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2021 PEN America Literary Awards

On April 8, PEN America bestowed $380,000 to writers, translators, poets and editors at the 2021 PEN American Literary Awards Ceremony. The virtual show drew a record audience for PEN America. The winners include a broad range of talented voices.

AIRED: May 19, 2021 | 1:21:33
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" plays]

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We're on the move

♪♪

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We've got the groove

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We're on the move

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We've got the groove

♪ There's been so many things that's held us down ♪

♪ But now it looks like things are finally comin' around ♪

♪ I know we've got a long, long way to go ♪

♪ And where we'll end up

♪ I don't know

♪ But we won't let nothing hold us back ♪

♪ We're puttin' ourselves together ♪

♪ We're polishing up our act, yeah ♪

♪ If you've ever been held down before ♪

♪ I know that you refuse to be held down any more, yeah ♪

♪ Don't you let nothing, nothing ♪

♪ Stand in your way

♪ I want y'all to listen, listen ♪

♪ To every word I say

♪ Every word I say

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We're on the move

♪ Huh

♪♪

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We've got the groove

♪ Huh

♪♪

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We're on the move

♪ Huh

♪♪

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We've got the groove

♪ Huh

♪♪

♪ I know you know someone who has a negative vibe ♪

♪ And if you try to make it, they only push you aside ♪

♪ They really don't have nowhere to go ♪

♪ Ask 'em where they're going

♪ They don't know

♪ But we won't let nothing hold us back ♪

♪ We're puttin' ourselves together♪

♪ We're gonna polish up our act, yeah ♪

♪ If you've ever been held down before ♪

♪ I know that you refuse to be held down any mo-o-o-ore ♪

♪ Don't you let nothing, nothing ♪

♪ Stand in your way

♪ I want y'all to listen, listen ♪

♪ To every word I say

♪ Every word I say

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We're on the move

♪ Huh

♪♪

♪ Ain't no stoppin' us now

♪ We've got the groove

LAWSON: Welcome to the 2021

PEN America Literary Awards.

Please welcome your host, actor, off-Broadway phenomenon,

and self-professed Harlem fairy,

"the mighty force," Kara Young.

Good evening, everyone.

I'm Kara Young, and it's my pleasure

to welcome you to the 57th annual

PEN America Literary Awards.

Tonight, we celebrate

the most outstanding voices in literature,

from debut authors to masters of their craft.

For over 50 years, the PEN America Literary Awards

have honored exceptional works of fiction, poetry,

biography, essay, science, writing, translation, and more.

I love writers.

My life's purpose as an actor is to tell stories,

and I couldn't do it without you, the writer.

Through you, I'm a vessel of truth.

As an actor, what I do is ancestral,

connecting stories of our past

and sharing them with an audience night after night.

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman

once said that anybody that's coming to see a play,

if there's 99 seats in the theater,

that's 99 different plays.

It's sacred to that person in that seat on that night.

What we do as artists is vital.

Words can change the world,

we can change the world.

In coming together tonight from all around the globe,

we are bound by a common belief defined

by PEN America's mission

to defend and celebrate free expression.

The courageous writers celebrated tonight

are emblematic of those whose work pushes back

against ignorance and fear of the other,

against erasure and historical amnesia.

We commemorate the writers who published work

in one of the hardest years ever.

Our finalists would have embarked on book tours

to connect with readers in local bookstores.

They would have signed copies,

given readings, and shaken hundreds of hands.

They would have become a part of those communities.

As an actor, I know firsthand what we have lost.

I miss the play and exploration in rehearsals,

the buzz of an audience waiting in the darkness,

and the magic of the shared human experience.

And I miss my friends, as I'm sure so many of you do,

and I miss those we have lost this past year.

And we stand in solidarity with all those who are threatened

by anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-trans hatred.

For me, I lost a dear one who saw me as the artist

I was to become before I did.

I would like to honor the spirit and never-ending vibration

of the "Manipulator under MANipulation SHhhhhhh,"

Craig 'muMs' Grant,

muMs the Schemer, SirmuMsila,

the poet, Emcee stage and film actor,

playwright, writer, master of the oral and written tradition,

performer, teacher, street preacher,

and the man of the people,

our Boogie down Bronx, New York Griot.

In a year of loss and grief, we have persevered.

We have connected in new ways online,

hosting virtual readings, panels, talkbacks,

and in my case, even virtual plays.

We continue to be with each other, support each other,

and make art with each other.

We have shown that nothing will stop us.

This year, we celebrate icons

and bright stars in contemporary literature,

but also the resilience, power, and beauty

demonstrated by the literary community,

editors, booksellers, small presses, and publishers.

We thank you all for reading, for exploring and diving

into the enthralling stories we are celebrating this year.

Maybe you read a poem as a bomb for the soul or a biography

to see life through someone else's eyes,

or a great piece of fiction to escape.

Whatever your reason, please keep reading.

But hope springs eternal, and we are seeing light

at the end of this long tunnel.

Just this past weekend,

Broadway came back for 36 minutes

at the St. James Theatre with a pop-up performance

featuring actor Nathan Lane, who you'll see later on tonight.

It's a beginning.

The pulse, though faint, is there.

We are hopeful that we can all clink glasses together

in person next year.

Until then, sit back and enjoy the show

as we toast to the most extraordinary writers of today,

celebrate the winners, and share our passion for great books.

It is now my pleasure to welcome

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author

of "Homeland Elegies,"

president of PEN America, Ayad Akhtar.

Hi. I'm Ayad Akhtar, president of PEN America,

and I want to welcome you all to this year's Literary Awards.

PEN America is a global community and network

of more than 7,500 members.

And I want to thank all of you novelists,

journalists, nonfiction writers, editors, poets, playwrights,

translators, publishers, agents,

and devoted readers and supporters.

Together, we all play a vital role

in defending the power of the imagination

and freedom of expression.

