The PEN Pod: Writing as Medicine with Sandra Cisneros and Jane Marchant
This week, we at PEN America announced the finalists for our annual PEN America Literary Awards. As one of the most expansive, most diverse awards programs in the country, our awards highlight the work of authors across genres, stages of their careers, and barriers. Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with two people closely involved with the PEN America Literary Awards—the writer, novelist, essayist, and performer Sandra Cisneros, who served as a judge this year and was awarded the 2019 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, and Jane Marchant, who is the director of our literary awards program. Sandra and Jane discussed this year’s finalists, the importance of diversity in judging literary awards, and how to define “literary excellence.” Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Sandra and Jane is up until the 13:58 mark).
Jane, let me start with you. How does PEN America come to a list of finalists like this, and what role do judges play in getting us to where we are this week?
JANE MARCHANT: So as you know, we have a really wide range of awards in our programs from essay awards and short story collections, to debut novels and science writing. This year, we have 11 different book awards, and the key to each of those awards are our judging panels. We think about wanting to have a wide representation of judges for each of these awards, and so, we think about diversity of location, age, and genre. We really want each individual judge to function as an expert within their larger cohort because the core of our program is writers celebrating and recognizing excellence in their contemporaries.
We’re dedicated to ensuring a really wide range of representation for our judges. We’re interested in a range of perspectives, of voices, of genres, of locations around the world, and we really try to put together panels that are going to be able to actively represent the voices of our time, and to also recognize the importance of excellence in their contemporaries. Our program is one of writers celebrating writers. Some have called it their literary jury duty to think about these books and to recognize their excellence. Once we have the panels together, they all start reviewing the submissions. This year, we have over 1,850 submissions, and the judges will then narrow down all of the submissions to a longlist of 10 books, and then the finalist list of five books, which we’re celebrating now.
“We’re dedicated to ensuring a really wide range of representation for our judges. We’re interested in a range of perspectives, of voices, of genres, of locations around the world, and we really try to put together panels that are going to be able to actively represent the voices of our time, and to also recognize the importance of excellence in their contemporaries.”
What do you see as the role of a judge in literary words? And why do you offer up your time to serve as a judge?
SANDRA CISNEROS: That’s a good question. Well, it’s because I have been given so many awards in my lifetime and somebody did it for me, and I also know if I’m not there, a book that I would like and fight for might not win. I know how these awards make the biggest difference in a writer’s life. Sometimes, you know, in my case, I was hanging by an emotional thread.
I was going through a deep funk and depression—and sometimes on just a deep, deep, suicidal period of my life—and an award came and literally saved my life because it came from someone who wasn’t related to me, who didn’t know me, who was saying, “Yes, you’re supposed to be writing right now. You may fail at everything else in life, but this is why you were put on the planet.” And we need to remind other writers that they have a purpose. There are people reading them—maybe their own family or their own circle who do not understand what they’re doing, spending so many hours in a room alone, but we do. And if I’m not there, or if someone like me isn’t there, then possibly they may not get that award. I think about that. And it’s a great responsibility about a writer’s life, a writer’s trajectory, a writer’s reason for being. That’s why I do it.
Sandra, just staying with you for a second. I mean, this idea that you could, as you say, save a life by elevating someone’s work to their peers and their family and friends—what role do you think the literary awards like ours can play in diversifying the canon, especially when writers of color have so many struggles to break through in publishing?
CISNEROS: I used to have a foundation where we gave grants in Texas for 15 years, and one of the things I learned from creating that grant-giving foundation was the more diverse the judges, the more diverse the awards. This was true also of the nominators.
“We need to remind other writers that they have a purpose. There are people reading them—maybe their own family or their own circle who do not understand what they’re doing, spending so many hours in a room alone, but we do. And if I’m not there, or if someone like me isn’t there, then possibly they may not get that award. I think about that. And it’s a great responsibility about a writer’s life, a writer’s trajectory, a writer’s reason for being. That’s why I do it.”
Of course you have to have people nominated, but you have to have diversity of ages, sexuality, economic class, geographic region, just across the board. The more diverse you could get it, the more diverse would be the awards. That was always the case, and it taught me that again and again for 15 years. So I think it’s absolutely essential that we have books being brought to the attention of the PEN association, as well as the judges, because like it or not, we can all try to be subjective, but we’re always going to be moved by the book that speaks to us, and that’s very personal.
Jane, in hearing what Sandra is saying about what role the awards can play, and amid the crises we’re facing in the U.S. and abroad, how do you think that has helped shape who we see now as our roster of finalists?
MARCHANT: I think it’s hard. We can’t really look at this year in an isolated lens—this has been a long time coming. I think a lot of communities have seen a lot of what’s been happening for a long time, and it’s just been closed to the wider public, the wider cultural conversation, and these writers. While we’re celebrating the books that have been published, we’re calling this the 2021 Literary Awards. We’re recognizing books that have been published in 2020, but we also need to think about these books. They might have been put forward to their editors a year ago or two years ago. These books have been written over the past five, 10 years. They’re not something that had been written during COVID, or after George Floyd’s murder.
