Writers of color make groundbreaking wins at PEN Literary Awards

Photo courtesy of Flickr  Alexis Okeowo, who won the PEN Open Book award, was one of many authors of color who were honored last month. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr

Alexis Okeowo, who won the PEN Open Book award, was one of many authors of color who were honored last month. 

BY ISABEL RODRIGUEZ ’21

Poets, Essayists, and Novelists  (PEN) held its annual Literary Awards commemoration at New York University on Feb. 20. Since it formed in 1963, the PEN American Literary Awards has honored authors of various genres, including but not limited to fiction, essays, biography, poetry, science writing, sports writing and drama and offers grants and fellowships. Every year, PEN America presents over 20 awards to writers and translators. 

The most prestigious award, the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, is given to “a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact that has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence.” With the prize set at $75,000, it is the highest-paid award offered. This year’s winner was poet Layli Long Soldier for her book, “Whereas.” Long Soldier is an Oglala Lakota poet who addresses the language used by the United States government in its treatment of Native American people through various avenues such as treaties, public apologies and responses to Native American people in general. In 2009, the U.S. government made an official apology to Native Americans, but it was given little attention and recognition. 

Long Soldier uses excerpts from the apology to divide her book into sections. She is able to interweave history with her own personal experience as a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and as an American citizen. According to PEN America, judges said Long Soldier’s poetry is a “grand reckoning with language and history.” They also praised it for its “elegant and fierce introspection” and “rectifying spirit of restless invention.” Her work highlights a voice that historically has not been given a platform in literature. 

Another prestigious award, the PEN Open Book Award, is given exclusively to authors of color. This year,  Alexis Okeowo’s “A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa” won the award. In a Publishing Perspectives article, PEN judges said the book “humanizes the lives behind the headlines, transforming often one-dimensional news stories from the African continent into narratives of endurance and survival.” 

This year’s ceremony was especially unique in that the finalist list for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award were all authors of color for the first time. With this in mind, PEN America is living up to one of its missions to provide a platform for racial and ethnic literature. 

The mission of PEN America “is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.” Throughout the ceremony, writers and host Sally Kohn commented on the current political environment involving freedom of expression, not only domestically but also abroad. During her acceptance speech for the PEN/Ralph Mannheim Medal for Translation, Barbara Harshav gave a subtle blow to Donald Trump’s proposed border wall plan. “The task of the translator today is something else,” said Harshav. “At a time when politicians are building walls to keep us apart, the task of the translator today is to tear them down, to bring us together and to make being foreign not strange, so that we may all recognize our humanity through literature.”

For Danielle Brown ’18, an english major with experience in the publishing world, PEN America’s recognition of non-white authors is progress, but doesn’t necessarily indicate a more diverse future.

“The literary world is still ‘who you know’ when it comes to getting published or becoming a household name and it’s still pretty white and elitist,” said Brown. “But if I’m wrong or my cynicism looks silly in a few years, I’m absolutey OK with that.”

For her closing speech, Sally Kohn summarized the purpose of the PEN Literary awards and the authors it honors: “Their words can and have changed the world. As we celebrate them, we remember, now more than ever, how much power there is in the written word.”