(NEW YORK)—PEN America today announces Kal Penn, the acclaimed actor, author, and former Obama White House aide, as host of the 60th annual PEN America Literary Awards, to be held Thursday, March 2, at The Town Hall (123 W 43rd St) in New York City. This year’s ceremony exemplifies the event’s recent growth into a preeminent gathering of the city’s writing, publishing, entertainment, and media luminaries with passionate book lovers to bestow some of the most significant prizes in literature. The red carpet opens at 6pm, followed by the ceremony at 8pm. Tickets, starting at $15, are on sale now at pen.org.

This year’s star-studded lineup of career-achievement award winners, presenters, and performers will be announced soon.

Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, chief program officer for Literary Programming at PEN America, said, “Kal Penn epitomizes PEN America’s belief in the capacity of writers and artists to instigate social and political change. His illuminating, often hilarious 2021 memoir You Can’t Be Serious reveals in candid prose a life and multi-hyphenated career—including a hiatus from acting to do crucial work at the White House—that sets an example for civically engaged artistry. He is the perfect person to lead a captivating evening celebrating exemplary literature—while considering the urgent societal concerns within many of these books, and the work PEN America does in advocating for free expression year-round.”

Described as “the Oscars for books” by past host Seth Meyers, the PEN America Literary Awards feature speeches, live music, theatrical performances, and a moving In Memoriam segment honoring the literary greats lost over the last year. Writers and cultural visionaries will present 11 book awards and three career-achievement awards: the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature; the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award, and the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award. In the past, the ceremony has been enlivened by powerhouse talents such as Christine Baranski, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Eisa Davis, Jackie Sibblies Drury, André Holland, Kenneth Lonergan, Elaine May, Cynthia Nixon, and Tom Stoppard. Finalists for all book awards will be announced later in February, and all winners will be revealed at the ceremony. See PEN America’s previously-announced longlists for the book awards here.

The PEN America Literary Awards recognize both established and emerging writers and are remarkably effective as identifiers of early talent. PEN America’s awards were among the very first to recognize Chang Rae Lee (1996), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2002), Jonathan Safran Foer (2002), Imani Perry (2019), and countless others. Lisa Ko’s The Leavers went from winning the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an award that honors an exceptional unpublished manuscript, to being a national bestseller.

Spanning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essay, science writing, and translation, the books celebrated at the awards are dynamic, diverse, and thought-provoking examples of literary excellence. By the end of the evening, PEN America will have conferred more than $350,000 in awards to writers and translators.

Each award is juried by panels of esteemed authors, editors, translators, and critics. These judges, selected with the help of the PEN America Literary Awards Committee, hail from across the world and represent a wide range of disciplines, backgrounds, and literary pursuits, with some  award-winning writers themselves—including Lauren Groff, Kimiko Hahn, John McWhorter, and Erika L. Sánchez, and many more.

About Kal Penn

Kal Penn is an actor, writer, producer, and former Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. He is known for his starring roles in Designated Survivor, House, Mira Nair’s The Namesake, the Harold & Kumar franchise, and the Christmas comedy The Santa Clauses for Disney+.

From 2009 to 2011, Penn took a sabbatical from acting to serve in the Obama/Biden administration as the President’s Liaison to Young Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and the Arts community. In these roles, he worked on a range of issues, including the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Affordable Care Act, Pell Grants, arts and culture programs, the DREAM Act, and rapid response to the BP Oil Spill and earthquake in Haiti.

He was a national co-chair for the Obama/Biden re-election campaign in 2012 and served on the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities, focusing on arts education and cultural diplomacy, including the first-ever US Government arts delegation to Cuba. Penn has taught courses at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Los Angeles. Originally from New Jersey, he received his undergraduate degree in sociology, theater, film, and television at UCLA, and received a graduate certificate in international security from Stanford University. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Earlier in the year, Penn wrapped production on the Bloomberg Green climate change docuseries Getting Warmer, and the Viacom/Paramount+ comedy Surina & Mel’s Hot Mess Holiday. Following the departure of Trevor Noah from The Daily Show, Penn was named an upcoming guest host.

His first book, You Can’t Be Serious, became a bestseller when it was released on November 2, 2021, from Simon and Schuster/ Gallery Books. He also narrates the audiobook.

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

Suzanne Trimel at PEN America: 201.247.5057, [email protected] 

Blake Zidell, Adriana Leshko, and Nora Lyons at Blake Zidell & Associates: 917.572.2493, [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected]