NEW YORK–Hisham Matar was awarded the inaugural PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for his memoir The Return (Penguin Random House) Monday night at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony in a dramatic live announcement.
The award presentation topped off a captivating evening of literary celebration centered on the theme “Books Across Borders” and featuring musical performances, dramatic readings, and celebrity presenters, including host Aasif Mandvi, author of No Land’s Man and former Daily Show correspondent.
“Determined to reject attempts to isolate the United States from the world, we centered this year’s awards ceremony on the power of literature to surmount cultural, ideological, and geographic bounds,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America. “Though each author and work was chosen based on literary merit, our winners are potent testament to the great many books, plays, and stories that would not exist if people or ideas were kept from traveling across borders.”
The organization brought in seasoned awards-show producer Bill Werde to reimagine the annual event, building in elements of video, music, and drama. To celebrate PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater awardee for Master American Dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks, actors Tyrone Mitchell Henderson and Matthew J. Harris performed a scene from Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog, showing now at the Huntington Theatre in Boston under the direction of Billy Porter. Academy Award-winner Tarell Alvin McCraney accepted the Pels Award for American Playwright in Mid-Career, announcing that he would donate his prize money to the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center “so that we can look forward to more writers being told to look forward to the middle of their career.” Popular television host Tony Kornheiser of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption honored Bill Nack, author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, for lifetime achievement in sportswriting.
The evening was punctuated by musical performances that highlighted the ceremony’s emphasis on global influences and the power of stories to build empathy and understanding. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of the Walkmen now touring with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam, offered an acoustic rendition of the late Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy” set to images by acclaimed graphic artist David Mack and animated by Olga Nunes. Natalie Scenters-Zapico performed her PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award-winning poem “Because They Lack Country” about life, love, and identity on the border with musical accompaniment by Ernesto Villalobos of the Villalobos Brothers, today’s leading Contemporary Mexican ensemble.
“Every book arises from conversations with our culture and our history, but also with other books–at least for me in this case, with other paintings and buildings and cities and many individuals living and dead,” said Matar. “By its very nature, its will for doubt and remembrance and complexity and expansion, literature can hinder the cruel oversimplifications required by every tyrannical gesture.”
With the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, Matar also took a $75,000 purse–one of the largest literary prizes in the country–as well as an original sculpture by artist Kiki Smith, featuring a bronze acorn to emblematize the original organic source of ink. Other awards announced live on Monday night include the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature to Adonis, known as the greatest living poet of the Arab world; the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction to Rion Amilcar Scott for Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky), his debut collection of stories; and the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay to Angela Morales for The Girls in My Town (University of New Mexico Press), an anthology of essays on her experience as a Mexican-American woman growing up in Los Angeles.
Since 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards have honored outstanding voices in literature across a diverse array of genres and styles, celebrating both renowned and emerging authors and translators and helping to advance the careers of many beloved writers, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Joshua Ferris. The 2017 PEN America Literary Awards conferred 23 distinct awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes totaling nearly $315,000 across a broad range of categories including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, playwriting, translation, and more. The winners for all 2017 PEN America Literary Awards can be found at PEN.org.
Video from the 2017 PEN America Literary Awards is available at http://bit.ly/2017-pen-awards-video
High-resolution photographs from the event are available at: http://bit.ly/2017-pen-awards-photos
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. PEN.org
The 2017 PEN America Literary Awards are made possible through the generous support of PEN America’s many donors: the family of Robert W. Bingham, Fernanda Dau Fisher and the family of Robert J. Dau, Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel and Carl Spielvogel, ESPN, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Jean Stein, The Kaplen Foundation, Priscilla and Michael Henry Heim, Phyllis Naylor, the Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater, the Estate of Rochelle Ratner, Dr. Edward O. Wilson and the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, James and Cathy Stone, Jacqueline Bograd Weld and Rodman L. Drake, the Vladimir Nabokov Literary Foundation, and Gerald Weales.
PEN America will begin accepting submissions for its 2018 Awards in the spring of 2017. For a list of all 2018 PEN America Literary Awards and information about submission guidelines, please visit PEN.org/awards. For questions about any of the awards, write to [email protected]