If you want to join us,

connect with us online @PENamerica,

and if you can, please donate or become a member,

we can't do this without you.

It's been a difficult year, as we all know,

filled with unprecedented challenges,

but our work has continued and even grown.

Thanks to a surge in individual giving

and the support of our partners.

We've stepped up our fight against disinformation

and online harassment and continued our advocacy

on the part of colleagues persecuted

for their work around the world and at home,

and we've continued to celebrate literary excellence,

which, of course, is why we're gathered here tonight.

There are 55 finalists up for awards this year.

And while we would usually congratulate our writers

and translators with hugs, handshakes, and group photos

before a ceremony like the one last year

at New York's magnificent town hall,

this year we're applauding you all virtually.

Our finalists shared with us

a collection of photographs and anecdotes

compiled on the creative journeys

that led to tonight's nominated works.

We thank all of them for these mementos,

which will serve as something of an introduction

to tonight's finalists.

♪♪

NARRATOR: From the deepest fathoms of the ocean

to the Mexican-American borderlands,

the deserts of Saudi Arabia, from Lisbon to Angola,

connected by curling strands of hair,

the 55 authors nominated

for the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards

and a year of unprecedented disconnect and disorientation

created stories that reveal to us not only the world,

but our undisguised selves.

We see families, legends, emperors, gods.

We encounter divine favor,

magical flowers, mythology, and queer dreams.

♪♪

In these stories, we see the banality of daily life...

♪♪

...and the horrors of the suburban imagination.

♪♪

We are shown the limits of American assimilation,

the search for home,

and migration as an ancient imperative

as necessary as breathing.

♪♪

We read interdisciplinary poetics.

They show us an Algerian bookstore owner,

a ranger naturalist in the Great Western divide,

the first 999 women sent to Auschwitz.

They write of the first and the last stargazers

and ask us to look up.

We recognize how our history has made our present.

These books tell of real people,

of a reality far beyond an expired canon.

These gifted and visionary authors remove barriers

and show us our connected humanity.

♪♪

We are thrilled, humbled, and grateful

to honor these authors this evening.

♪♪

Thank you, Ayad.

What a beautiful tribute.

These writers are so impressive.

I hope that PEN America sends me all 55 of these books.

I'll have a lot of reading to do this spring.

In 2017, when the beloved author and editor

Jean Stein passed away,

"The New York Times" described her as a rebel with a cause.

She was interested in the whistleblowers

and troublemakers.

When Jean and PEN America created

the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.

It was to honor those rebels, troublemakers,

and truth-tellers.

Jean's legacy continues through this coveted literary honor,

which awards $75,000

to an author of the year's best book-length work.

Throughout the ceremony this evening,

we will spotlight each of the five finalists

before announcing our biggest prize.

Let's take a look at our first finalist.

♪♪

LAWSON: Please welcome American Book Award-winner,

2020 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize finalist,

and author of the widely acclaimed

"Sabrina & Corina," Kali Fajardo-Anstine.

In this year stifled by quarantine,

the finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award

for Biography,

places us into the lives

of extraordinary people across our world.

Through their stories, we turn to facts to understand our past

and the world around us.

But perhaps these books' greatest strengths

are that they remind us that the individual has power

to push against adversity.

Tonight's finalists are more

than just authors of biographies,

they are fearless historians, scrupulous researchers,

and exceptional storytellers.

The finalists are --

LAWSON: "Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture"

by Sudhir Hazareesingh.

"MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman"

by Ben Hubbard.

"The Sword and the Shield: the Revolutionary Lives

of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr."

by Peniel E. Joseph.

"999: The Extraordinary Young Women

of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz"

by Heather Dune Macadam.

"Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World"

by Amy Stanley.

And the winner is...

...Amy Stanley for

"Stranger in the Shogun's City: A Japanese Woman and Her World"

[ Laughs ]

I'm gonna cry. [ Laughs ]

I didn't expect that at all.

Wow.

[ Laughs ]

I am so overwhelmed and so grateful,

and I suppose, you know,

everyone told me, or a lot of people told me,

that a book about an unknown woman in Japan

in the early 19th century

in a city that no one had ever heard of,

was never going to be embraced by American audiences.

And I'm just -- I'm so grateful.

This recognition means so much to me.

And I'm also so grateful for my agents

and publishers who allowed me to do this.

And [Laughs] I'm just very overly emotional,

but thank you.

This is like the most bizarre thing.

[ Laughing ] I feel like I'm sitting

in my, like, extra bedroom in my house

wearing a cocktail dress and slippers,

and I'm also somehow, like, at the Oscars.

[ Laughs ]

Like, it's a bizarre situation, but I'm so thrilled.

[ Laughs ]

Tonight, I'm joining you from West Side Books,

a favorite local bookstore here in Denver, Colorado.

The finalist for the PEN/Galbraith Award

for nonfiction have written distinguished books

that illuminate important contemporary issues.

With great intellectual rigor,

they provide critical commentary on the American social,

intellectual, and political scene.

We are honored to recognize these five writers

for their original scholarship and lyrical storytelling.

The finalists are --

♪♪

"The Yellow House" by Sarah M. Broom.

"Deported Americans: Life After Deportation to Mexico"

by Beth C. Caldwell.

"Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments:

Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls,

Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals"

by Saidiya Hartman.

"Hidden Valley Road:

Inside the Mind of an American Family"

by Robert Kolker.

"Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents"

by Isabel Wilkerson.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Saidiya Hartman for

"Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments:

Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls,

Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals"

Are you serious? Oh, my God.

Oh, my God.

That's wonderful.

That's wonderful news, you know,

to win this award is a tremendous honor,

and it's an honor for multiple reasons.

One, you know, it's just a recognition

of the young, radical women

and gender non-conforming folks who I write about,

and it honors their lives and their brilliance, so...

