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PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction

The Bellwether Prize was created to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000 and funded entirely by her, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles. The winning novel is chosen by a panel of three judges: one editor representing the participating publisher, Algonquin, and two distinguished literary authors selected by PEN’s Literary Awards Committee in consultation with Barbara Kingsolver. Entries are judged blindly, to avoid any form of bias; the identities of the authors of the submissions are not known by any judge until after the decision is finalized. The author of the winning manuscript is awarded a prize of $25,000 and a publishing contract with Algonquin Books (and an advance).

Lisa ko, The leavers

Winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction

LISA KO  is the author of The Leavers, winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award, and the 2017 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, O. Magazine, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the MacDowell Colony, among others. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

From the judges’ citation: One morning Chinese-American immigrant Peilan Gao leaves for work and doesn’t come back. Soon, her son Deming finds himself adopted by a Caucasian family and renamed Daniel Wilkinson, incorporated into a culture nothing like the one he’s known and loved, while puzzling over why his mother might have left him. Following these narrative threads, ‘The Leavers’ asks whether a child is better served being raised by adoptive parents with English fluency and economic privilege, or with his family and culture of origin, despite having fewer educational and financial resources. A novel that draws links between economic migration and the adoption industry, ‘The Leavers’ is, as Laila Lalami says, “A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages. . . one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year.”

From  Newspaper Clipping to Award-winning Novel:  On Lisa Ko’S THE LEAVERS

2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction Judges

Laila Lalami is the author of the novels Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Secret Son, and The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Her essays and opinion pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Guardian, and The New York Times. She is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.

Kathy Pories is an Executive Editor at Algonquin Books. She has edited the last six winners of the PEN/Bellwether Prize, for which she is also a judge. Her authors have been Alex Award winners and finalists for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Kirkus Prize, the Story Prize, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the First Novel Prize, and the National Book Award. Additional authors she has worked with include Dan Rather, Gabrielle Zevin, Lee Smith, Rebecca Lee, Bill Roorbach, Lauren Grodstein, Robert Olmstead, Larry Watson, and others. She received her Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 
Brandon Skyhorse is the author of The Madonnas of Echo Park, which received the 2011 PEN/Hemingway award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Take This Man: A Memoir. He is also co-editing an anthology on passing which will publish in 2016. He is currently a visiting professor at Wesleyan University.


2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction Finalists

Nancy Agabian, “The Fear of Large and Small Nations”
Mary Beath, “Paradox Valley”
Nadine Bjursten, “By These Limbs”
Aneesha Capur, “A Cartography of Hope”
Rebecca Clarren, “Kickdown”
Jessi Lewis, “She Spoke Wire”
Thomas Miller, “Nightrunner”
Gail Vida Hamburg, “Liberty Landing”
Dawn Zera, “Earth Teach Me”

Previous PEN/Bellwether Winners

2016  Lisa Ko for The Leavers (Algonquin Books)

2014  Ron Childress for And West Is West (Algonquin Books)

2012  Susan Nussbaum for Good Kings Bad Kings (Algonquin Books)

Prior to 2012, the Bellwether Prize was administered independently from the PEN Literary Awards.

*2010  Naomi Benaron for Running the Rift (Algonquin Books)

*2008  Heidi W. Durrow for The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books)

*2006  Hillary Jordan for Mudbound (Algonquin Books)

*2004  Marjorie Kowalski Cole for Correcting the Landscape (HarperCollins)

*2002  Gayle Brandeis for The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins)

*2000  Donna Gershten for Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth (HarperCollins)



Submission Guidelines

Submissions for the 2019 awards cycle will open on June 1, 2018.


    • Submissions for the 2019 awards cycle will be accepted from June 1, 2018 through October 1, 2018. 


      • An unpublished novel manuscript by a writer, who has not sold more than 10,000 copies of a published book. Previous publication of short stories and essays encouraged.
      • The submission must be an original, previously unpublished novel, written by one person, in English, at least 80,000 words in length.
      • The applicant’s submission may not be under consideration by any publisher during the judging period, and if the applicant has a literary agent, the applicant is encouraged to inform them that the work should not be submitted elsewhere during the review period for this prize. Applicants will be notified immediately if their manuscript is no longer under consideration  at which time they should feel free to submit the work elsewhere for consideration.
      • Eligible authors must be U.S. citizens.
      • If you submit a book for this award, you may not submit it for any additional PEN America awards. Please note that the PEN/Faulkner and PEN/Hemingway Awards are not considered PEN America awards.

      NOT eligible:

      • Individuals who were previously finalists for the PEN/Bellwether Prize cannot submit the same work again for any future offerings of this award.