At PEN Awards, A Scaled-Up Atmosphere and Political Bent
PEN America hosted its annual literary awards at the New School in Manhattan on March 27 in a ceremony the organization hoped would be “celebration of literature on par with awards shows for other art forms,” and which saw its biggest honors of the year bestowed.
While PEN announces the bulk of its winners, including the inaugural PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, in advance of the ceremony each year, it saves its major awards for the ceremony itself. This year, the top award—the inaugural PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for the author of the year’s “best book-length work”—went to Hisham Matar for The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Lands In Between. The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay went to Angela Morales for The Girls In My Town. The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, which honors a first novel or collection of short stories, went to Rion Amilcar Scott for Insurrections. The inaugural PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement In International Literature went to Syrian poet Adonis for his full body of work.
The ceremony, hosted by former Daily Show correspondent and Halal in the Family creator Aasif Mandvi, was themed for the first time in PEN history, labeled Books Across Borders to “showcase the power of literature to transcend geographical, cultural, gender, and artistic boundaries, and to illuminate the impacts and influence of artists around the world on American thought,” the organization said. The event was held on the heels of two widely-protested executive orders issued by President Donald Trump intending to secure American borders by halting the country’s intake of refugees from a selection of predominantly Muslim countries.
Mandvi, a Muslim, began the evening joking about the danger of books crossing borders, noting that they could be “really bad libros,” and suggesting that, should the president wish to keep Muslims from accessing the country, he might do so by building a wall “out of bacon. As a Muslim,” he continued, “I know that would keep me out.”
The ceremony—produced by showrunner Bill Werde, a former editorial director at Billboard—featured a scaled-up atmosphere replete with musical performances. Actors from the Huntington Theatre Company performed a dramatic reading of the play Topdog/Underdog by Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright, screenwriter, and novelist Suzan-Lori Park, under the direction of actor, singer, and director Billy Porter. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of indie-rock group the Walkmen, performed Leonard Cohen’s song “Democracy” set to artwork by the artist David Mack and musician and composer Olga Nunes, and PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award winner Natalie Scenters-Zapico performed a poem about the U.S.-Mexico border along with accompaniment by violinist Ernesto Villalobos.
The event rounded up other star power as well, including ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap, of SportsCenter, and Tony Kornheiser, host of sports program Pardon the Interruption, the latter of whom regaled the crowd with stories of working with author William Nack at Newsday in the 1970s before presenting him with the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Sportswriting. Tarell Alvin McCraney, the author of play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and Academy Award–winning co-author of the script of its film adaptation, Moonlight, was also on hand to accept the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a Playwright in Mid-Career.
“I have to admit this was a surprise,” McCraney said as he accepted his award, nodding to the well-publicized flubbing of the conferring of the Academy Award for Best Picture: “And you’d think I’d be used to surprises by now.”
Throughout the ceremony, PEN screened pre-filmed segments featuring each of the five nominees for the night’s top award, the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, reading from or discussing their shortlisted works. The segments, introduced by Mandvi, were similar to the highlight reels more customary at cinematic awards ceremonies such as the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes.
In closing, PEN America executive director Suzanne Nossel reminded the audience that “in our present political moment, words have new meaning.” She added: “When words are used to harm, we use words to heal. When words are use to lie, we use words shed a light on truth. When words are stopped at the border, we use words to cross boundaries.”