...so that is so greatly appreciated.

And it's also a great honor,

because it's an embrace of a genre-defying work

that's hard to categorize.

And so I feel that, you know, the recognition of the award

will encourage me to be even more wild in the next work.

LAWSON: Please welcome back your host, Kara Young.

Thank you, Amy and Saidiya, for those incredible remarks.

The bi-annual PEN/Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing

recognizes an editor who has contributed

significantly to the excellence of the publication they edit.

This year's recipient, Kwame Dawes,

is the bold and visionary editor of "Prairie Schooner,"

published out of the University of Nebraska.

The judges say that Kwame has taken the literary journal

to new places by consistently publishing work

that is rigorous, aesthetically diverse and compelling.

Congratulations, Kwame.

♪♪

Thank you so much for this wonderful award.

As I always say, that as an editor,

one rarely gets a chance to be awarded anything.

We celebrate the work of writers

and that's the heart of what we do.

So it's great for this recognition to come our way,

especially from PEN.

In the years that I've been at "Prairie Schooner"

and I've have had two amazing managing editors,

Marianne Kunkel and Ashley Strosnider,

and they've really been with me for the 10 years

in five-year implements.

And I've also had a great Web editor called Paul Clark,

and together, this little small team of people

have continued to do all this wonderful work

in bringing out the fantastic poetry and fiction

and essays by people writing in this country and abroad.

Before I took over,

Hilda Raz took "Prairie Schooner"

into a fantastic place,

celebrating especially the work of women

and American writers and American women.

And she left a tremendous legacy for me to sort of continue on,

and I believe we've done that effectively and beautifully.

So I thank you for this award.

And, you know, we keep marching.

Thank you.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

LAWSON: Please welcome MacArthur Fellows

and Man Booker International Prize-winning

short story writer, novelist,

essayist, and translator, Lydia Davis.

It is urgent during these times to recognize

how much American culture is enriched

by those who write from beyond our linguistic

and geographical borders.

When we translate,

it is not our own written choice that confronts us,

but the choice of another writer.

And we as translators

must search consciously for the right words

with which to convey another's truth.

I am pleased to introduce our intrepid finalists

for this year's PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.

♪♪

LAWSON: "Lean Against This Late Hour"

translated by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Idra Novey.

"Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations"

translated by Steve Bradbury.

"Sense Violence" translated by Johannes Goeransson.

"Katabasis" translated by Olivia Lott.

"A New Orthography" translated by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Steve Bradbury for his translation

of "Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations" by Amang.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Geez.

You know, I'm gonna have to order another hat,

because my head's so big now,

you know [Laughs] it's not gonna fit anymore.

Oh, Jesus.

"Raised by Wolves," which, in many ways,

is the most pleasurable book I ever made.

To see that as the winner is, I mean, I'm just thrilled.

And I think Amang will be, too.

In the process of making this book,

and we worked on it for quite a few years,

It made me a more congenial and giving translator.

I remember early in our collaboration

when were up in the Vermont Studio Center,

and I was arguing with her about how to translate

a particular passage, and she suddenly stopped,

turned to me, and said very earnestly,

"Steve, I want a collaboration to be like a great first date,

not a seven-year marriage." [ Laughs ]

And that was four and a half years ago.

And, you know, I'm still translating her work,

and we're still great friends.

It is now my pleasure to introduce our finalists

for this year's PEN Translation Prize,

recognizing a book-length prose translation

from any language into English.

♪♪

LAWSON: "Our Riches" translated by Chris Andrews.

"That Hair: A Novel" translated by Eric Becker.

"Ornamental" translated by Lizzie Davis.

"Girls Lost" translated by Saskia Vogel.

"A Country for Dying: A Novel"

translated by Emma Ramadan.

And the winner is...

Emma Ramadan for her translation

of "A Country for Dying: A Novel" by Abdellah Taia.

Oh, my gosh.

That's so exciting.

[ Laughs ] Oh, my God.

I'm going to get a little emotional.

Okay, whew.

Thank you so much to PEN America

and to the judges of the 2021 PEN Translation Prize.

It's really special for me to be able

to share Abdellah Taia's work

with an English-language audience.

Thank you to Abdellah Taia for his generosity

with this, as well, and of course, thank you

to Seven Stories for all the help

and for choosing me to translate this book,

especially to Dan Simon, the editor,

and to Allison Tamarkin Paller,

who's been great at publicizing a book

and getting it out there.

This year, we are pleased to present Pierre Joris

as the winner of the PEN/Manheim Award

for Translation.

Pierre's work as a poet,

essayist, editor, anthologist, and translator

into both French and English cannot be confined

by national or linguistic boundaries.

His literary translation especially confronts

imperial histories and encourages voices

of cultural and linguistic differences.

Pierre has blazed a path for generations

of emerging translators to follow.

As a translator, Pierre's major achievement is

his masterful work on Paul Celan.

He has also brought into English the work of many others,

including Rilke, Picasso, Adonis, Safaa Fathy,

Maurice Blanchot, Habib Tengour, and Edmond Jabes.

On behalf of PEN America

and the PEN and Translation Committee,

I'm pleased to recognize Pierre Joris

for his contributions to the art of translation.

♪♪

Villmols merci,

thank you, merces, vielen dank,

merci beaucoup, shukran

to PEN America and its translation committee.

I'm deeply honored and moved by the company

this puts me in.

Let me also thank my publishers

for their labor, patience, and trust.

As always, much credit goes to my wife, Nicole Peyrafitte,

who has patiently lived with the various intruders

into our household.

Deep gratitude also to poet and translator Paul Celan,

who has inspired my work since 1965,

and a big abrazo to Jerome Rothenburg,

friend and collaborator extraordinaire.

Originally from Luxembourg,

I write in my fourth language, American English,

and I discovered that the best way of deepening

that language is to translate into it and from it.

