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Announcing the 2023 PEN America Literary Grant Winners

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

PEN America is delighted to announce the 2023 literary grant winners for literary works-in-progress. Juried by panels of esteemed, award-winning writers, editors, translators, and critics who are committed to recognizing their contemporaries, these winning works-in-progress show the potential for lasting literary impact. The following grant winners will be supported as they continue their important work, 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 learn more about 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. Since 2021, PEN America has conferred two grants with cash prizes of $15,000 each.

Judges: Alissa Rae Funderburk, Sarah Schulman, Sara Sinclair

Destry Maria Sibley, The Children of Morelia: Child Refugees of the Spanish Civil War

From the judges’ citation: The Children of Morelia: Child Refugees of the Spanish Civil War by Destry Maria Sibley both addresses a historical void and speaks directly to the moral questions of our contemporary moment. Sibley’s thorough, informed, historically engaging and beautifully written study engages the most relevant element of Spain’s civil war refugee population, a group of 500 children sent in 1937 by their families to safety in Mexico. Anyone reading this vibrant work will immediately think of the large numbers of children, again crossing borders alone, sent off into the world by desperate families who cannot, themselves, get refuge. Sibley’s work is personal because her own grandmother, Rosita, was one of these children. And yet, it is not narcissistic or sentimental. Instead, her work represents six years of active research, including a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellowship. Her extensive oral histories reveal contradictions, disturbing dimensions of reflection, and complex constructions of identity. It also engages Mexico as a site receiving refugees and reveals attitudes about welcoming outsiders in distress.

This is an engaging, rich and readable work that makes us think in new and provocative ways about the point of view of nationality, as well as the long-range consequences of child refugees building lives alone in new countries. A promising and insightful work.

Jason Prokowiew, Raised by Wolves

From the judges’ citation: This fusion of multigenerational story and global memoir written to reflect the consequences of war on the millions of children displaced by conflict throughout history is 23 years in the making. Using 50 hours of oral history interviews and extensive research from KGB, Belarusian National, and other archives, Jason Prokowiew diligently retraces his father’s unlikely upbringing to illustrate how he survived World War II and eventually became the terrifying parent Prokowiew would ultimately grow to love and forgive. This gripping book, timely for its anti-war and anti-displacement themes, is also relatable because of its nature as a story about the fraught relationship between a parent and child. Prokowiew grounds his narrative about a young boy growing up in a war, inside the story of a son later interviewing his father about that impossible experience. This story, thanks to Prokowiew’s inventiveness, demonstrates the ways in which a single oral history can touch on the lives of many. And Prokowiew’s own self-reflection on the interview process speaks to the possibilities through which any who desire to learn more about themselves and where they come from can do so as well. Who makes us and how they are made, how the stories they tell can shape the way we see them and the world we live in: this is what oral history is about.

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: Samira Ahmed, Varian Johnson, Susan Kuklin

Lois Sepahban, Mulberry Trees

From the judges’ citation: Lois Sepahban’s emotionally charged middle grade novel-in-verse, Mulberry Trees, introduces us to 13-year-old Eli, a boy grappling with a string of recent heartbreaks — including the disappearance of his mother and the subsequent loss of his 7-year-old brother, Sam, to the foster care system. Now living with his grandfather, Pawpaw, on a derelict farm in rural Kentucky, Eli struggles with guilt over his broken promise to his brother that they would “always be together.” But as Eli reaches out for help, first to his Pawpaw and then to a therapist, he begins to understand that even in times of grief, there can be moments of beauty and joy. Through powerful imagery and lyrical prose, Mulberry Trees exposes all of Eli’s hurt, confusion and anger, as well as his growing acceptance and eventual love of farm life. Though not the life he initially imagined, Eli comes to embrace the opportunities this new world provides for Pawpaw, Sam, his new foster family, and most importantly, for himself.

PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants ($3,700)

Now in their 20th 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 more than 200 projects.

For the 2023 cycle, the judges reviewed applications from a wide array of languages of origin, genres, and time periods. Selected from this vast field of applicants are 10 projects, including Urdu, Swahili, Bulgarian, Filipino, and more, and each translator will receive a grant of $4000 to support the translation’s completion.

