At this year’s PEN Literary Awards ceremony, held March 2 at Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan, novelist Yiyun Li was awarded the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for Where Reasons End (Random House), a moving novel about a writer coping with her teenage son’s suicide; Mimi Lok’s short story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press) won the $25,000 PEN/Bingham Short Story Prize; and Frans de Waal’s treatise on animal empathy Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What they Tell us about Ourselves (Norton), won the $10,000 PEN/Wilson Science Writing Award.
These were among the 18 PEN literary awards and fellowships revealed and presented to writers, playwrights, and translators during the gala event, which was held for the first time at Town Hall and featured a live band and the terrific singing of Alicia Olatuja. This year’s PEN event was hosted by the Late Night TV host Seth Meyers, who seemed to enjoy himself, got his share of laughs, and kept the event moving at a brisk pace.
“Someone described the PEN Awards as the Oscars, but for books,” Meyers cracked to open the show, “but at least you guys have a fucking host!” He was mildly topical—there were muted political references by award winners throughout the evening. Meyers hailed the novelists in the room: “we need the fiction writers because at least you guys admit that you make stuff up!”
The PEN Literary Awards present more than $330,000 in prize money to the winners. Among other winners announced during the awards ceremony: Deborah Fleming’s Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape (Kent State Univ. Press) won the $10,000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the essay; Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America (Norton) won the $5,000 PEN/Weld Award for biography; and Brandon Shimoda’s The Grave on the Wall (City Lights) won the $5,000 PEN Open Book Award for a book by a writer of color.
Awards announced before the March 2 gala ceremony include the $50,000 PEN/Nabokov Award for international Literature, awarded to poet M. NourbeSe Philip; the $5,000 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry was presented to poet Rigoberto Gonzalez. In addition awards for translation were presented to Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen for The Winter Garden Photograph by Reina Maria Rodriguez ($3,000 PEN Award for Poetry translation), and Alison Markin Powell for The Ten Loves of Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami ($3,000 PEN Translation Prize). In addition there were moving tributes to acclaimed playwright Tom Stoppard (presented by actors Cynthia Nixon and Christine Baranski), who was awarded the $25,000 PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award; and to playwright Tanya Barfield, winner of the $10,000 PEN/Pels Theater Award.
The evening featured a long list of moving, emotional acceptance speeches, among them, nature essayist Deb Fleming, who was momentarily quite speechless before thanking the people of New York City: “I love New York,” she said, “the woods and trees need the support of people in the city against fracking. There’s only one water table and its yours too!” Open Book award winner Brandon Shimoda cited his grandfather, who was interned as an enemy alien during the Japanese Internment of WWII and harassed for years afterwards by the FBI. He thanked “every alien and all the casualties of freedom who made writing this book a bittersweet experience for me.”
Jean Stein winner Yiyun Li said there were “too many people to thank,” but, she added, “I will thank my son who helped me write the book. He would be tickled that I won, but he would probably say, ‘mom, you’re not that good.’ ”