400 plus years ago,

the poet and philosopher Giordano Bruno wrote,

"All science has its origin in translation."

He should be the official translator's patron saint.

Finally, 50 years of translating and writing have taught me

that there is no absolutely original text,

that all is translation because language itself

is always a translation.

Thank you.

♪♪

I'm so jealous of Pierre's library.

Congratulations again.

Our next presenter is one of America's most renowned

and daring creative pioneers.

She's an artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker,

electronics wiz, vocalist, and instrumentalist.

Please welcome Laurie Anderson

♪♪

The PEN/Nabokov Award

for Achievement in International Literature

is given to an author whose body of work,

either written in or translated into English,

represents the highest level of achievement

and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship.

The writer's work will evoke Nabokov's commitment

to literature as a search for the deepest truth

and the highest pleasure,

what he called an indescribable tingle of the spine.

It is my honor to present this award to Anne Carson,

who is a dear friend.

Once we went to Central Park together

and she said to me, "Let's try a new sport.

It's called snow standing."

And I said, "Really? What's that?"

And she said, "Well, we just stand there

and snow falls on us and that's it."

I said, 'That sounds really relaxing."

So we stood there during a snowstorm

when The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

were on display in Central Park.

And we stood there while snow piled

on our heads and on our shoulders,

and the gates were, like, blowing around.

And it was really a wonderful sport.

Now, sometimes I can't tell the difference

between a sport and a ride or a sport and anything else.

I mean, how much effort do you put into it?

Anne knows the effort needed and exceeds beyond it.

Her unique capability to unearth poignant empathy

through her works

allows her to transcend era and genre traversing poetry,

prose, and translation to her masterworks,

including "The Glass Essay," "Autobiography of Red,"

and the incomparable "Nox."

She is electric and moves the literary canon

into a world without boundaries.

For two decades, her work has moved phrase by phrase,

line by line, project by improbable project

in directions that a human brain would never naturally move.

The 2021 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement

in International Literature

goes to a visionary sui generis writer, Anne Carson.

♪♪

It's amazing and surprising to be here,

and I am extremely happy.

I'm chuffed, as they say in Britain.

So this is a speech of gratitude,

and it's hard to figure out anything to say about gratitude.

So I was pondering the word and what it means

and how it comes to us.

It comes from Latin, the word gratia, which means grace,

but what is Grace is a question.

And it occurs to me that lots of people,

including many of my friends

nowadays in the interests of mental health,

make what they call a gratitude list at the end of the day

and sort of summarize the good things

that the universe has bestowed on them

in the last 24 hours.

I think it's an attempt to sort of refocus that voice

in your head that's always telling you you screwed up

to a more positive note.

So I decided to try this.

And predictably, my list was fairly mundane

things like grateful that there was one more tea bag

left in the bottom of the tea canister

or grateful that my goggles didn't leak in the pool,

stuff like that.

But then at the very end of the list came something

that I realized had really changed the day.

Namely, that I had had an idea.

I still remember the first time someone at a Q&A

asked the question after a lecture I'd given on,

I think, Robinson Crusoe --

some sophisticated notion I had at the time,

I can't remember now --

anyway, she said,

"Where do your ideas come from?"

The question isn't really "where do your ideas come from?"

It's -- "how do you know there's a 'where' there?

How do you know that here has an edge,

that here isn't all there is,

that here sort of arches away from you to a different place

where your head spins off?"

So the question becomes,

"how did you, how do you, how does anyone

ever suddenly look around and see that edge?

And what is the difference between the moment

before having an idea and the moment after?"

Truly not a moment, just a crack, just the shaving,

but it can change the moment,

change the day, change your whole life,

all the little numbers for the moments mean nothing.

All the little gorgeous data of your life

up to that moment means nothing.

The idea takes over.

You probably aren't interested in the idea immediately.

You might want to rather get up and make a cup of tea,

but if you stay with it, if you stay in the idea,

it will change everything.

Let's just say, rather than beginning to worship the muse

who's appearing in my background,

let's just say then that the answer to the question --

where do your ideas come from --

is elsewhere.

There's always an elsewhere.

Here is not all there is.

And that's something to be grateful for.

So thank you, elsewhere.

Thank you, PEN Foundation.

Thank you, PEN Committee.

Thank you, anybody who might be listening to this or read me.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

Congratulations, Anne, you are a true artist.

Now in its fifth year, the PEN/Robert J. Dau

Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers

recognizes 12 authors

for their first-ever published short story.

Supported by the Robert Jensen Dau Foundation,

each writer receives $2,000

and is published in an annual anthology by Catapult Books.

The prize has supported a successful alumni community.

Congratulations to all of our winners.

The PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction

is a career-founding prize established by

Barbara Kingsolver.

The prize awards $25,000

and a publishing contract with Algonquin Books

to a novel in progress

that tackles issues of social justice

and its impact on human relationships.

This year's recipient, Jamila Minnicks Gleason's

powerful "Hydrangeas of New Jessup,"

says that her work challenges the idea that African-Americans

believe in a monolithic approach to social justice.

Congratulations, Jamila.

LAWSON: Please welcome the author of "The Hopeful"

and "New York Times" New & Noteworthy book,

"Quotients,"

National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree,

Tracy O'Neill.

It is always a thrill to discover a story told

by a fresh, new voice and witness a career

at the beginning just on the cusp of something momentous.

The awards I am presenting tonight are a gift of time,

the time for debut writers to write and pursue

their next work of fiction.

The PEN/Hemingway Award,

made possible by the Hemingway Foundation,

honors the exceptional literary merit

for a writer's first published novel.

This award was founded in 1976 by Mary Hemingway,

the widow of Ernest Hemingway, to honor her late husband.

Notable winners and honorees include Marilynne Robinson,

Tommy Orange, and Yiyun Li.

