Last night, the PEN America Literary Awards returned as a vibrant live event—the first in-person awards ceremony since March 2020—celebrating the resilience of the literary and artistic communities across two years of hardship and uncertainty. At New York City’s Town Hall, between musical performances paying homage to neighboring Broadway’s own triumphant return, the awards, totaling more than $350,000, honored titans of the written word and captivating emerging voices in a variety of genres. As career achievement honorees were lauded for their vast and singular cultural contributions, the book award winners, including PEN/Jean Stein Award recipient Daisy Hernández (The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease), were announced in real-time.

The evening’s host, Emmy Award-winning late night host Seth Meyers, bolstered the evening with his blend of warmth and wit—acutely attuned to our precarious moment. 

Meyers, who will become a published author on March 15 with the release of his children’s book I’m Not Scared, You’re Scared, said in an opening monologue, “All of PEN America’s honorees broaden our understanding of literature as an art form—and have the unique ability to connect us across an increasingly fragmented world. Simply put: books make us better people. Or as last year’s PEN Award winner Ross Gay said, ‘reading makes us understand that we are made of each other.’”

The work of poet Divya Victor, who won the $10,000 PEN Open Book Award for Curb, is a testament to this sentiment—accessing and heightening literature’s power to help us bear witness to one another’s experiences. As NPR writes, Curb—which “considers post 9/11 domestic terrorism against South Asians across America” with words that “spill onto page after page with an unstanchable urgency”—is “an insistent plea to resist erasure by first acknowledging, absorbing, processing, and remembering our own communal histories.” In her speech, she evoked the memory of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a “brilliant young man from Hyderabad, India” murdered by a man who yelled before he shot him, “get out of my country.” The room fell silent as Victor asked, “What is the sound of that exit?”—then contemplated the sound of welcome, and its power.

The Ulysses Owens Jr. Band performed jazz and showtunes and honored the legacy of one of Broadway’s greatest-ever writers, the late Stephen Sondheim, winner of the 2017 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. Vigorously opening the evening, Bobby Conte (Company) joined the band to contribute vocals to West Side Story’s “Something’s Coming,” while Tony nominee Jenn Colella (Come from Away) sang Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle,” in a poignant recognition of writers the world lost in 2021, from Joan Didion to 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient Baktash Abtin. “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line, stirringly sung by Kyle Taylor Parker (Kinky Boots), closed the ceremony, as audiences were encouraged to join an outdoor vigil for Ukrainian citizens.

PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel took the stage at the ceremony’s halfway point to discuss the metastasizing reality of book banning in the United States and urge members to sign PEN America’s petition defending the freedom to read. She later echoed many authors’ mentions of the horrific war in Ukraine, adding a firm message of support: “For the last 5 years, we have worked alongside PEN Ukraine President Andrei Kurkov, other Ukrainian writers, and a dedicated staff to help them build a forceful and flourishing PEN organization. Our focus now is on the safety and well-being of our colleagues and the survival of the society and culture they represent. As Ukrainian writers and artists seek safety in bomb shelters, bear witness with their words, or even take up arms, we stand with them, writer-to-writer, artist-to-artist.”

Nossel invited attendees to join the vigil PEN America held outside Town Hall after the event, with composer and musician Laurie Anderson and authors Jennifer Egan, Ann Patchett, and Gary Shteyngart reading from the works of Ukrainian thinkers and poets.

Career Achievement Awards

Career achievement awards this year honored Elaine May and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, two visionaries whose influence has resonated across generations, and Jackie Sibblies Drury, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose recent theatrical-form-exploding work has provoked urgent conversations.

Elaine May — PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award

Five-time Emmy Award winner Candice Bergen, who made her Broadway debut in venerated comedian and filmmaker Mike Nichols’ production of Hurlyburly after working with the director on Carnal Knowledge, presented Elaine May with the honorary PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award, following a video message from Nathan Lane, who experienced his Hollywood breakout in The Birdcage, written by May and directed by Nichols. Lane recalled, “On our very first meeting, you handed me the screenplay of The Birdcage, and with mock exasperation, said, ‘I did the best I could.’ Well, you did more than that, and every time you sit down to write you do a hell of a lot more of that, and we are all the better for it.”

PEN America celebrated May with the prestigious prize two months before her 90th birthday, recognizing her for her vast legacy as a writer, performer, and director of theater, film, and television.

Honoring May, Bergen emphasized this as a particularly special year for the award, noting that “there may not have been a Mike Nichols without Elaine May, and there may not have been an Elaine without Mike. The comedic duo of Nichols and May were lightning in a bottle, and everyone knew it.” Bergen pointed out that the two made their Broadway debut on the very stage on which she stood, and continued to discuss May’s towering career as an “improvising legend, filmmaking maverick, and comedy savant.” She concluded, “Her presence is strongly felt today. Anyone in American comedy attempting to show life as it really is, whether they know it or not, is a descendant of Elaine. But she is so singular that you can’t point to any one person and see her influence. It’s like looking for Mozart’s influence on classical music…it’s everywhere.”

May’s effortless, constant humor shone through in the video she recorded, accepting the $25,000 award. She said, “I was on page 27 [of my speech] when I was told that it’d be better if I only spoke for two minutes because so many people would be speaking tonight. You would have loved the 27-page speech, it was really good. It took in everything: it took in the Republicans, it took in climate change, it took in what we should do about Putin, it took in where we went wrong, where we should go right, it was witty, it had a few salty off-color stories just to keep the evening going. But I know my time is up, so I think I’m just going to say that there would be no theater, no lyrics, no television if it weren’t for writers, so I would like to thank all the writers who are here tonight and PEN America for supporting them.”

