2018 Los Angeles Literary Award Winners The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week we speak with the 2018 Los Angeles Literary Award Winners: Robin Benway, Venita Blackburn, Philip Boehm, Jaeah Lee, Wendy Lesser, Dan O’Brien, Sarah Sentilles, and Vickie Vértiz. Please join us on Nov. 2 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel to honor these writers alongside Artistic Expression Award winner Ai Weiwei, Screenplay Excellence Award winner Barry Jenkins, Distinguished Leadership Award winner Marvin Putnam, and more. For more information, and to purchase tickets for the 2018 Los Angeles LitFest Gala, please click here.

1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
Recently I participated in one of those old diversity training exercises where they have a list of generalized categories of “identity” and [each member of] the group is asked to choose the category they most belong to. So, of course, there were groups based on race and then nationality and then sexual orientation and so on. I knew that on the surface I belonged to a few of those groups but could not choose one, so I asked if I could make my own group: the artists. Surprisingly, I was not a group of one but several opted for that, feeling it, too, belonged as a category in the great pool of marginalized peoples. I do believe the more superficial classifications we have for each other, those old tribal borders are more imaginary than anything else, a complicated story we tell ourselves and our children. For many of us, it is a horror story as much as a history, and for others the narrative is lovely as a fairy tale. The artist in me overwhelms all other identities because that condition feels most natural, something innate and chosen, a compulsion within my independent personhood that demands I name the world rather than have the world name me.

—Venita Blackburn, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes; 2018 Fiction Award

2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
As storytellers, one of the most important questions we have to ask ourselves is: Whose truth are you telling? The answer is almost always complicated, and, sometimes, to tell one person’s truth is to contradict another’s. It’s a question we can’t afford to ignore, nevertheless, even when the answer is uncomfortable. While fiction may rely on characters and stories derived from reality, in journalism we work within the constraints of reality. Still, it’s easy to take for granted the fact that we, too, wield a creative license, and must do so carefully, conscientiously. Every step of the writing process is also a choice to include or exclude, and being aware of our own biases in making those choices seems necessary.

—Jaeah Lee, “After the Shooting,” The California Sunday Magazine; 2018 Journalism Award

“As storytellers, one of the most important questions we have to ask ourselves is: Whose truth are you telling?”

3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
“Good writers borrow, great writers steal” (as they say); in my view, only actionable plagiarism is downright wrong. I cannot easily distinguish between my own mind and the many books, dating back centuries, that have shaped it.

—Wendy Lesser, You Say to Brick, The Life of Louis Kahn; 2018 Research Nonfiction Award

4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
As translators, we are both diplomats and activists. The sheer act of translation is one of engaging with a world outside of whatever world we’re in. You’re not going to find a lot of translators advocating for a wall on our southern border. I feel we need to be increasingly outspoken; the more insular cultures become, the more outspoken we need to be, lest that insularity makes our fears come true—which is regrettably what is happening right now. This is perhaps a soft but steady form of resistance and involves not just the translators but also our publishers and editors.

—Philip Boehm, Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall; 2018 Translation Award

5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
For me, it’s watching school boards ban certain titles from their schools and districts. To tell younger readers that a topic is considered too taboo to discuss inevitably shames those children who are currently living with the reality of that situation, whether it’s sexual abuse, parental drug abuse, or any other weight that can feel too big to carry. I’ll never understand how people who claim to want to educate children can deny them the right to read a book, rather than read it with them and discuss its themes and the implications they may have on the readers’ lives. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in that none of my books have been banned, but I have received my fair share of correspondence from parents and guardians who were dismayed by some of the books’ topics. In response, I would just say, go talk with your kids about them. Hear what they have to say. Listen to them.

—Robin Benway, Far from the Tree; 2018 Young Adult Award

6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Writing about my parents’ very complex relationship. For myself, I’m still working through various silences around class and queerness. Desire is very dangerous for many of us.

—Vickie Vértiz, Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut; 2018 Poetry Award

7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
I write morning pages and have for 20 years. I have hundreds of journals. No one should ever read them, not a single page. I’ve instructed my partner to burn them when I die.

—Sarah Sentilles, Draw Your Weapons; 2018 Creative Nonfiction Award

8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
With reluctance, I post. The evils of social media are real and challenging. But the opportunity for connecting creatively is at least as real. I’ve met scores of readers and audience this way, as well as artistic collaborators. And it’s simply a way I can learn more about what others are creating. So overall, I choose to take part.

—Dan O’Brien, The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage; 2018 Drama Award

9. Can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?
I’m a fan of an older novella called Passing by Nella Larsen. The book is a psychological exploration of same-sex attraction as the underlying narrative while the surface story is about a black woman living life as a white woman and all the gains and losses that entails. It’s not that obscure, but it isn’t one of my usual mentions like Zadie Smith or Gabriel García Márquez. I even tried to write a fanfiction modern retelling of Passing to make the concept work in our current context and add lots more gay sex, ha. It didn’t come together, but I haven’t totally given up on it.

—Venita Blackburn, Black Jesus and Other Superheroes; 2018 Fiction Award

10. What does winning a 2018 literary award mean to you?
This is the first literary award I’ve won. I’ve been writing for almost 20 years with not much critical attention or recognition. I’ve had to keep remembering that what matters is the writing itself, that even if no one ever reads anything I write, that even if everyone hates what I write, I would keep writing. Creation is the whole point. For as long as I live I want to keep exploring what language can do and how it might help repair the world. But I have to admit that when I got the phone call telling me I won the creative nonfiction award, I first thought I was being punked. Then I had to pull the car over because I felt so happy I was crying too hard to see. It felt good for my work to be acknowledged in this way. I’m grateful. Thank you.

—Sarah Sentilles, Draw Your Weapons; 2018 Creative Nonfiction Award