At last night's PEN America Literary Awards, held at New York University's Skirball Center and taking place for the first time to a sold-out house, debut and women writers had a particularly strong year.
The top award, the PEN/Jean Stein Award for book of the year, which comes with a $75,000 purse, went to Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah for his short story collection Friday Black. Other big awards included the PEN/ Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, which went to Sandra Cisneros, and the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, which Michelle Tea won for Against Memoir.
There was a bit of a Hollywood feel to the evening as well, in spite of the presence of a host, Hari Kondabolu, who took his share of shots at this year's hostless Academy Awards. That feeling was augmented with the presentation of the inaugural PEN/Mike Nichols Award for Performance Writing, established by PEN America and Saturday Night Live creator and director Lorne Michaels to honor "transformative works that enlighten and inspire audiences" in the areas of film, theater, and comedy. The award went to film director, playwright, and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan.
Will Mackin won the PEN/Bingham Prize for his story collection Bring Out the Dog, while Nafissa Thompson-Spires took home the PEN Open Book Award for Heads of the Colored People, her debut collection of short stories. Imani Perry won the PEN/Bograd Weld Award for Biography for Looking For Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, and translator Martin Aitken won the PEN Translation Prize for his translation, from the Norwegian, of Hanne Ørstavik’s Love.
Lifetime achievement and career awards went to Jackie “Mac” MacMullan, the first woman to be awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing. Larissa FastHorse received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award, and the Apogee literary journal’s Alexandra Watson won the PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing for her exemplary stewardship of the publication.
Katherine Seligman won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction for her manuscript If You Knew. (In addition to a prize of $25,000, Seligman will receive a publishing contract with Algonquin Books.) And, celebrating "great promise in an early career poet," the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry went to Jonah Mixon-Webster for his debut collection,Stereo(TYPE), which "wrestles with the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan."
To close the ceremony, PEN America president Jennifer Egan took the stage to remind the audience that “the daring works we celebrate today are a testament to the freedom we have to write them.”