All of the finalists this year

are destined for luminous careers,

and I am thrilled to honor them this evening.

And the finalists are --

♪♪

"These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel" by Maisy Card.

"Luster: A Novel" by Raven Leilani.

"Shuggie Bain: A Novel" by Douglas Stuart.

"Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel"

by Kawai Strong Washburn.

"How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel" by C Pam Zhang.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Kawai Strong Washburn

for "Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel."

That's incredible. [ Laughs ]

That's amazing. [ Laughs ]

Thank you so much.

That's fantastic to hear.

That's incredible.

This year because my book came out in March,

and, for me, it was a year of a lot of loss

in a lot of different ways,

you know, between the coronavirus pandemic

but also being here in the Twin Cities,

which is I'm sure most people are aware of the site of

where George Floyd was killed and the racial unrest

that that has sparked and the conversations that have happened

have been important but also really painful,

and to be in the middle of all of that at the same time

as the pandemic when my book had come out, you know,

made for such a difficult year.

It felt like a year that was mostly full of loss

from an artistic perspective.

And so I think having at the end of the year an opportunity

to be part of the group of these incredible authors

that are part of this year's cohort is amazing, you know?

It's a nice silver lining to otherwise

what feels like in many ways, a very dark [Chuckles] year.

The PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize

for Debut Short Story Collection

is the first and only award of its kind.

It recognizes the ambitious and exemplary work

of a debut short story writer

and supports their second work of literary fiction.

Short stories are sublime.

Distilled down to their essence,

they challenge and engage us in just a few pages

in honor of the late, great Robert W. Bingham,

we are thrilled by this year's finalists

for elevating the short form to new heights.

And the finalists are...

♪♪

LAWSON: "Alligator & Other Stories" by Dima Alzayat.

"Adults and Other Children: Stories" by Miriam Cohen.

"You Will Never Be Forgotten: Stories" by Mary South.

"A House Is a Body: Stories" by Shruti Swamy.

"Further News of Defeat: Stories" by Michael X. Wang.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Michael X. Wang

for "Further News of Defeat: Stories."

That's amazing.

I could not have imagined

that out of the five tremendously great

story collections that I was a winner.

It's super shocking for me, really, really shocking.

I think my goal as a Chinese-American writer

is separating the politics of the country from the people.

You look at all the news about China

and you forget that it's still a country

in which over half the population

are living in the countryside in rural communities.

But that side of the country is rarely explored

in American news or literature,

and I hope my fiction, at least, bridges that gap a little bit

so that, you know, we as Americans

can have a better idea of the Chinese people

and not just the politics surrounding them.

"I still believe that poetry can save us,"

said former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway.

Poetry can, in many ways, unite us

because of the sheer intimacy of a single voice.

The way that poetry touches not only the intellect

but also the heart, it can be a guide.

Poetry is a kind of sacred living word.

The PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection

celebrates a poet whose unique voice

expands the scope of American poetry.

All of the finalists this year demonstrate

the critical importance of the poetry collection

as an art form and as a guide in these times.

And the finalists are...

♪♪

LAWSON: "Conjure" by Rae Armantrout.

"Obit" by Victoria Chang.

"The Age of Phillis" by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.

"Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry" by John Murillo.

"Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems,

2000-2018" by Gerald Stern.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Victoria Chang for "Obit."

♪♪

I think what's really exciting about this award

and the PEN awards in general

is that I know how much work goes into finding the judges

who are all, you know, my peers and my colleagues.

And so that's what's humbling is that I know that my peers

and colleagues are probably the hardest people to please,

and they're the brightest and the sharpest readers

and critics of work and creative work.

Being an immigrant child

and not feeling like I have a history

and knowing very little about my past

or my parents' past or my -- I didn't know my grandparents

or, you know, all that stuff is all not knowledge to me at all,

and so I think each book, each word,

each letter is a form of identity making for me.

And so I guess this book is no different than anything else

I've ever written in that I feel like I'm making myself

as I go.

♪♪

♪♪

NARRATOR #2: Let them memory.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Jomama Jones's "See (Things as They Are)" plays ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

Hi, I'm Rhonda Ross.

Daniel Alexander Jones makes work as a writer,

as a director, actor, singer, songwriter,

even as a painter, that breaks us open,

that breaks us out of these comfortable pods,

that challenges us to dig deeper

and raise our games higher so that we can be

ever more honest, ever more transparent,

first and foremost to ourselves.

Daniel Alexander Jones.

Hello, my darling.

♪♪

I met you first in 2018

when I went to see you so called "Black Light"

at The Public Theater,

and I remember fangirling you,

or rather, I remember fangirling Jomama,

an extraordinary creature and star that I never knew existed.

There's such wholeness to his performance and his writing.

It all exists on a continuum.

Past, future, present,

theater, music, art, community, ritual.

For him, there's this wholeness in what he does.

It's not just him as a theater artist.

It's not just him as a teacher.

It's not just him as a community organizer and leader.

He's got the whole package.

When you look at great transformations

that have happened in history,

after the darkest moment, there's some radical shift

and some, like, true experimentation

that baptizes the world that encounters it

and moves us spiritually, mentally to a new place.

And I think Daniel's work can do that

and work like Daniel's can do that,

which is why it felt very prudent for all of us,

I believe, to affirm someone

who's doing work like that

in this award in this year

so that when we come back, there is that this sense

or this feeling that radicality should be erased,

that, like, safety is

what we should lean into.

But it actually is, like, no,

like, we are moving in a new direction,

and we need to bathe off what we just had

so let's get radical.

What's extremely exciting to me

about Daniel Alexander Jones is his sense of humor

is like -- it's sneaky, and it's like he takes you home.

When you look at him as an other before the evening is over,

it's no other in the room,

it's we, it's all of us.

And that's so empowering

when an artist can do that

to a community that comes together in this singular place

to see the singular artist do this incredible work.

