The 58th annual PEN Literary Awards were held on February 28 at Town Hall in midtown Manhattan, awarding nearly $350,000 in prizes to writers and translators. Hosted by Seth Meyers, this year's event returned to an in-person format after going virtual in 2021.
The evening's biggest winner was Daisy Hernández, who was awarded the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation's Neglect of a Deadly Disease (Tin House), an exploration of how poverty, racism, and public policies have conspired to keep the tropical illness Chagas disease hidden in the U.S.
Yoon Choi's Skinship: Stories (Knopf) won the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection, and Margaret Renkl's Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South (Milkweed) took home the $15,000 Pen/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Said Renkl in her acceptance speech, "Writing a book is an exercise in loneliness; publishing a book is an act of community." Torrey Peters's Detransition, Baby: A Novel (One World) received the $10,000 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel.
These were among the 19 PEN literary awards and grants presented throughout the night. Other winners include: Tiya Miles, who received the $10,000 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction for All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family's Keepsake (Random House); Catherine Raven, who received the $10,000 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship; Divya Victor, who received the PEN $10,000 Open Book Award for a book by an author of color for Curb (Nightboat); Diane Seuss, who received the $5,000 PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection for frank: sonnets (Graywolf); and Rebecca Donner, who received the $5,000 PEN/Jacqueline Board Weld Award for Biography for All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler (Little, Brown).
In the awards' two translation categories, Julia Sanches won the $3,000 PEN Translation Prize for translating Mariana Oliver's Migratory Birds (Transit), and Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer won the $3,000 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for translating Jerry Ficowski's Everything I Don't Know (World Poetry).
Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury received the $10,000 PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award. Her acceptance speech, in which she emphasized the importance of "work that allows us to witness our interior lives and imagine each other," was preceded by an exquisite monologue performed from her 2019 play Marys Seacole, which explores the life of 19th-century Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole.
Screenwriter, playwright, director, actor, and comedian Elaine May was awarded the $25,000 PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award. Actress Candice Bergan, who introduced the award, said that "anyone in American comedy attempting to show life as it is, whether they know it or not, is a descendent of Elaine May." In a jocular pre-recorded video message, Nathan Lane quipped, "You [May] winning the Mike Nichols Award is like me winning the Matthew Broderick Award. What does it all mean?" May herself could not accept the award in person, but she delivered a comedic and cleverly choreographed video message to express her gratitude.
Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was honored with the $50,000 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. A transformative figure in African literature, wa Thiong'o's career has spanned nearly 60 years and two languages: English and Gikuyu. Unable to attend in person, three of wa Thiong'o's children—authors Mũkoma, Wanjiku, and Nducu wa Ngugi—accepted the award on his behalf. Via a pre-recorded video message, he imparted the advice, "Let every language in the world express its unique musicality."
After the event, audience members were encouraged to participate in a candlelight vigil hosted by PEN America to support Ukraine following the Russian invasion. The vigil, held across the street from Town Hall, comprised many dozens of participants, holding electric candles and signs that read, "Writers and artists for a free Ukraine."