(New York, NY) — The free expression and literary organization PEN America today announced Benjamin Frandsen and Noelia Cerna; Elizabeth Hawes and Jeffrey James Keyes; Derek Trumbo and Agustin Lopez; and Seth Wittner and Katrinka Moore as the inaugural recipients of the PEN America/L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship. Named for the late acclaimed author Madeleine L’Engle and her 10-year written friendship with scholar, writer, and former Black Party leader Ahmad Rahman, the award honors four mentor/mentee pairs in PEN America’s longstanding Prison Writing Mentorship Program, which links established writers with those currently incarcerated.

Endowed by a generous gift from L’Engle’s family, the L’Engle-Rahman Prize memorializes L’Engle’s participation as one of the programs very first mentors, along with Rahman’s extraordinary journey from serving 21 years in prison, framed in an FBI sting of the Panthers, to celebrated and beloved assistant professor of African and African-American history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The pair began writing in the early 1970s, establishing a rigorous working rapport that informed both of their works.

“What’s most exciting to me about Madeleine L’Engle’s early and foundational participation in our mentor program is that her approach speaks to the mutually transformational relationships available to those who reach through the walls. L’Engle was as much a recipient of Rahman’s offerings as he was hers—they were both mentors. We’re delighted that her family has endowed this award to honor those who have developed mutually sustaining and inspiring connections via the written word in our program,” said Caits Meissner, director of PEN America’ prison and justice writing program. “These four mentor/mentee pairs (or perhaps better stated in some ways as mentor/mentor pairs) showcase the best of what it means to treat those on the inside as equally human, equally meaningful, equally as capable of stirring our imaginations through the written word.”

Consisting of more than 300 mentors working with some 300 imprisoned writers, the PEN America mentorship program is the country’s leading writerly connection between writers inside and outside the walls of U.S. prisons. Mentors provide constructive criticism, notes on craft, and guidance in and beyond the fundamentals of writing, grammar, and mechanics to incarcerated people across the country.

“Separated from loved ones and faced with countless hurdles in the effort to stay connected to the world they’ve been exiled from, incarcerated writers have often expressed how profoundly the mentorship program has impacted their lives as writers— and as people. This award honors that spirit and the spirit of my grandmother,” said Charlotte Jones Voiklis, L’Engle’s granddaughter. “Our grandmother called her writing room the ivory tower and while it was, on the one hand, a sardonic recognition of the privilege she had, it also signaled the isolation writing imposes, and she understood profoundly the isolation of incarcerated writers like Ahmad, and how mentorship provides them a linkage to the broader literary community.”

For over three decades, every year hundreds of imprisoned writers from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Awards, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. The third annual volume of the Prison Writing Awards Anthology will be available online and for purchase on the PEN America website in November 2020.

Read essay pairings from Benjamin Frandsen and Noelia Cerna; Elizabeth Hawes and Jeffrey James Keyes; Derek Trumbo and Agustin Lopez; and Seth Wittner and Katrinka Moore.

Read a story about the genesis of the award.