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Announcing The 2023 PEN America Literary Awards Winners

By Grace Briggs-Jones

The PEN America Literary Awards Program has honoured outstanding voices in fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, biography, children’s literature, translation, drama and more since 1963. This year PEN America conferred over twenty distinct juried awards, grants and prizes, thanks to generous partners and supporters, awarding more than $350,000 to more than forty writers and translators.

Winning the Jean Stein Book Award, and $75,000, is Dr. No by Percival Everett. This award is for a book of any genre for its originality, merit and impact, which has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signalling strong potential for lasting influence. Dr. No is a profound and entertaining novel that is wildly mischievous. A fantastic win for a fantastic novel.

The winner of the PEN Book Award is The Black Period by Hafizah Augustus Geter. This award is given to an exceptional book of any literary genre by an author of colour. According to the judges this book “weaves histories and livelihoods across continents and cultures” bringing lyrical prose alongside realistic portraits by Tyrone Geter, creating a book that is genre-defying. You might remember this book as winner of the Lambda Literary Award – so this is a definite must-read!

The Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story was won by Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty. The judges praised Talty saying “he understands the narrative power of the short story form, its ability to serve as both a mirror and a compass.” Talty’s book is a beautifully crafted, raw and intimate book about youth, friendship and family and is a collection that examines the consequences and merits of inheritance in an unforgettable portrayal of an Indigenous community.

Calling For a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah won the Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. The judges described “the world woven by Hokeah [as] seamed with heartbreak and tragedy on resistance’s loom.” Told in a series of voices this book takes the reader into the life of Ever Geimausaddle through the multigenerational perspectives of his family as they face a myriad of obstacles. Deemed as honest, heartbreaking and uplifting this book should be on your list.

Winning the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay is A Left-Handed Woman by Judith Thurman. According to the judges “with her formidable intelligence, her unbounded curiosity, her care and sensitivity with the most lapidary of prose, her serene facility with pieces that range in length from extended captions to near-encyclopedic entries, Thurman has retrieved and revived the form and set it afire once more, leaving all who read her astonished, astounded and delighted.” With a ringing endorsement like that, this book deserves a place on your bookshelf with immediate effect!

The winner of the Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection is To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness by Robin Coste Lewis. According to the judges “the scope and breadth of [this poetry] is mythic, grandiose, ambitious and yet pointed, piercing, as well as personal.” Lewis’ poetry joins the vivid images she found after her maternal grandmother’s death with an inspiring alternative to the usual ways we frame old stories of race and migration through her poetry. This poignant poetry collection is a must-read.

The PEN Translation Prize was awarded to People from Bloomington by Budi Darma. The experiences of Darma living as a student in Bloomington in the 1970s formed the basis for the renowned short story collection that makes up this book. The judges described Darma’s stories as “haunting and all too prescient.” Tense, quietly surreal and always morbidly funny, this book is one of the great works of Indonesian literature in the twentieth-century and deserves to be read.

Heartbreak by Florence Williams won the E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. Impressing the judges they said Williams’ book is a “brave, funny and relatable scientific inquiry into her own heartache.” This book is a remarkable merging of science and self-discovery that changes the way we all think of loneliness, health and what it means to fall in and out of love. A book that deserves to be on your reading list.

Winning the Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography is Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla by Dan Charnas. Receiving praise from the judges they note how “Charnas has created perhaps the truest tribute to Dilla and his legacy.” Equal parts biography, musicology, and cultural history, this book chronicles the life of a musical genius who transformed the sound of popular music for the twenty-first century. “This book is a must for everyone interested in illuminating the idea of unexplainable genius” (QUESTLOVE).

The winner of the John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction is The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning by Eve Fairbanks. Hailed by the judges as “an intimate exploration of life after the apartheid that looks beyond the broader issues of politics and economics and into the complex inner lives of ordinary South Africans,” this book is profound psychological insight that has a wisdom that carries far beyond South Africa.

Congratulations to all the winners!



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