And then you leave as a community.

♪♪

My family, friends, and neighbors all told stories,

call them response-style.

These tales forged in the fire of experience were burnished

and weighted, sometimes foolish

but always sacred.

Stories of brave stances and generous deeds,

of loss, regrets, and resilience,

reflecting multiple perspectives,

identities, and possibilities for being.

These stories prepared me

to encounter the so-called master narratives

of my country and their unresolved

shadow sides,

stories borne of violence and ending in death,

flattening distinction, caging complexity,

and erasing histories in their wake.

Stories can destroy.

Stories can conjure.

Those of us who write stories, who utter and embody them,

are charged with profound responsibility.

I thank the judges and everyone at PEN America

for the honor of being the 2021 PEN America

Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater awardee.

I thank my mentors, Robbie McCauley,

Vinie Burrows, Jessica Hagedorn,

Zehline A. Davis,

and the late, great Aishah Rahman,

Kathy Gagnon, Constance Berkely,

Blanche Foreman, and Laurie Carlos.

Their stories conjured transformation from tragedy.

I thank my father, Arthur Jones, my brother Todd,

my late grandmother Bernice Leslie,

and my late mother, Ginny Jones,

for their lived example of love as civic practice.

May I continue to tell stories that make them proud?

♪♪

♪ See things as they are ♪ See

♪ Act on what is true

♪ You will find your own way through ♪

♪♪

LAWSON: Please welcome back Kali Fajardo-Anstine.

The PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

is supported by the James and Kathy Stone Foundation

and was founded in honor of scientist

Dr. Edward O. Wilson.

This year's finalists amplify the truth

about our natural environment and its incredible biodiversity.

We are given a deep understanding of the ocean

and its whales, birds and stars in the sky,

and migration patterns of life here on Earth.

We are grateful to acknowledge the dedication

of these finalists who never outgrew their curiosity

for the sciences.

The finalists are...

♪♪

LAWSON: "The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play,

Parent, and Think" by Jennifer Ackerman.

"Fathoms: The World in the Whale" by Rebecca Giggs.

"The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story

of Astronomy's Vanishing Explorers"

by Emily Levesque.

"The Next Great Migration:

The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move" by Sonia Shah.

"Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save

the World's Largest Owl" by Jonathan C. Slaght.

♪♪

And the winner is...

Jonathan C. Slaght

for "Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save

the World's Largest Owl."

First of all,

we've all been basically inside for a year, right?

I mean, no one's going anywhere, and this book takes people

outside with a capital "O",

I mean, there's floods, there's blizzards,

there's constant cold and discomfort,

and there's tigers, bears, and there's owls.

And, you know, people need to travel to a new place right now.

And this book allows them to do that.

But then I guess larger terms, you know,

there's so much doom and gloom in the news

about the environment, you know, a lot of it's justified,

but this book is a reminder that wild places still exist

and are worth protecting, you know,

humans can be part of nature.

We can work with nature

rather than be separate and adversarial.

First conferred in 1990,

the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay

honors a seasoned writer

whose collection of essays

is an expansion of their exceptional corpus of work.

The essay can be called an exercise like watercolor,

a quest for truth, a simple observation,

or, as Rebecca Solnit said,

"the art of trying to find out how things fit together,

how we can think about two things at once

and how two overtly dissimilar things

share a secret kinship."

This year's extraordinary finalists are...

♪♪

LAWSON: "Had I Known: Collected Essays"

by Barbara Ehrenreich.

"Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader"

by Vivian Gornick.

"Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays"

by Robert Michael Pyle.

"Terroir: Love, Out of Place" by Natasha Sajé.

"Maybe the People Would Be the Times" by Luc Sante.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Barbara Ehrenreich

for "Had I Known: Collected Essays."

♪♪

FAJARDO-ANSTINE: Barbara Ehrenreich

has committed her life to writing in defense of others.

A brave and brilliant thinker,

she is most remarkable for reminding us

how to be human in savage times.

Congratulations, Barbara.

LAWSON: Please welcome chief executive officer

of PEN America and author of "Dare to Speak:

Defending Free Speech for All," Suzanne Nossel.

The literary community has surrendered luminaries,

writers, agents, copy editors, designers, critics, and readers

without whom our universe seems less than whole.

For so many writers, there now exists

a personal constellation of mourning

for family members, friends, and neighbors

who filled days, inspired scenes and dialog,

and evoked character and metaphor,

helping to provide the kindling fuel for a literary life.

For those who are felled by COVID,

there are haunting questions

about how we as a society and a polity failed to protect

what is most precious.

For those who succumb to other causes,

there was the compounded hardship

of not being able to enter a hospital,

sit by a bedside, hug, or hold.

Funerals, wakes, and shiva calls on Zoom are a stark reminder

that our mourning rituals are ultimately about how lives

lost can deepen connections among the living.

Another lesson of this year of tumult and torment

lies in the power of those taken away from us to evoke,

mobilize, and motivate.

We've learned how saying their names can convert

their will to live into a fire that burns inside each of us.

As we remember, the authors, editors,

thinkers, and chroniclers lost to this last year,

may their words, ideas, inventions, and imaginations

be fused into our own,

providing a wellspring of creativity and understanding

that nourishes us as we look forward to a new day.

Please join me in a moment of remembrance.

♪♪

♪♪

[ "Smile" plays ]

♪ Smile though your heart is aching ♪

♪ Smile even though it's breaking ♪

♪♪

♪ When there are clouds in the sky ♪

♪ You'll get by

♪♪

♪ If you smile through your fear and sorrow ♪

♪ Smile and maybe tomorrow

♪ You'll see the sun come shine through ♪

♪ For you

♪♪

♪ Light up your face with gladness ♪

♪ Hide every trace of sadness

♪ Although a tear

♪ maybe ever so near

♪ That's the time you must keep on trying ♪

♪ Smile

♪ What's the use of crying

♪ You'll find that life is still worth while ♪

♪ If you just

♪ Smile

♪♪

LAWSON: Please welcome the star of Broadway's

"The Iceman Cometh"

and Netflix's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,"

actor Michael Potts.

