The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction is a career-founding prize, which promotes fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. Established by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000, it is awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles.
The winning unpublished novel manuscript is chosen by a panel of three judges, including one editor representing Algonquin Books and two distinguished literary authors. Entries are judged blindly, to avoid any form of bias, and the identities of the authors of the submissions are not known by the judging panel 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, as well as an additional publishing advance. The winning author can expect to work closely with an editor from Algonquin prior to publication, and will receive promotional support from PEN America and Algonquin.
Winners for this award are eligible to receive PEN America’s official winner seal.
Defining Socially Engaged Fiction
Socially engaged fiction may describe categorical human transgressions in a way that compels readers to examine their own prejudices. It may invoke the necessity for economic and social justice for a particular ethnic or social group, or it may explicitly examine movements that have brought positive social change. Or, it may advocate the preservation of nature by describing and defining accountable relationships between people and their environment.
The mere description of an injustice, or of the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially engaged literature. “Social engagement” describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence, to question and confront, to work towards betterment.
Politically engaged literary fiction has influenced readers and social currents of every age, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—which invigorated the American movement to abolish slavery—through 20th-century classics such as The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. More contemporary contributors to this tradition include Margaret Atwood, Jesmyn Ward, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, Tommy Orange, Richard Powers, Valeria Luiselli, Rion Amilcar Scott, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others.
Because of its inherent challenges and discomforts brought to a reader, socially engaged fiction is often undervalued in American letters, while its role and recognition in American culture is only growing. Historically, its advocacy has not fallen within the stated goals of major North American publishers, endowments, or other prizes for the arts. The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction was conceived to address these deficiencies, with the hope of enlisting more U.S. writers, publishers, and readers to share in this crucial endeavor.
Fabienne Josaphat, Kingdom of No Tomorrow
Antoinette Boileau, a young Haitian student in Oakland, finds herself caught in the crosshairs of an ongoing revolution. It’s 1968, and she cannot resist the appeal of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Black Panthers take charge of their own destiny and are not afraid of being what they call “true revolutionaries.” Nettie and her close friend, Clia Brown, use their skills as public health students to help operate the party’s People’s Free Health Clinics. Even though Clia and Nettie share a mutual attraction to each other, Nettie soon sets her sights on BPP Defense Captain and war veteran Melvin Mosley. The passionate love affair that ensues unfortunately eclipses her friendship with Clia, and later, her own sense of self. Nettie is handling guns and committed to the cause and to Melvin.
When Nettie is pregnant and moves to Chicago to help Melvin with a newly-launched Illinois chapter, she finds Chicago segregated, police surveillance brutal, and her faith in love eroding as Melvin strays away from her. She persists, attracted to the effectiveness and power of the leadership, and the charisma of a young Chairman Fred Hampton. After a violent tussle with the pigs and the loss of an unborn child, both Nettie and Melvin are caught in the viciousness of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO. Fallen prey to agents and informants, Nettie is soon on the run, eager to save herself and find power in her roots, in herself, and in the relationships she has made along the way. This is a novel that sheds light on the misunderstood revolutionary party of the Black Panthers, bridging the gap between Afro Caribbean and Afro American communities, and granting agency to women caught in a world of men. Kingdom of No Tomorrow confronts themes of racial injustice by empowering the dispossessed, and reigniting the fire of much-needed hope in these contemporary times.
Beatrice Baltuck Alder, Yid
Doris Cheng, Still the Water
Anne Finger, Mother of God
Emily Grandy, Cupido Cupido
Maggie Harrison, Precious Grace
Patricia Grace King, Outsider Art
Mary Lannon, Tide Girl
Benedict Nguyen, Hot Girls With Balls
Daniel Tam-Claiborne, Transplants
2021 Jamila Minnicks, Moonrise Over New Jessup
2019 Katherine Seligman, At the Edge of the Haight (Algonquin Books)
2010* Naomi Benaron, Running the Rift (Algonquin Books)
2008* Heidi W. Durrow, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books)
2006* Hillary Jordan, Mudbound (Algonquin Books)
2004* Marjorie Kowalski Cole, Correcting the Landscape (HarperCollins)
2002* Gayle Brandeis, The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins)
2000* Donna Gershten, Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth (HarperCollins)
*(Prior to 2012, the Bellwether Prize was administered independently from the PEN Literary Awards.)