NEW YORK—PEN America announced the winners of its annual Literary Awards this evening, celebrating excellence in literature and translation across continents and genres. A ceremony enlivened with poetry, dramatic performance, music, and suspenseful live announcements feted fresh literary talents and honored venerated icons.

The trailblazing chronicler of modern gay life, Edmund White, won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, for a body of work judges said was marked by “unsentimental tenderness, sharply observant wit, and an unsparing examination of the self.” Irish novelist Edna O’Brien received the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature for work that allows readers to “look clearly and dispassionately upon the spectrum of human emotion.”

Triumphing amid a field of five highly acclaimed finalists, poet Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection “Whereas”, a piercing rejoinder to the US Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans, claimed the night’s book of the year prize, the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, and its $75,000 purse. Described by judges as a “grand reckoning with language and history,” Whereas was praised for its “elegant and fierce introspection” and “rectifying spirit of restless invention.”

Jenny Zhang won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for her short story collection Sour Heart, a stark depiction of hardscrabble Chinese American adolescence in New York City; and Alexis Okeowo’s A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa was awarded the PEN/Open Book Award. The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay was awarded to Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away in late January, 2018 at age 88, for No Time to Spare, a set of ruminations on aging and the universe. The accolade was accepted by her son Theo Downes-Le Guin.

“Language lives longer than people and therefore its permanence is vital,” said Edna O’Brien. “It moves us from one generation to the next; it’s immortal.”

Lifetime and career achievement awards were conferred upon novelists, playwrights, poets, and translators. Luis Alfaro, whose critically acclaimed dramatizations have brought the experience of inner city, blue collar Los Angeles Chicano communities to audiences worldwide, received the 2018 PEN/Laura Pels Award for Master Dramatist; Barbara Harshav was awarded the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation recognizing her more than 40 translated works; Kamau Brathwaite received the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry for seminal contributions to the Caribbean literary canon that innovate across language, typography and form; and Dave Kindred received the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing for his riveting storytelling and spare language, and a quarter century of contribution to the canon of sports writing.

The evening included the performance of select passages from awardee Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, and a moving tribute in photo and song to writers including Sam Shepard, Fred Bass, Julius Lester, and Judith Jones who died this past year. The ceremony was hosted by author and activist Sally Kohn, who quipped that “it was just like the Oscars, only smarter.”

“This year’s awardees represent the near and far corners of the literary landscape, including writers who have shattered barriers of race, class, ethnicity, geography, gender and sexual orientation to bring stories to new audiences, unlock empathy and take places of distinction within our collective canon,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “In times of challenge great literature offers a desperately needed window onto other possibilities. We celebrate these extraordinary writers, and we thank them for keeping us nourished at a time when inspiration is sorely needed.”

For over 50 years, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored outstanding voices in fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, sports writing, biography, children’s literature, translation, and drama. Backed by partners and supporters, PEN America has this year conferred 24 distinct juried awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes, awarding more than $350,000 to writers and translators.

A full list of the PEN America Literary Award winners can be found here.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Since 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored many of the most outstanding voices in literature across a diverse array of genres and styles, celebrating both renowned and emerging authors and translators and helping to advance the careers of many writers. With the help of its partners and supporters, PEN America has bestowed 24 distinct awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes in 2018 and conferred more than $300,000 to writers and translators of exceptional literary works.


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