The PEN Literary Awards, presented this year in a virtual ceremony, awarded poet Ross Gay the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for Be Holding: A Poem (University of Pittsburgh), a book-length lyrical tribute to the great basketball player Julius Erving and much more. Michael X. Wang’s Further News of Defeat: Stories won the $25,000 PEN/Bingham Short Story Prize, and Barbara Ehrenreich won the $15,000 PEN/Essay Award for her career-spanning collection Had I Known: Collected Essays (Twelve).
In addition, Saidiya Hartman was awarded the $10,000 PEN/Galbraith Nonfiction Award for Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, a groundbreaking history of radical queer black women (Norton). Jonathan Slaght won the $10,000 PEN/Wilson Science Writing Award for Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), an acclaimed record of a scientific quest and a devotion to nature.
These are among the 18 literary prizes and fellowships awarded during a polished virtual ceremony. Last year’s gala event, held at Town Hall in Manhattan, was one of the last in-person literary awards events held before the pandemic shut down public gatherings. This year’s virtual event, hosted by Harlem-born and raised Broadway actor Kara Young, opened with a moody black and white video montage resembling the opening of a Saturday Night Live broadcast that spotlighted Young (as well as the band featured during the ceremony and its wonderful singer, Alicia Olatuja) as she makes her way through the darkened streets of New York. Like many online ceremonies over the last year, the ceremony appeared to combine live and recorded segments.
Across its list of 18 literary awards, and fellowships, the PEN Literary Awards honors writers, translators, and playwrights, and presents $380,000 in prize money. Other winners announced during the event include Asako Serizawa’s short story collection Inheritors (Doubleday), which was awarded the $10,000 PEN Open Book Award for an exceptional book by an author of color; Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors (MCD), which received the $10,000 PEN/Hemingway Award for a debut novel; and Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and her World (Scribner), which received the $5,000 PEN/Weld Award for Biography. Emma Ramadan received the $3,000 PEN Translation Prize for her work translating Abdellah Taïa’s novel A Country For Dying from the French.
Despite the remote and displaced nature of virtual ceremonies, during which the winners, located all around the country, accept their prizes in spare rooms (“I’m in my bedroom in a cocktail dress,” Amy Stanley said after her win) and home libraries stacked with books, the awards still had great emotional impact on the winning authors. Short story winner Michael Wang said: “My goal as a Chinese American writer is to separate the politics of the country from the people. China is still a country of rural communities that are rarely explored by the U.S. media. I hope my fiction bridges that gap a little so that we as Americans have a better idea of the Chinese people and not just the politics surrounding them.”
And Stein Book Award winner Gay said his book is “not only so much desire but this practice, the practice of understanding that we are made of each other; and I mean the trees, the microbes and the breeze.” He cited the works of authors Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Susan Sontag, and Toni Morrison as being critical to his writing process, as well as the voices of “Allen Iverson, Donny Hathaway’s voice, my friend Don Belton. Had these voices not been with me, I just don’t think I could have finished this book.”