2019 PEN America Literary Award Winners

Adrian Liang on February 27, 2019
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On February 26, 2019, PEN America announced the PEN America Literary Award winners at a ceremony in New York City. The awards were dominated by debut authors who brought their distinctive new voices to literature, signaling the launch of potent writing careers.

Below are nine of the winners. Other awards were granted in the categories of sports writing, international literature, performance writing; the full list of winners can be found here.


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PEN/Jean Stein Book Award: Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

This collection of powerful stories about being black in America is raw, real, evocative, and unforgettable from a debut author who already has readers eagerly awaiting his next work. Says Roxane Gay about Friday Black, "This book is dark and captivating and essential."


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PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection: Bring Out the Dog: Stories by Will Mackin

Mackin drew on his experiences during deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq to form the backbone of these short stories that reveal the absurdity, miracles, failures, and moments of grace in modern warfare.


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PEN Open Book Award: Heads of the Colored People: Stories by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Says George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, about Heads of the Colored People: "Vivid, fast, funny, way-smart, and verbally inventive, these stories by the vastly talented Thompson-Spires create a compelling surface tension made of equal parts skepticism towards human nature and intense fondness of it. Located on the big questions, they are full of heart."


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PEN Translation Prize: Love by Hanne Orstavik

Set in northern Norway, this simmering story of a mother and son who go their separate ways over the course of winter's night was also shortlisted for a National Book Award.

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PEN Award for Poetry in Translation: A Certain Plume by Henri Michaux

From the publisher: "A bilingual edition of the most famous of Henri Michaux's poetry collections, now in a new translation from the French."

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PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay: Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms by Michelle Tea

Author Michelle Tea supports and promoted queer literature and other creative endeavors through RADAR Productions and Amethyst Editions. These essays swirl together the evocative stories of queer people and Tea's own memories in a dark, and sometimes darkly comic, but always honest collection that peels back the personas we show the world to the truth inside.


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PEN/Bograd Weld Prize for Biography: Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry by Imani Perry

While many know A Raisin in the Sun, few know Lorraine Hansberry, a young black creator who was a force of nature within the Civil Rights movement and a member of one of the first national lesbian organizations. Her life was cut short at 34, but this biography gives a glimpse of what monumental changes Hansberry set in motion before her untimely death.

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PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction: In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers by Bernice Yeung

While the media focuses on #MeToo moments in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, investigative journalist Yueng turns her attention on those victims who are often ignored—janitorial staff, agricultural workers, home nurses, among others—and their attempts to gain justice in a society that prefers them to be invisible.


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PEN/E.O. Wilson Prize for Literary Science Writing: Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter by Ben Goldfarb

Goldfarb uses the beaver to spotlight the effect on the environment that one species can have—or in this case, two species, as humans' trapping of beavers led to dramatic changes in habit that conservationists are seeking to change again by reintroducing this industrious rodent to their former spaces.


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