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PEN America/L’Engle Rahman Prize for Mentorship

Named for the 10-year written friendship of the late acclaimed author Madeleine L’Engle and scholar, writer, and former Black Panther Party leader Ahmad Rahman, the PEN America/L’Engle Rahman Prize for Mentorship honors mentor/mentee pairs in PEN America’s longstanding PEN Prison Writing Mentorship Program, which connects incarcerated writers with correspondence-based mentorship and other resources. Recipients of the award receive $250.

The prize was generously endowed by L’Engle’s family and memorializes L’Engle’s participation as one of the program’s very first mentors, along with Rahman’s extraordinary journey from serving 21 years in prison—framed in an FBI sting of the Panthers—to a celebrated and beloved assistant professor of African and African-American History at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The pair began writing in the early 1970s, establishing a rigorous working rapport that informed both of their works.

Read this poignant essay to learn more about the history of this incredible partnership >>

Watch a captivating performance of L’Engle and Rahman’s letters, edited and staged by L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis and actor Eric Berryman:

2023 Honorees

Steven Perez and Alison Harney

Steven R. Perez, O.P., is a member of both the Third Order Lay Fraternities of Saint Dominic and the Pen City Writers, a creative writing group in prison sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin.  His memoirs have been published by PEN America, American Short Fiction, The Texas Observer, and the U.T. Austin Pen City Writers Chapbook for 2017-2018.  He is located at the Connally Unit, a Texas State Prison, in Kennedy, Texas.

One of the things I enjoy most about my relationship with Alison is her letters.  Her letters are intense and filled with insight. The exchange of ideas and worldviews stimulates my mind…These types of conversations show me that in spite of all the lockdowns and all the other obstacles that come my way, my writing really does matter.  It really does have the power to change people’s perspectives.  It really does have the power to make changes for the better.  These types of conversations show me that no matter what happens, I gotta keep writing. (Read the full letter)

Alison Harney earned an MFA in poetry from UNC-Wilmington and her poems have appeared in journals including The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and Prairie Schooner. In 2019, she created Writing Room ATL, where she leads small online writing groups. Alison lives in Atlanta with her family.

I can’t explain how much this meant to me, to hear our experience over the years reflected back and appreciated. I wept for all you endure and all you overcome. For your generosity and kindness amidst so much adversity. For your will and your faith. For your forgiveness when I am slow to respond, when I cannot fix your circumstance, when I live my life with freedom and luck that you have been denied. I wept because despite the world around us feeling heavy and desperate, maybe, together, we are making something beautiful. (Read the full letter)

Larry Stromberg, Kate Mulley and Rose Cullis

While incarcerated at SCI Coal Township, SCI Graterford and SCI Phoenix, Larry Stromberg has written, acted and directed over sixty plays for the Prison’s population, The Mental Health Awareness Month, Lifers Incorporated, The Drug and Alcohol Awareness Month, The Christian Community and for the Restorative Justice Program at SCI Phoenix in Pennsylvania. Larry is a Certified Peer Support Specialist, A Villanova University College student at SCI Phoenix and was a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild before this incarceration. His play “I’m Here for You” is a 2019 PEN America winner. His feature film, “Spiritual Warfare” is distributed on-line. Almost as much as he loves his family, Larry loves animals. By the grace of God, he hopes to see the ocean again someday. He is forever remorseful for the horrible choice he made decades ago that resulted in his Death by Incarceration sentence.

Being granted two mentors (Rose and Kate) over the years in the PEN America Mentoring Program has made me a better writer and more importantly, a better human being. Both mentors saw the best in me. They believed in my work. They believed in me. They encouraged me to write on. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing and will do whether I remain in prison till the day I pass on into the next life or if I’m given a second change at mercy back into society someday. I will write on. (Read the full letter)

(C) Marina McClure Photography

Kate Mulley is a New York-based playwright, librettist/lyricist, dramaturg and collage artist whose work explores gender, power, place and desire through a feminist, and often historical, lens. She is the editor of Dramaturgy of Sex on Stage in Contemporary Theatre (Routledge, 2024) and her plays and musicals have been performed in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and China.

Larry’s play Running with the Devil is a stark work that is very different from my own writing, but we both share a desire to write from within ourselves, from our own experience. (Read the full letter)

Rose Cullis (they/them) is a writer/playwright/educator based in Toronto, Canada. They’ve had short stories, plays and monologues published in anthologies and other writing in Event Magazine, This Magazine, Brick Magazine, and Vallum. Their play, The Happy Woman, was short-listed for a national award (The Carol Bolt Award) in 2012. Cullis completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph University in 2017. They were invited to take part in Banff’s Performing Arts Creative Lab (March 2022) to collaborate on After/BAAL, a new play with music, that’s currently in development for a premiere production some time in 2025.

Larry Stromberg is an artist who works from a place of integrity and excitement. He takes risks by staying honest and being vulnerable, even though there’s a guard in the hall yelling at him to keep it down, and that gives me courage. He believes in redemption through the arts, and he looks for that faith in others. (Read the full letter)

Terry Little and Lori Barrett

In 2007, my life changed, and regretfully so did many others. For almost 17 years, I have fervently sought out redemption in many ways: in advocacy; in becoming a supporter of St. Judes Children’s Hospital; to seeking God; and, more cathartically, through writing. In August of 2022, I published my first novel, Puppets, through Kindle. In 2023, I went on to conquer two educational feats I never thought would ever be associated with my name: I acquired my certification as a braille transcriber through the Library of Congress, and, subsequently, I graduated with an associate degree at Ashland University. I am a firm believer that with regards to life, the skies are the limit, especially when I’m the one who’s writing the story.

[Lori’s] instinctual support gifted me the self-realization that I was not working hard enough to just be myself, that all I had to do was dig a little deeper and hope a little greater. (Read the full letter)

Lori Barrett is an editor, writer and tutor living in Chicago. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salon, Identity Theory, Laurel Review, Citron Review, Peatsmoke Journal, and Middle House Review, where she was nominated for Best Small Fictions 2020. She’s an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Lori supports a free Palestine.

Terry has a subtle sense of humor—or maybe it’s artful metaphors—that fill his letters with life. (Read the full letter)

Michael Richardson and Mentor

Michael James Richardson is an incarcerated author, poet, and artist with a free mind. Current projects include a novel, a screenplay, and a memoir. Read more at: michaeljrichardson.blogspot.com, or via snail mail at Michael J. Richardson 41001-013, Federal Correctional Complex, PO Box 1000, Petersburg, VA 23804. All correspondence is welcome.

It can be hard to be a writer in any stressful environment, let alone a prison setting. Couple that with not knowing how to be a productive writer, and a lot of beautiful words may never know the intimacy of union with paper. They’ll stay locked in a mind afraid of being free. Writing stories, memoir, and poetry allows me to be free. It gives me a voice. My voice. (Read the full letter)

Michael’s Mentor, who wishes to remain anonymous, lives in Texas.

I received a letter on a gloomy fall day from Michael apologizing for being behind. He hadn’t been writing lately, and though he faced far more challenging circumstances than me, the questions he raised were familiar ones. “All too often, I find myself asking, ‘why bother’?” he wrote. At that moment, we were just writers encouraging each other to get back to work—and we did. (Read the full letter)