2021 PEN America Literary Awards Given to Top Literary Stars of the Year, Lifelong Luminaries of Literary Excellence
In front of a record-setting virtual audience, PEN America feted its annual award winners, career achievement honorees, and marked an extraordinary year in literary excellence
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(New York, NY) — PEN America tonight bestowed some $380,000 in prizes to writers, translators, poets, essayists, editors, and journalists at this evening’s 2021 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony. The first in PEN America’s history to take place online, the festivities drew a record-setting audience for the literary and free expression group which has been conferring awards for the top literary works for the past 57 years. The roster of award winners include a broad range of voices representing both established and emerging authors.
Among the top winners announced live during the ceremony: PEN/Jean Stein Book Award winner Ross Gay for Be Holding: A Poem; PEN Open Book Award recipient Asako Serizawa for Inheritors; Kawai Strong Washburn, who took the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel for Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel; and recipient of the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award Barbara Ehrenreich for Had I Known: Collected Essays; among many others. Award winners made powerful remarks about why storytelling is a crucial way of uplifting one another’s humanity at a time of upheaval.
“This is really an honor especially given what’s been happening in New York and Atlanta and Minneapolis and really everywhere,” PEN Open Book Award winner Serizawa said in her acceptance remarks. “What’s been helpful to me is the coalition of voices that are resisting easy answers and positions, and PEN America has advocated for so many writers I admire who do this work towards coexistence.”
“This year, we applaud every single one of our finalists, celebrate who they are as people behind the stories, and honor their creative process,” said PEN America President Ayad Akhtar. “We thank all of you: novelists, journalists, nonfiction writers, editors, poets, essayists, playwrights, translators, publishers, agents, and devoted readers and supporters. Together, we play a vital role in defending the power of radical imagination and free expression.”
Hosted by Off Broadway star Kara Young, the night included special guest appearances by Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, Audra MacDonald, recipient of the 2020 PEN/Mike Nichols Award Tom Stoppard, and Viola Davis. Presenters Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Lydia Davis, Tracy O’Neill, Laurie Anderson, Leigh Silverman, Ruben Santiago Hudson, Jeremy O. Harris, and Michael Potts shared personal stories and paid tribute to the evening’s winners. The Ulysses Owens Jr. Band and vocalist Alicia Olatuja kept the virtual crowd entertained throughout the night.
In his remarks, PEN/Jean Stein Book Award winner Gay spoke about his desire to put into practice the “understanding that we are made of each other.” He said, “I mean, the trees. And I mean the microbes. And I mean the breeze. And I mean the light that will go across the wall. I mean that we are made of each other.”
In remarks memorializing literary giants lost this past year, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said: “Another lesson of this year of tumult and torment lies in the power of those taken away from us to evoke, mobilize, and motivate. We have learned how saying their names can convert their will to live into a fire that burns inside each of us.”
In addition to the annual book prizes, PEN America also celebrated the winners of its career achievement awards, including Anne Carson (PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature), Kwame Dawes (PEN/Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing), Daniel Alexander Jones (PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award), Pierre Joris (PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation), and George C. Wolfe (PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award).
Among the evening’s book prize winners:
- Ross Gay’s Be Holding: A Poem received the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award ($75,000 prize) for a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact, which has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence. This is the fifth year of this award; prior winners include Hisham Matar, Layli Long Soldier, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Yiyun Li. Judges: Vievee Francis, Fred Moten, Tommy Orange.
- Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors received the PEN Open Book Award ($10,000 prize) for an exceptional book-length work of any literary genre by an author of color. Judges: Toi Derricotte, Brandon Hobson, Katie Kitamura, Jamil Jan Kochai, Akil Kumarasamy, Solmaz Sharif.
- Michael X. Wang’s Further News of Defeat: Stories received the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection ($25,000 prize) for an author whose debut collection of short stories represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future work. Judges: Ben Marcus, Elizabeth McCracken, Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
- Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel received the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel ($10,000 prize) for a debut novel of exceptional literary merit by an American author; the book was on PEN America Voice of Influence Awardee Barack Obama’s list of best books of 2020. Judges: Ramona Ausubel, Jack Livings, Stuart Nadler.
- Barbara Ehrenreich’s Had I Known: Collected Essays received the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($15,000 prize) for a seasoned writer whose collection of essays is an expansion on their corpus of work and preserves the distinguished art form of the essay. Judges: Sandra Cisneros, John D’Agata, Adam Gopnik.
- Victoria Chang’s Obit received the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection ($5,000 prize) for a poet whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence. Judges: Sherwin Bitsui, Cynthia Cruz, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Keelan, Bao Phi.
- Steve Bradbury’s translation of Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations by Amang received the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation ($3,000 prize) for a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English. Judges: Daniel Borzutsky, Marissa Davis, Meg Matich.
- Emma Ramadan’s translation of A Country for Dying: A Novel by Abdellah Taïa received the PEN Translation Prize ($3,000 prize) for a book-length translation of prose from any language into English. Judges: Jacqui Cornetta, Somrita Urni Ganguly, Ana L. Méndez-Oliver, Amanda Sarasien, Niloufar Talebi, Sevinç Türkkan.
- Jonathan C. Slaght’s Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl received the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award ($10,000 prize) for a work that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience. Judges: Nassir Ghaemi, Christine Kenneally, Erin Macdonald, Banu Subramaniam.
- Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals received the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000 prize) for a distinguished book of general nonfiction published in 2019 or 2020, possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues. Judges: Roxane Gay, Thomas Page McBee, Dunya Mikhail, Eric Schlosser, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Laura Wides-Muñoz.
- Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World received the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography ($5,000 prize) for a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research. Judges: Nicholas Buccola, Karl Jacoby, Nell Painter, Anna Whitelock.
Since 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards program has honored outstanding voices in fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, biography, children’s literature, translation, drama, and more. With the help of our generous partners and supporters, this year PEN America conferred over 20 distinct juried awards, grants, and prizes, awarding more than $380,000 to more than 40 writers and translators. The awards are juried by panels of esteemed, award-winning writers, editors, booksellers, and critics.