PEN America

and Saturday Night Live creator and director

Lorne Michaels are thrilled to present

the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award.

With this award, we recognize every year

the unparalleled legacy

of playwright, screenwriter, and director Mike Nichols.

This award celebrates transformative work

that enlightens, inspires, and breaks

new thematic and artistic ground.

And that has the potential to impact culture

the way that Mike's diverse body of work did.

I am honored to present this year's recipient

of the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award

to writer, director and producer George C. Wolfe.

George C. Wolfe is a genius.

His career across stage and screen spans 40 years.

With Tony Awards for "Angels in America:

Millennium Approaches" and "Bring in 'da Noise,

Bring in 'da Funk," and an additional 14 --

yes, 14 -- Tony Award nominations

as both librettist and director.

He has taken our hands

and led us on a journey through space and time

in both new and established work from August Wilson,

Eugene O'Neill, and Shakespeare to Nora Ephron,

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Tony Kushner.

He is always in service of good work.

George tells stories and in doing so,

pushes the boundaries of American culture,

investigating past legacies

and urging us to imagine more inclusive futures.

Congratulations, George,

on winning the Mike Nichols

I'm-smarter-than-everybody-else- in-this-room award.

As always, you bring out the best in everyone,

as I know from personal experience doing

"Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus"

with you, or as I like to call it,

the play that dare not speak its name.

From stagings of the theatrical canon

to contemporary masterworks,

George is a thorough investigator

of the human condition.

He encourages a confrontation

with the darkest aspects of our American history,

all while revealing our shared humanity.

From his vast and nuanced body of work,

exploring black and African-American identity

to his poignant stagings of "The Normal Heart"

and "Angels in America"

chronicling the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.

George has played a key role in expanding the narrative told

and heard within American culture.

Hi, George, it's Audra.

Just wanted to say congratulations.

Nobody deserves this more than you do.

You are such a joy.

You are such a gift.

You are such a treasure.

Congrats.

During his decade at the helm of The Public Theater,

George nurtured the work of writers such as

Suzan-Lori Parks and Nilo Cruz.

It was Suzan-Lori Parks herself

that said, "He wears a lot of hats,

but I think he has a lot of hits."

Across his career,

George also expresses himself vibrantly through music,

through "Jelly's Last Jam,"

"Caroline, or Change," "Shuffle Along,"

or the making of the musical sensation of 1921

and all that followed.

In "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," George acts as a maestro,

telling tales with and of jazz, funk, hip-hop, and the blues.

[ Singing ] ♪ Congratulations, George

♪ Congratulations, George

♪ You're getting the PEN/Mike Nichols award ♪

♪ Congratulations, George

POTTS: I had the honor of working with George

both on Broadway in "The Iceman Cometh,"

opposite Denzel Washington

and most recently on-screen in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"

with Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman

in his final role.

Working with George C. Wolfe is a career-defining moment

in which you emerge forever changed.

Hi, George.

You know, as Denzel says, you're brilliant,

you understand narrative, you understand character.

You have a huge respect for actors and the art,

but above all that, you see us, you see people,

you have a huge understanding of humanity,

and that's what makes you a great artist.

George's captivating storytelling makes him

a true visionary.

His extraordinary legacy will continue to empower

generation after generation of artist.

It is my very special honor to present

the 2021 PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award

to the incredible George C. Wolfe.

It has been one of the joys of my life to work with you.

And I think that you are worthy of every award

that you are given.

I love you.

Congratulations.

The best.

Many congratulations, George.

Mike would be smiling that smile for you.

And here's mine from Central Park.

Actually, it's England.

Lots of love.

George, I love you and keep up the good work.

♪♪

Thank you, thank you very much for this.

Over 30 years ago, Mike Nichols came to see a play of mine

at The Public Theater,

and he called me up and said he wanted to meet with me.

And when I went to meet with him,

he said, "I want you to write a movie for me.

It would be a version of 'A Star Is Born,'

but it would be set in the landscape of comedy."

It was gonna be for Richard Pryor

and Whoopi Goldberg.

And so starting that week and then going on

for about five or six months, I would go to his office,

and he would just tell me these incredible stories

about "Nichols and May" and,

you know, success and failure in comedy

and why he stopped performing and became a director.

And they were incredible stories,

and they were so truthful and powerful and so commanding.

But needless to say, the movie never happened.

And the reason the movie didn't happen is because of me.

I had just discovered my voice as a writer.

"The Colored Museum" was my first play in New York,

and I had finally found my voice

and was interested in creating a room

where I could live as a writer.

And I was also very interested in opening up that room

so that other artists, actors, other writers, you know,

composers could come into that room, as well.

And so I wasn't ready to give that up.

I wasn't ready to become this other kind of writer.

I was still figuring out how to be my kind of writer

and so I did that.

And then over time,

I became the producer of The Public Theater,

and then I had a building

where I could do the same thing for other writers,

where opportunities that were given to me, like,

by people like Joseph Papp and the Crossroads Theatre

and Gordon Davidson,

I could then open up that building

and give people money and space to grow

and to become strong as writers.

And eventually I even invited Mike Nichols

to direct the show at The Public.

And he joyfully, much to my joy, said yes.

And so thank you for this award and thank you to all the people

who have supported me on the journey.

Thank you, Mike, and thank you PEN, not just for this,

but all that you do.

Thank you very much.

♪♪

LAWSON: Please welcome back your host, Kara Young.

This has been such an incredible evening.

The PEN Open Book Award

is conferred to an exceptional book-length work

of any literary genre by an author of color.

