Last night, PEN America announced the winners of its 2018 Literary Awards. Sally Kohn, a CNN commentator and author of the forthcoming book, The Opposite of Hate, hosted the event at NYU's Skirball Center in Greenwich Village. Like last year’s PEN award ceremony, this one incorporated music, dramatic performances, and video. New this year was PEN America’s decision to allow members of the general public to purchase tickets. Previously, only writers and industry professionals were invited. The combination made for a lively, sold-out show, which was imbued with the spirit of liberalism and free-speech advocacy PEN represents.
The PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for “a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact” was the biggest prize of the evening. Layli Long Soldier’s poetry collection, Whereas, published by Graywolf Press, won the $75,000 grant. Long Soldier, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, said, softly, “I’m so happy, but I’m so shy. It’s like, what do I say now?” She continued, “When I wrote Whereas, that was a moment to say, it’s O.K. for us to have boundaries, it’s O.K. to have respect, and it’s O.K. to hear parts of the history that you haven’t heard before in this country. As much as my book was a book of speaking back and responding, it was also a book of connection and relationship and love and honoring this land and our people.”
Sour Heart: Stories, by Jenny Zhang, published by Lena Dunham's Random House imprint, Lenny, won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. (Notably, all finalists for the debut fiction prize were female.) "The last time I won an award was in fourth grade," Zhang joked. Later she said, "Thank you to the Chinese-American community for letting me tell some of our stories. Because if I'm being really honest, sometimes telling my people's stories can feel like a betrayal and not so much a triumph. Sometimes I wonder, who am I to sell out my community to those who are eager to consume our suffering and profit from our excellence? But still, I am very lucky that I have been able to tell my stories... and I know that freedom comes at great cost, so thank you, PEN for fighting for it."
American novelist Edmund White won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. The judges (Louise Erdrich, Adam Johnson, and Porochista Khapour) wrote in their citation that White “personifies a cosmopolitan Americanism at home in the world, yet increasingly endangered at home. His great subject is the vexed magnificence of love. His great art is to make that subject belong to everyone.”
Irish writer Edna O’Brien received the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. The judges (Diana Abi-Jaber and Michael Ondaatje) said of O’Brien: “Emerging from a time and place when women authors were not the norm, O’Brien endured public condemnation, her books burned and banned. Throughout it all, her writing remained undaunted, vital, her force unmitigated. Her stories cross oceans, go on the run, risk life and limb, and her readers a swept along on extraordinary journeys.”
The PEN/Diamondstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay went to Ursula K. Le Guin, for her book No Time to Spare: Thinking Out Loud about What Matters. The award was accepted on Le Guin’s behalf by her youngest child, Theo Downes-Le Guin, who spoke movingly about his mother, who died in January. “For those of us who knew Ursula’s spoken voice, reading these essays is much like her half of the dinner conversation: witty, erudite, prickly, and wiser than anyone I have ever known.”
Dave Kindred won the PEN ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports writing. Judges Sally Jenkins, Chloe Cooper James and Joe Nocera said that Kindred writes “about sports with a primacy of the physical sense and a plain, spare language that make his pieces into immediate experiences.”
John A. Farrell won the PEN/Jacqueline Bogard Weld Award for his biography, Richard Nixon: The Life.
The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, by Lindsey Fitzharris, won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Science Writing Award.
The PEN/Voekler Award for “a poet whose distinguished and growing body of work represent a notable and accomplished presence in American literature” went to Kamau Brathwaite.
Jonathan Eig won the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing for Ali: A Life.
For the full list of award recipients, please follow this link to the PEN America website.
(Photo of Edmund White by Sophie Bassouls)