This has been a long time coming, and I think that for me, it’s just an honor to see these books getting the recognition that we know they’ve been deserving for such a long time, and I’m really grateful that the judges have seen this year and have been able to recognize so many different types of stories. We have stories involving almost anyone in the world you can possibly imagine. We have a tugboat driver, we have a story collection of poetry about Phyllis Wheatley’s life, we have stories about Haitian revolutionaries. We have stories from all over the world and across so many times, and I think it’s really important we recognize that while this is being honored in 2021, we’re really honoring a huge history here.
“We have stories involving almost anyone in the world you can possibly imagine. We have a tugboat driver, we have a story collection of poetry about Phyllis Wheatley’s life, we have stories about Haitian revolutionaries. We have stories from all over the world and across so many times, and I think it’s really important we recognize that while this is being honored in 2021, we’re really honoring a huge history here.”
Sandra, I want you to pick up on that a little bit. I wonder how, not even just in the texts that you read as part of your work as a judge, but also in your own work and the works that you’re reading, how are you seeing the crises of the last year shaping literature for the next year and the next two years? The next 10 years?
CISNEROS: Ooh, I don’t know if I can answer that question. I read what I choose to read, and I’m not anywhere close to the publishing world. I’ve lived almost all my life west of the Mississippi, and I just don’t feel I can answer that question thoughtfully. So I’m sorry.
That’s okay, I sprung it on you.
CISNEROS: Yeah, but I’m so far away and I’m such a maverick, I’ve always been a maverick and lived purposely away from the Northeast.
Jane, were you gonna say something?
MARCHANT: Yeah, I was going to ask, what are you writing right now, Sandra?
CISNEROS: Oh, well actually this week I was editing. Sometimes I edit other writers that are friends of mine—their manuscripts. I’m editing Renato Rosaldo—who’s a cultural anthropologist—his book of poetry, and I also have a manuscript, a novel by an east LA writer. Both of them are my colleagues and in the Macondo Writers Workshop that I founded and now I’m no longer part of. That community of bringing people together didn’t quite fit in in a university workshop because they were too old or too young or didn’t have a degree or whatever, so they’re part of the Macondo workshops.
So I’m looking at their manuscripts. I like to do that just to help them out, and I know how myopic it is when you finish a manuscript, and you need a fresh pair of eyes, so I’m doing that. I’m working on a libretto for The House on Mango Street, the opera, with Derek Bermel. He’s a composer in your neck of the woods in Brooklyn. I’m also working on putting together a collection of poetry, ’cause my poems have always been on the back burner and I have a story coming out, a long short story—I know that sounds odd—coming out in the fall. So lots of things at the same time, and I’m also looking at a tower of transcripted interviews that I’ve done that I need to do something with. I think it’s theater—I’m not sure.
“I always tell writers this is my house on fire, but you have a different address. It’s not the same one, so I ask you to go to your wounds—what are wounds that you have that give you a special vision for seeing others with that same wound, and to write from that place. That way, you can heal yourself while you’re also assisting others.”
Let me give you a question that maybe picks up on that. As someone so immersed not just in your own work, but the work of others—and mentees, and peers—how do you define literary excellence?
CISNEROS: That’s a good question. I think it’s so personal, don’t you? That’s why we need a diversity of judges, because what I think is excellent is going to be something that is my medicine. I always think of books as being medicine. Joy Harjo, a friend of mine, says that, and it’s absolutely true. So what’s my prescription isn’t going to be yours. It’s going to be what heals and transforms, what ails me and the community I care about. I’m very concerned about immigration, I’m concerned about border issues and the undocumented. I’m concerned about those kids who are separated from their parents and are still lost. Those are things that are wounds in my heart. So I’m concerned about those kinds of things, and that may not be your prescription, but that’s mine.
That’s what I want to write about, and that’s what I want to read about. I want to see writers—maybe their prescription isn’t mine, but I want to see writers who are writing things that are going to emotionally and intellectually involve me, and are also going to make great change because the world is such a mess. I want to read writers that are rolling up their sleeves and doing their part. That’s what I care about.
Jane, do you use the same yardstick? The prescription?
MARCHANT: I’ve never thought of it that way, but I was thinking when Sandra was saying that, what if someone doesn’t know how to self-diagnose—how would you help a writer or a reader find their prescription?
CISNEROS: I always tell writers this is my house on fire, but you have a different address. It’s not the same one, so I ask you to go to your wounds—what are wounds that you have that give you a special vision for seeing others with that same wound, and to write from that place. That way, you can heal yourself while you’re also assisting others. That’s writing to me at the highest level—there are very talented and intelligent writers that don’t do that. But guess what? They’re not my cup of chocolate. I don’t want to read them. I don’t care about them. I’m interested in writers that are making change for the better, because like that old bumper sticker says, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”