translation from the Nepali of The Dust Draws Its Face on the Wind: Essential Poems by Avinash Shrestha
From the judges’ citation: “The Dust Draws Its Face on the Wind: Essential Poems by Avinash Shrestha presents the work of contemporary Nepali poet Avinash Shrestha, who immigrated from India to Nepal in 1984 and is fluent in Nepali, English, Hindi, Urdu, and Assamese. The poems sing with chimerical music and demonstrate Shrestha’s singular use of language that blends Hindu liturgical elements and Vedic cosmology, Sanskrit-rooted high diction and Nepali vernacular, together with a tender branch of surrealism within postmodern aesthetics. Poet and emerging translator Rohan Chhetri’s work as translator begins with the well-considered decision to translate these exquisite, “wild by design” poems by Shrestha, and ends with a body of brilliant, culturally complex poems that have roots across the South Asian diaspora.”

Rachael Daum’s translation from the Serbian of Lusitania by Dejan Atanacković
From the judges’ citation: “Lusitania is a historical novel that ignores historical facts, an absurdist romp all too scarily rooted in reality. Its vivid cast of characters is dispersed across space and time on madcap quests of varying kinds, but they all ultimately find themselves inside a Belgrade mental asylum—the Lusitania. A keen indictment of nationalism, not to mention the simple and stark dangers of human idiocy, acclaimed Serbian author Dejan Atanacković’s novel is both prescient and universal.

“The prose is winding and sometimes dense, gradually revealing or building up to a simple, devastating image or thought. In translator Rachael Daum’s skilled hands, Atanacković’s words are invariably compelling and evocative, carrying the reader on a ship that, though sinking, offers the best kind of ride.”

Katharine Halls’s translation from the Arabic of Things That Can’t Be Fixed by Haytham El-Wardany
From the judges’ citation: “Katharine Halls offers a nimble translation of Haytham El-Wardany’s unsettling, off-kilter stories. These eight stories leave the reader straddling fault lines in realities that at first glance had seemed mundane. At once absurd and menacing, El-Wardany’s stories deftly capture the sense of profound disorientation when unexpected shifts in life, both large and small, completely upend surroundings we have taken for granted. Halls’s taut and supple translation elegantly navigates the stories’ sly maneuvers.”

Banibrata Mahanta’s translation from the Hindi of Labanyadevi by Kusum Khemani
From the judges’ citation: “An ambitious, far-reaching novel, Labanyadevi follows a Bengali family across the generations before and after India’s independence, using the eponymous protagonist’s journey to ask questions about being and womanhood. Kusum Khemani’s energetic prose, deadpan sense of humor, and exquisite control of tone are a pleasure to spend time with, while Banibrata Mahanta’s translation stretches and manipulates language to produce a vivid text with a rich infusion of Indian English.”

Adrian Minckley’s translation from the Portuguese of The Whore by Márcia Barbieri
From the judges’ citation: “Speaking in the aftermath of some untold apocalypse, Anúncia is an elderly sex worker recounting a lifetime of hedonism, poverty, grief, and sex. Her breathless, poetic tirade is as grotesque as it is dazzling, dancing nimbly between raunchy humor and profound wisdom. In the process, Anúncia shatters the sanctity of the body, dismantling it into its constitutive parts and holding them up for renewed rumination and revulsion. Márcia Barbieri’s The Whore, in Adrian Minckley’s incandescent translation, interrogates the borders between pleasure and pain, between desire and disgust, between language and the body, and between genders. The result is a striking, genre-bending, surreal work that demands to be read again and again.”

Lara Norgaard’s translation from the Indonesian of 24 Hours with Gaspar by Sabda Armandio
From the judges’ citation: “A wicked blend of noir, science fiction, and satire, 24 Hours with Gaspar tells the story of a private eye–cum-criminal named Gaspar, who plans to rob a jewelry store in Jakarta in order to acquire a black box of mysterious powers. This story is told using three different perspectives: Gaspar’s own; transcriptions of police interviews; and the almost scholastic narration of Arthur Harahap, a kind of “supra-meta-heteronym,” who assembles the events of the crime from a distant future. Lara Norgaard remakes author Sabda Armandio’s impressive pastiche of genre and dialect with precision and flair, as well as careful attention to the sociopolitical histories out of which yet another story is here told: that of the city of Jakarta.”

Ekaterina Petrova’s translation from the Bulgarian of Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow by Iana Boukova
From the judges’ citation: “Iana Boukova’s novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow is one of the most original and compelling books to emerge out of Bulgaria’s contemporary literary scene: the plot, unfolding during the 19th century in and around the Balkans, offers complex insights and historical perspectives on cultures that are little known beyond their borders, and the main characters, whose names serve as titles of the novel’s eight chapters, each have their own intriguing cradle-to-grave biographies. In her masterful translation, Ekaterina Petrova has captured the many nuances, registers, and literary devices of Iana Boukova’s prose.”

Jake Syersak’s translation from the French of I, Caustic by Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine
From the judges’ citation: “Moroccan writer Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s exuberant revolutionary French-language text I, Caustic finds new life in Jake Syersak’s breathless translation. This multigenre avant-garde work, which alternates between poetry, drama, fiction, memoir, manifesto, and reportage, is a searing indictment of King Hassan II’s rule over Morocco. Khaïr-Eddine, a writer of Amazigh descent and one of the Maghreb’s best-known literary figures, first published this work in 1970, less than a decade into Hassan II’s brutal 38-year reign. Written in a Surrealist-inspired writing style that is, at the same time, deeply indebted to the Négritude literary movement, I, Caustic is a powerful anti-authoritarian text that continues to resonate in the present global political moment. Syersak’s masterful translation dexterously recreates the contours and sharp edges of this stunning work.”

Vala Thorodds’s translation from the Icelandic of Swanfolk by Kristín Ómarsdóttir
From the judges’ citation: “One day Elísabet sees two creatures emerge from a lake, half-human and half-swan. She follows them into a strange new reality, and as she comes to shuttle between her world and theirs, she finds herself torn between the monomaniacal, often violent quest of the swanfolk and the unraveling threads of her own mind and the past she has been trying to escape. In Vala Thorodds’s artfully ethereal translation, Kristín Ómarsdóttir’s Swanfolk rings with the dystopian, unsettling, and dream-woven beauty of the original Icelandic.”

PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature ($5,000)

Administered under the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants, the PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian Literature honors a translator for a book-length translation of narrative prose and seeks to promote the publication of Italian literature into English. The winner will receive a $5,000 grant to aid in the project’s completion.

Brian Robert Moore’s translation from the Italian of A Silence Shared by Lalla Romano
From the judges’ citation: “Lalla Romano’s 1957 Tetto Murato, translated by Brian Robert Moore under the title A Silence Shared, explores the intimate relationship that forms between two couples—Giulia and Stefano, and Ada and Paolo—during the tail end of World War II in the Italian countryside. Paolo, plagued by a mysterious illness, is an intellectual involved in the antifascist resistance, and he and Ada have moved with their young daughter to Giulia’s hometown of Cuneo, where she is also living, while Stefano visits from the city when he can. The couples develop a closeness haunted by silences and privacies, in a book that explores the tension between public and private selves in a moment of historical turmoil. Moore’s translation offers sentences steeped in understated quiet that invite readers in with the same kind of guarded intimacy that the book itself treats.”