(New York, NY) – Last night, PEN America spotlighted diverse voices and bestowed more than $330,000 of transformative support to writers and translators at the 2020 PEN America Literary Awards, hosted by Late Night’s Seth Meyers at The Town Hall, the biggest venue in the Awards program’s 56-year history. The show demonstrated the evolution of the Awards in recent years from a modest auditorium event for winners and their families into a preeminent gathering of writers and publishing luminaries, stars of the stage and screen, and passionate book lovers—or, as Meyers referred to it, “The Oscars for books.”

In his opening speech, Meyers said: “Tonight we’re going to celebrate the most outstanding voices in literature, from debut authors to masters of their craft. For over 50 years the PEN America Literary Awards have honored exceptional works of fiction, poetry, biography, essays, science-writing, translation, and more.” He went on to thank the “over 70 judges who donate their time to read more than a thousand submissions from publishers” before offering some evergreen advice to the audience:  “If you’re one of those writers that wakes up every day at seven, without fail, makes a coffee, and writes for eight hours, just keep it to yourself.”

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, presented the in memoriam segment for writers the world lost in 2019. “This year some of the literary community’s voices fell silent. As we step into terrain that feels ever more unguided, we find ourselves imagining what they would say, write, and publish about a moment like this. So when we come together to present these awards, we spotlight new, enduring pillars that can hold up our collective enterprise and nurture our shared conscience. We’ve met some of those people for the first time tonight but not for the last time. They remind us what we are defending when we at PEN America and all of you unite to protect the freedom to write, as we take a moment to reflect on those whose legacies live on in our libraries, our prose, our sensibilities, and our faith.”

In the concluding presentation of the evening, Yiyun Li won the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, “one of the country’s biggest” book awards (Los Angeles Times), for the remarkably poignant Where Reasons End. Written in the wake of her own son’s suicide and unfolding as a conversation between a mother and son in a space between life and death, Where Reasons End is a “stunning exploration of suffering and loss” (The Atlantic), and “one of the most original and most accomplished American novels of the decade” (NPR). Accepting the award, Li said, “There are too many people to thank, and I can’t list all of them—so I’ll just list one very special person: my son Vincent, who helped me write this book. I have a feeling he would be really tickled that I won, and would also say, ‘Mommy, you’re not that good, remember.’”

Academy Award and four-time Tony Award winner Tom Stoppard received the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award—launched last year in partnership with Lorne Michaels—for Leopoldstadt, a work of epic scale and deep personal resonance that recently made its critically lauded world premiere on London’s West End. The presentation to Stoppard began with reminiscences, about him and Nichols, from Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski, who both acted in the 1984 Broadway debut production of Stoppard’s The Real Thing, directed by the late Nichols. Nixon said, “Mike and Tom’s partnership was one of the most magical and interconnected” she had “ever witnessed.” Mike’s ability to “smell a false moment or a false line a mile off,” she said, was likely “what made him such a great appreciator of writers like Tom, who for all his intellectual pyrotechnics makes dialogue that sounds as if it’s coming out of the mouths of real people.” Kenneth Lonergan, winner of last year’s inaugural PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award, presented the honor to Stoppard.

Upon receiving the award, the 82-year-old playwright said of writers, “I think we should all try to be a bit modest about the things said on our behalf—they’re sometimes quite inflationary—but at the back of everything, I like to think we are indeed the unacknowledged legislators. I like to think of our overview as being something of importance to the entire community, spreading out to the entire nation. And these are grandiose claims for the responsibility of the free writer, but listen, look around—if not we, who?”

Celebrated actors also took the stage for the presentation of another major career-achievement honor, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for Tanya Barfield. Following an introduction from longtime collaborator Leigh Silverman and performances of excerpts of her plays The Call and Blue Door by Kerry Butler, Eisa Davis, and André Holland, Barfield said in her acceptance speech, “I’m a Black, biracial, lesbian mother, which means it has taken many other people’s lifetimes for me to stand here today. I want to thank all the working moms that are writing out there, and I want to thank all the lesbian writers out there, and I want to thank all the biracial writers out there, and I want to thank all the Black writers, all those who have gone before me, and all those who will come after, for having the hunger and courage to lift me up, lift up your dreams, because they have given birth to mine. And for those of you that do not exist on the margins, but that wish to safeguard those on the borders of your consciousness, those forced into the shadows or those that step to you up in your face, thank you for examining your privilege in the world and in your artistry.”

The PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, honoring an author of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or drama with $50,000, went to M. NourbeSe Philip for writing that has merged vital formal experimentation and considerations of race, gender, colonialism, and African Diasporic identity for four decades. Introduced by Paul Muldoon, Philip acknowledged the importance of poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite, who died in 2020, for “the astounding oeuvre that he’s left us.” She said, “Despite the many challenges that have arisen for me as a writer speaking out on issues of race, gender, culture, and politics, I want to acknowledge the fact that when I began writing in the ‘70s in Canada it offered affordable daycare and an excellent health system. It is those kinds of indispensable material supports that allow artists and poets to create and flourish.”

Rigoberto González, honored by Deborah Paredez with the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, read his 1970 poem “Cage” and stated, “Tonight, this organization not only recognizes my work and my communities, it also recognizes my family. My parents were undocumented immigrants who did not know how to read or write. My mother crossed the border when she was pregnant with me, with no money and no property. She wanted to offer me the gift of U.S. citizenship so I would have paths and possibilities that she and my father would never have. You might wonder, ‘What ever happens to the children born of such circumstances?’ Well, now you know the fate of one of them.”

Among the many awardees announced at the ceremony were Mimi Lok for Last of Her Name (PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection); Brandon Shimoda, whose moving speech recalled his grandfather’s internment, for The Grave on the Wall (PEN Open Book Award); Allison Markin Powell for The Ten Loves of Nishino, Hiromi Kawakami (PEN Translation Prize); Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen for The Winter Garden Photograph by Reina María Rodríguez (PEN Award for Poetry in Translation); Deborah Fleming, who was rendered nearly speechless, for Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape (PEN/ Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay); Jacquelyn Dowd Hall for Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America (PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award For Biography); Liz Haedo for Pieles de Papel (PEN/Edward and Lily Tuck Award for Paraguayan Literature); and Frans de Waal for Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves (PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award).

A full list of finalists for all book awards is available here.

Among the notable guests in attendance were Candice Bergen, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Morgan Entrekin, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Leslie Jamison, Rebecca Makkai, Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Emily Nussbaum, Diane Sawyer, Ed Schlossberg and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Jia Tolentino, Bryan Washington.

About the PEN America Literary Awards

 The PEN America Literary Awards have, since their founding in 1963, brought together award-winning writers, editors, translators, and critics in dynamic and diverse panels of judges that determine the given year’s most resonant literature. The ceremony encompasses live winner announcements, dramatic readings from selected award-winning works, and a moving In Memoriam segment, which recognizes the literary greats lost over the last year. Over the decades, the PEN America Literary Awards have expanded across genres, celebrating a wide range of writing, recognizing writers at every stage of their careers, and catapulting new writers to prominence.  

About PEN America

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

Press Contacts

For more information, please contact Blake Zidell or Adriana Leshko at Blake Zidell & Associates, 718.643.9052, [email protected] or [email protected]