In addition to the $10,000 prize,

the winner receives a fully funded artist residency

at Civitella Ranieri, a 15th-century castle in Italy.

This year has been disproportionately painful

to communities of color,

and we find it especially important to honor the voices

and stories that have gone unheard for far too long.

As one of these five finalist said,

"I wanted my book to express one unified ecosystem

between the stars and Earth

in order for our feelings and aspirations

to extend their reach

so that our actions might have greater possibility and effect

through realizing our connectedness with others."

These books help us to realize our common humanity,

and we thank them sincerely for what they have given us.

And the finalists are...

♪♪

LAWSON: "A Treatise on Stars" by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge.

"Un-American" by Hafizah Geter.

"Wild Peach" by S-an D. Henry-Smith.

"Inheritors" by Asako Serizawa.

"How to Pronounce Knife: Stories"

by Souvankham Thammavongsa.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Asako Serizawa for "Inheritors."

Thank you.

Well, I'm just really grateful

to everyone who supported my book,

including my agent, Heather Schroder,

and my editor, Lee Boudreaux, and Doubleday,

and of course, the judges and PEN.

This is really an honor, especially, I think,

given what's been happening in New York and Atlanta

and Minneapolis and really everywhere.

It just feels like we're stuck in this historical pattern

where racial stereotypes keep facilitating the same violence

and public discourse is often just so afraid

and so stripped of nuance and context

that is aggravating the issues.

It's obviously a systemic and structural problem.

And what's been helpful to me is the coalition of voices

that are resisting easy answers and positions.

And, you know, PEN has advocated for so many writers

I admire who do this

work towards coexistence.

So this is really special.

Thank you.

Thank you, Asako, for your words.

Congratulations.

And now we come to our final award of the evening,

the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award.

This award, conferred with a $75,000 purse,

is given to an author of a book-length work

of any genre for its originality and impact,

a book which has broken new ground

by reshaping the boundaries of its form,

a work deemed undoubtedly the best book of the year.

This evening, we have witnessed tributes

to all five of our extraordinary finalists

whose work will influence us for years to come.

I hope you read them all.

Again, the extraordinary 2021 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award

finalists are...

♪♪

LAWSON: "Borderland Apocrypha" by Anthony Cody.

"The Death of Vivek Oji: A Novel" by Akwaeke Emezi.

"Be Holding: A Poem" by Ross Gay.

"The Freezer Door" by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore.

"Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel"

by Kawai Strong Washburn.

♪♪

And the winner is...

...Ross Gay for "Be Holding: A Poem."

Wow. Thank you so much.

That's -- God, that's moving.

I think that the book is so much not only this desire,

but this practice, the practice being understanding

that we are made of each other. [ Laughs ]

I mean the trees, and I mean the microbes

and I mean the breeze,

and I mean the light that will go across the wall,

like, I mean that we are made of each other.

I don't know if I would have finished this book

had I not read Christina Sharpe's work.

You know, I mean, there's so much work.

I mean, if I had not, I mean,

I'm always with Aracelis Girmay's work,

But had I not brought, you know,

had that book not helped me along,

had Saidiya Hartman's book,

"Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,"

not guided me along, had not all of these other,

you know, like Susan Sontag's work and Toni Morrison's work,

my friend Patrick Rosal,

if, like, all of these voices, you know,

Allen Iverson's voice comes through very strongly,

Donny Hathaway's voice [Laughs] comes through,

my friend, Don Belton's, voice comes through.

Had these voices not sort of just been with me,

you know, this book would not at all had sort of --

I just don't think it would have finished.

So that's the one thing is that like a deep

and abiding understanding

and actually, like, cherishing

that everything that "I" make [Laughs] is a gift.

My partner, Stephanie, was with me in this whole thing,

you know, working with me, helping me.

I want to honor the mycelial way poems are made.

But not only poems lives, our lives, each other's lives.

I'm saying, the black walnut tree

dappling the morning sun coming through the window.

The blue jay alighted in the shadows long enough

to sing something that entered the singing.

All that which has moved into me so deeply

that I don't even know, it wasn't always there.

All the singing that makes this singing, all the singing,

without which this little song would not be,

all the singing,

all the beloving,

all the generations who loved you

before they knew you more than we will ever know.

Gratitude.

♪♪

And that's our show.

What a powerful evening.

Thank you to everyone at PEN America,

all of our writers, our judges, our incredible production team,

and to everyone who made this night possible.

We cannot wait to see you all in person next year.

Until then, we read, we write, we imagine,

and we make our voices heard.

Please welcome back the Ulysses Owens Jr. Band

and Alicia Olatuja to take us home.

Good night.

[ "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" plays ]

♪♪

[ Vocalizes ]

♪ Like a fool, I went and stayed too long ♪

♪ Now I'm wondering if your love's still strong ♪

♪ Ooh, baby, here I am

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪♪

♪ Then that time I went and said goodbye ♪

♪ Now I'm back and not ashamed to cry ♪

♪ Ooh, baby, here I am

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪ Here I am, baby

♪ O-oh

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪ Yeah

♪ Here I am, baby

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪ Mm-mm, yeah

♪ Got my future in your hands

♪ I got to be a better woman

♪ Got the future in your hands

♪ O-oh

♪ Mm-mm-mm

♪ Seen a lot of things in this old world ♪

♪ Oo-oo-oo-oo-ooh

♪ When I touch them, they mean nothing, girl ♪

♪ Ooh, baby, here I am

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪♪

♪ Oowee, baby, you set my soul on fire ♪

♪ That's how I know you're my heart's one desire ♪

♪ Ooh, baby, here I am

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪ Oh, yeah

♪ Here I am, baby

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪ Ooh, yeah

♪ Here I am, baby

♪ Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours ♪

♪ You got my future in your hands ♪

♪ I got to be a better woman

♪ You got my future in your hands ♪

♪ I got to be a better woman, yeah ♪

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

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