PEN America Literary Awards Bestows Honors on Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Sandra Cisneros
The Oscars are over, but awards season continued Tuesday night with the 2019 PEN America’s Literary Awards.
Now in its 55th year, the ceremony honored both debut and established writers working across genres, with a packed evening hosted by comedian Hari Kondabolu at the NYU Skirball Center in Manhattan.
“The daring and groundbreaking work we honor here tonight is testament to a culture in which free expression is nurtured and protected,” said novelist Jennifer Egan, president of PEN America, at the ceremony.
The evening’s highest honor, the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which includes a $75,000 prize, went to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah for his debut collection of short stories, “Friday Black.”
“In writing this book, I felt very precisely that I wanted these stories to be out in the world,” said Adjei-Brenyah. “I felt like maybe they could do something, I felt like maybe they could help somebody feel seen, I hoped that maybe they could push the conversation in a direction that matters, the world in a new direction. I thought maybe if I imagined a world a little bit worse than ours, maybe collectively, we could imagine a world that’s much better.”
Another top award, the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, went to Mexican-American novelist Sandra Cisneros, author of such acclaimed titles as “The House on Mango Street” and “Woman Hollering Cree.” The writer Maria Hinojos presented the prize.
“Don’t write about what you remember; write about what you wish you could forget,” said Hinojos, recounting advice given to her by Cisneros, the third author to win the honor since it was established in 2017.
Film director, playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan took home the inaugural PEN/Mike Nichols Award for Performance Writing, created this year by PEN America and Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels. The award reflects the organization’s recent expansion to Los Angeles and honors Nichols, the late comedian and director known for his vast oeuvre, which includes the films “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.”
Matthew Broderick, whose personal and professional history with Lonergan stretches back four decades, presented the award. “I am proud to have been in every movie he’s ever directed. Usually playing an unsympathetic asshole,” joked Broderick.
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The evening also featured several additional lifetime achievement awards, including the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing, which went to Jackie “Mac” Macmillan, and the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award, received by Larissa FastHorse, a Native American playwright and choreographer.
“In celebrating all of us who do have the freedom to act, speak or think without hindrance,” said FastHorse in her acceptance speech, “I encourage us to remember that many people right here in America, the original people of America, do not share those same freedoms. Let’s all use our freedoms to help fight for theirs.”
A full list of winners can be found here.