(New York, NY) — Today PEN America announced the Finalists for its 2021 PEN America Literary Awards, a roster of 55 titles from 48 imprints and presses and including 20 literary debuts. The varied list—including fiction and nonfiction, essay and poetry, science writing and works of translation—encompasses literary works that reckon squarely with the crises facing the country and the world, including immigration, state-sanctioned violence, racial divisions, rootedness, and the complexities of identity. In addition to the Finalists, PEN America also announced today that its Literary Awards Ceremony will take place virtually on April 8.


“From some 1,850 submitted titles, these 55 books represent the best literature published during a time when the written word is urgently needed to support collective empathy and a better world,” said Jane Marchant, PEN America Literary Awards program director. “In these stories we see the banality of daily life; we see families, legends, religious rites and cleansing; we see burials, wildfires, knife blades, emperors, gods, and divine favor. These books tell of real people, of a reality far beyond an expired canon. They remove barricades and show us our connected humanity.”

The 55 Finalists, across 11 book award categories, were selected by independent judging panels as the best representations of literary excellence published in 2020 (one award recognizes nonfiction published in both 2019 and 2020). Kawai Strong Washburn is the second author in PEN America history to be a Finalist for two awards: the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, for Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel. The PEN America translation award Finalists span seven languages and represent languages and stories from nine countries. And, as a mark of the program’s ability to elevate works outside the traditional publishing world, half of the titles are from either university or independent presses.

“As a judge, it’s been an absolute joy to meet with my fellow judges and discuss these original and compelling books,” said author Brandon Hobson, a judge for this year’s PEN Open Book Award, granted to an exceptional book-length work of any genre by an author of color. “This list of finalists represents the triumphant strength in their sheer brilliance and diversity. Literary awards let us recognize the authors whose works need to be known. It is an honor to be a part.” 

Among the Finalist books for this year’s PEN America Literary Awards:

  • Anthony Cody’s poetry collection, Borderland Apocrypha, responds to the state-sanctioned violence, lynchings, and erasure that occurred at the borderlands during and following the Mexican-American War.
  • How Much of These Hills Is Gold, by C Pam Zhang, is a haunting adventure story that centers children’s perspectives, while serving as an exploration of racial, nonbinary, and immigrant identities. 
  • Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s That Hair: A Novel, translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker, deepens a global conversation of racism, feminism, and the double-inheritance of colonialism, through the lens of a Luanda-born daughter of a Black Angolan mother and a white Portuguese father.

The Literary Awards Ceremony will for the first time take place virtually on April 8, opening the ceremony to a global audience. Dubbed by 2020 host Seth Meyers as “the Oscars for books,” the awards ceremony will confer over $380,000 in prize money to writers and translators across all stages of their careers. The ceremony will also feature PEN America’s career achievement award winners, to be announced in advance of the live ceremony.

See the full list of Finalists, read more about the judging panels, and view last year’s ceremony.

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 free 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.

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