Judges: Nicholas Glastonbury (Chair), Jenny Bhatt, Deborah Ghim, Kira Josefsson, Tom Kitson, Lina Mounzer, Kaitlin Rees, Alex Valente, Jordan Yamaji Smith, Jeffrey Zuckerman

Kristine Muslim’s translation from the Filipino of Book of the Damned by Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III

From the judges’ citation: Charting President Caesar Repaso’s dictatorship in the Philippines and its aftermath through multiple voices and narrators who may or may not be invested in the truth, A. A. Mendoza III’s Book of the Damned shrewdly fuses the figure of the artist with that of the dictator to problematize the vexed question of how the making of history is both at odds and complicit with the recording thereof. Disorienting, exhilarating, and endlessly compelling throughout, Kristine Ong Muslim’s masterly translation brilliantly recreates a labyrinthine construction of intertexts, archival data, historical facts, gossip, white lies, and ceaseless back-and-forths through the past, the present, and the hereafter. A spellbinding and essential addition to the canon of post-dictatorship literature.

Mark Tardi’s translation from the Polish of Dogs of Smaller Breeds by Olga Hund

From the judges’ citation: Winner of two of Poland’s most prestigious awards, the Joseph Conrad Award and the Witold Gombrowicz Award for debut fiction, Olga Hund’s debut novel Dogs of Smaller Breeds is an audacious, unapologetic look at everyday life in an in-patient women’s psychiatric ward in southern Poland. Written in a series of short vignettes, like “dispatches from the front,” in the words of one critic, Hund’s first-person narrator — who may or may not be the author herself — renders her sharp observations in sometimes startling language that veers from poignant to acerbic but never falls into the traps of easy sentimentality. Mark Tardi’s agile translation follows her every step of the way, doing equal justice to Hund’s wry, unflinching metaphors as he does to her more minimalist passages. The overall effect is that of a vibrant English that testifies to not only the skill but the passion with which it was translated. Witty, compassionate and intelligent, this is a book that captures from the first sentence and demands to be finished.

Noor Habib and Zara Khadeeja Majoka’s translation from the Urdu of Oblivion and Eternity Within Me by Miraji

From the judges’ citation: Pioneering queer poet Miraji, lauded as one of the three pillars of modern Urdu poetry, in lifestyle and letters resisted both heteronormative and colonial conventions. As a translator and critic himself, Miraji continually initiated and renewed dialogues between Urdu conceptual space and those of French, American, Sanskrit, Korean, Chinese and Greek poetry, remapping the cartography of Urdu poetry and crafting his own richly-layered modern register. A controversial writer and personality, Miraji died in the hospital where he was subjected to electroshock therapy to cure his “madness” and was buried in an unmarked grave. The collection Oblivion and Eternity Within Me marks his legacy with Noor Habib and Zara Khadeeja Majoka’s powerful translations of poems that can reorient critical understandings of modern aesthetics outside of a Western paradigm while reorient the reader’s notion of self through rich, generative language and wistful yet incisive interrogation. 

Joaquin Gavilano’s translation from the Spanish of The Hostage by Gabriel Mamani Magne

From the judges’ citation: In Gabriel Mamani Magne’s The Hostage, a father who needs to cover damages after a barfight over a woman decides to extort money from his ex-wife by faking their sons’ kidnapping. The narrator, just entering adolescence, is used to “not asking,” since the truth is dangerous. But he starts questioning attitudes towards sex, gender, and violence in the world around him during his few days of paradoxical freedom hiding at the edge of La Paz with his younger brother. Joaquín Gavilano’s translation captures the energy and humor of this magical, heartbreaking story — where the ridiculous is all too real — from a writer who represents Bolivian literature’s new wave.

Stoyan Tchaprazov’s translation from the Bulgarian of The Misunderstood Civilization by Dobri Voinikov

From the judges’ citation: A caustic satire from 1871, Dobri Voinikov’s play The Misunderstood Civilization is an indictment of the drive to westernize in the years leading up to Bulgaria’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. Hadji Kosta, the protagonist of the play and a wealthy shopkeeper, tries to hold his family together as his wife, daughter, and son are each bewitched by flourishes of European decadence from the play’s villain Margaridi, an “apostle of quasi-civilization.” The play’s commentary on the contradictions of gender roles, the trappings of tradition, and westernization as blind imitation, have made it a staple in Bulgarian theater and film since. Stoyan Tchaprazov’s nimble translation captures Voinikov’s sharp-tongued mockery and the heteroglossia of the late Ottoman Bulgaria, breathing new life into a work that remains uneasily relevant to the present.

Margaret Litvin’s translation from the Arabic of The Russian Quarter by Khalil Alrez

From the judges’ citation: Khalil Alrez began working on The Russian Quarter in a Damascus suburb where mortar fire repeatedly shattered his apartment windows and completed it in a refugee shelter in Brussels where he has since settled. “In writing it,” he says, “I wanted to offer my readers something beautiful and delightful set amidst the ugliest of subjects.” Indeed, the novel is a strikingly original war fiction deeply rooted in whimsy. Its narrator and his Russian girlfriend Nonna live in a rooftop room in the neighborhood’s zoo, sharing their lives with a lively human and animal menagerie including a giraffe; across the book’s pages, the animals’ inner lives are revealed and the whole neighborhood’s close-knit charm unfurls. When war finally intrudes — as it must — on this magical realist world, it is all the more devastating for how deeply human its victims are to us. Margaret Litvin’s seemingly effortless translation not only keeps pace with the novel’s unique and “fresh, reckless, fast language” but sensitively picks up on all its translingual connections between Russian and Arabic. 

Stine An’s translation from the Korean of Today’s Morning Vocabulary by Yoo Heekyung

From the judges’ citation: The poems of Yoo Heekyung’s (유희경) collection, Today’s Morning Vocabulary, transform through Stine An’s dexterous translation into new and alternate definitions for words that reflect the vocabulary of Yoo’s poetic world. It is a vocabulary of grief, a vocabulary one encounters anew each morning, and a vocabulary that exists perhaps just for a day. Their quietude renders everyday sadnesses, uncannily strange, limning the sorrows of the quotidian with compassion and resolve. Stine An’s choice to translate Yoo’s debut collection from among the poet’s impressive oeuvre marks a powerful introduction of an important, widely influential Korean poet to English readers.

Richard Prins’ translation from the Swahili of Walenisi by Katama Mkangi

From the judges’ citation: A touchstone of Kenyan literature, Katama Mkangi’s Walenisi begins with a reimagination of events from the dictatorial Kenyatta and Moi regimes. The novel’s protagonist, sentenced to death for “talking too much,” miraculously escapes his fate by piloting the space ship intended as his grave to the utopian planet Walenisi, where a journey of self-discovery begins. Blending parable and science fiction, Mkangi, who was imprisoned for his pro-democracy advocacy, satirizes global capitalism and postcolonial authoritarianism while presenting a speculative vision of an egalitarian future. Richard Prins translates this thrilling ride with humor and verve — a rare chance for English-speakers to read an Africanfuturist work originally written in an indigenous African language.

Priyamvada Ramkumar’s translation from the Tamil of White Elephant by B. Jeyamohan

From the judges’ citation: Within the vast sub-genre of anticolonialism literature, White Elephant, a novel by the Tamil author and literary activist B. Jeyamohan, is a rarity because it gives us a fictionalized account of, arguably, the earliest Dalit uprising in India. Set in 1878 against the backdrop of the great famines in British India, the story unfolds, interestingly, from the point of view of an Irish police officer of the British Crown. Most importantly, through the character of Kathavarayan, the novel brings to the fore the forgotten legacy of Pandit C. Iyothee Thass, the first anti-caste leader from the Madras Presidency, who laid the groundwork for several other Dalit leaders like B. R. Ambedkar. Jeyamohan is a prolific and much-lauded Tamil writer, but he is mostly unknown to the Anglophone readership. This landmark historical novel, translated with much care by Priyamvada Ramkumar (who recently published the first ever book-length English translation of Jeyamohan) is a crucial intervention in our understanding of subaltern lives in India and a much-needed inclusion in anticolonial literature.

Caroline Froh’s translation from the German of Words of Resistance by Mariella Mehr

From the judges’ citation: Mariella Mehr belongs to the Jenisch people, a traditionally nomadic minority group with roots in Switzerland and other parts of Western Europe. From 1926 to 1973, during which Mehr was born, the Swiss government actively funded a forced assimilation program targeting the Jenisch among other groups, aiming to curtail their nomadic way of life. Mehr’s experiences under political oppression gave birth to innovative stylistics that are uniquely and intensely her own; over the course of her three-decade career, Mehr developed a signature “invented language,” defined by subversive linguistic strategies that inject trauma and violence into the materiality of language itself. Words of Resistance brings together for the first time selected short fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, journalism, and essays spanning the course of Mehr’s remarkable career, and Caroline Froh’s clear-eyed, trenchant translation demonstrates Mehr’s significance as a groundbreaking contemporary poet, prose stylist, and activist.

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

Administered under and judged alongside 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.

Isabella Corletto’s translation from the Italian of Fathers by Giorgia Tribuiani

From the judges’ citation: Italian literature is famous for its family sagas and familial conflicts, but what Giorgia Tribuiani wrote with Padri (Fathers) is a novel which upends those traditional themes and ideas. Looking exactly how he did on the day he died more than 40 years earlier, Diego Valli appears at his old apartment and is met with his son Oscar, who he left behind as a child and is now well into his 50s. The pathos that Isabella Corletto deftly infuses in her translation forms a lovely counterpoint to the seemingly absurd premise, resulting in a strikingly original text.