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o — PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature

Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, Wanjikũ wa Ngũgĩ, and Ndũcũ wa Ngũgĩ—all children of author, playwright, and scholar Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and all three writers themselves—jovially recognized their father’s achievements—”despite his dad jokes”—with the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. A panel of judges including Laila Lalami, David Treuer, and Mónica de la Torre selected wa Thiong’o—who has produced dozens of novels, short stories, plays, and memoirs, bearing equal political potency and lyricism—for this $50,000 honor. 

Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ, flanked by his siblings, who likewise spoke and shared memories, said of his father, who has for over four decades written in Gĩkũyũ, his mother tongue, “The question my father asks is, why should he write in English, a language his mother would not read or understand? It is a basic question that we should all be asking ourselves when we are thinking about language imperialism. The decision to write in Gĩkũyũ, so he could be in direct conversation, landed him in detention without trial. And yet here we are.”

Speaking via video in Gĩkũyũ, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o recounted that in 1977, PEN and Amnesty International helped ensure his release from prison following the production of his Gĩkũyũ-language play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want). “It was during my incarceration at a maximum security prison that I decided to return to my mother Wanjiku’s tongue, Gĩkũyũ,” he said. “I now use Gĩkũyũ for all my fiction, poetry and Drama. And I always sing the same song: Let every language in the world express its unique musicality.”

Jackie Sibblies Drury — PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award

For the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award presented to Jackie Sibblies Drury, Quincy Tyler Bernstine—who gave an “outstanding” (The Hollywood Reporter), “commanding” (The New York Times) “groundswell of a performance wholly rooted yet vibrating across centuries” (The Los Angeles Times) in Drury’s Marys Seacole—revisited the role as she performed an excerpt from the play. Directors Lileana Blain-Cruz, who won an Obie Award for her world premiere production of Drury’s Marys Seacole, and Sarah Benson, an Obie-winning director of Soho Rep who staged the world premiere production of Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview, introduced the $10,000 award.

Sarah Benson said, “The amazing thing about how Jackie writes is that she creates an expansive space that generates as many different feelings as there are people in the room. And that charged space, made live with a particular audience, becomes the event of her work.”

Lileana Blain-Cruz said, “Right now, there is a lot of tumult around how theater is made—as artists, we’re asking ourselves, what kind of work do we want to make? When there are no longer gatekeepers, there is a big, beautiful void of possibility. Jackie Sibblies Drury is at the heart of that possibility—she creates complicated, visceral, challenging, and exciting work. As we walk towards visions of hope, I know we will see more of Jackie’s unflinching and unapologetically human work.”
                                                                   

Drury noted the uncanny connection between Russia’s war in Ukraine and Marys Seacole, about the Jamaican-British woman who founded the “British Hotel,” where she nursed soldiers in the Crimean War. She said, “It feels funny to be here with this amazing excerpt of this play performed by Quincy that’s about a Jamaican woman who went to find her fortune in Crimea and not think about our current situation.” She recognized “people in this room and organizations like PEN that put work into the world that allows us to witness each others’ interior lives and allows us to imagine each other” in ways that offer hope.

Book Awards

Concluding the event’s 11 book award announcements, Seth Meyers presented Daisy Hernández with the PEN/Jean Stein Award. The evening’s largest monetary prize, of $75,000, recognizes the originality, merit, and impact of a book-length work of any genre. Selected by a panel of judges comprising Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Angie Cruz, Maurice Manning, and Steph Opitz, Hernández won for The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease. Her 2021 book, published by Tin House Press, has been deemed a “vivid, multidimensional account” (Publishers Weekly) that “weaves together family memoir and investigative journalism” surrounding Chagas disease as it “raises damning questions about which infectious diseases get attention and whom we believe to be deserving of care” (NPR).

Hernández said, “I want to dedicate this award in memory of Carlos, an immigrant father from Central America, who spent so many hours with me, talking to me about Chagas disease, a disease that has been neglected for 100 years, that also took my auntie’s life. The COVID pandemic has made us so aware of the racial disparities in healthcare, but I think it’s also important for us to remember there have been families and people in healthcare working on this before COVID who will continue as well. I found so much hope in the years I worked on this book—but it’s also up to us to keep fighting the good fight.”

The other book awardees—a majority of whom were women, many having been published via independent presses—announced at the ceremony were Divya Victor, for Curb (PEN Open Book Award); Yoon Choi, for Skinship: Stories (PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection); Torrey Peters, for Detransition, Baby: A Novel (PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel); Margaret Renkl, for Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South (PEN/Diamonstein- Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay); Diane Seuss, for sonnets (PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection); Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer, for their translation of Everything I Don’t Know by Jerzy Ficowski (PEN Award for Poetry in Translation); Julia Sanches, for her translation of Migratory Birds by Mariana Oliver, (PEN Translation Prize); Catherine Raven, for Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship (PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award); Rebecca Donner, for All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography); and Tiya Miles, for All that She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family’s Keepsake (PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction). A full list of finalists for all book awards is available here.

About PEN America

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. Learn more at pen.org

Press Contacts

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