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2023 PEN America Literary Award Winners

Pierce Alquist

Senior Contributor

Pierce Alquist is a transplanted New Yorker living and working in the publishing scene in Boston. Don’t worry if she fooled you, the red hair is misleading. She’s a literature in translation devotee and reviewer and lover of small, independent presses. A voracious traveler and foodie, you can find her in her kitchen making borscht or covered in red pepper paste as she perfects her kimchi recipe.

The 2023 PEN American Literary Award Winners have been announced! This year’s awards conferred $350,000 to writers and translators in eleven different categories that include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essay, science writing, literature in translation, and more. The winners were announced live at the PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony on March 2, at The Town Hall in New York City, hosted by actor, author, and former Obama White House aide Kal Penn.

This year’s lifetime achievement awards were given to comedian and author Tina Fey, writer Vinod Kumar Shukl, considered one of the greatest contemporary writers in the Hindi language and acclaimed playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza. There were 1,744 total entries and this year’s winners continue the PEN American tradition of honoring a diverse and exceptional group of writers and translators from all over this country and the world, including multiple wins for Indigenous authors; a win for translator Tiffany Tsao, for her translation of one of Indonesia’s most prominent writers; Budi Darma; and other thrilling wins.

One of the highlights of the night was Percival Everett’s win of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Everett is the author of over 30 books since his debut was released in 1983 and is beloved in literary circles. This win builds on other recent recognition of his work, including being a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2020, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022, and being awarded the 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Book Critics Circle Awards. “I don’t go out much, and for an old horseman this is kind of tough. I’d like to thank PEN for all they do — it’s an amazing organization. For the last 30 years I’ve had one agent [who] told me when we first started working together, ‘you’re never going to make me any money, so just write what you want to write. It was perhaps not well-advised, but I did.”

PEN America celebrates its 100 year anniversary this year and host Kal Pen spotlighted the busy year that PEN America has had with the ever increasing wave of censorship and book bans sweeping across American classrooms, school boards, and statehouses. He encouraged guests and viewers to continue to defend the freedom to read. This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the PEN Translation Prize, the first of the prizes to be presented 60 years ago. Actor, author, and translator Molly Ringwald presented the translation prizes. This year’s awards honored translations of books by authors from 20 different countries and translators working in more than a dozen languages.

2023 PEN America Literary Awards

PEN/Jean Stein Book Award ($75,000)

This award is given to a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact, which has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence. And this year’s judges are Joan Naviyuk Kane, Lauren Groff, and Madeleine Thien.

Winner: Dr. No by Percival Everett (Graywolf Press)

PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection ($25,000)

This award is given to an author whose debut collection of short stories represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future work. And this year’s judges are Nafissa Thompson Spires, Chris Gonzalez, and Susan Muaddi Darraj.

Winner: Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty (Tin House Books)

PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel ($10,000)

This award is given to a debut novel of exceptional literary merit by an American author. And this year’s judges are Gina Apostol, Oscar Cásares, and Matthew Salesses.

Winner: Calling For a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah (Algonquin Books)

PEN Award for Poetry in Translation ($3,000)

This award is given to a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English. And this year’s judges are Baba Badji, Mona Kareem, and Julia Leverone.

Winner: The Loose Pearl by Paula Ilabaca Nuñez, translated from Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky (Coimpress)

PEN Translation Prize ($3,000)

This award is given to a book-length translation of prose from any language into English. And this year’s judges are Layla Benitez-James, Slava Faybysh, Sora Kim-Russell, and Elton Uliana.

Winner: People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Penguin Classics)

PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($15,000)

This award is given to a seasoned writer whose collection of essays is an expansion on their corpus of work and preserves the distinguished art form of the essay. And this year’s judges are Jill Lepore, John McWhorter, and Simon Winchester.

Winner: A Left-Handed Woman by Judith Thurman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

PEN Open Book Award ($10,000)

This award is given to an exceptional book-length work of any literary genre by an author of color. This year’s judges are Jenn Baker, Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Nina McConigley, and Erika L. Sanchez.

Winner: The Black Period by Hafizah Augustus Geter (Random House)

PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

This award is given to a work that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience. And this year’s judges are Tim Folger, David Hu, and Emily Raboteau.

Winner: Heartbreak by Florence Williams (W. W. Norton & Company)

PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection

This award is given to a poet whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence. This year’s judges are Kimiko Hahn, Molly McCully Brown, Allison Rollins, and Willie Perdomo.

Winner: To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness by Robin Coste Lewis (Penguin Random House)

PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography ($5,000)

This award is given to a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research. And this year’s judges are Manu Bhagavan and Silvana Paternostro.

Winner: Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm by Dan Charnas (MCD)

PEN/JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH AWARD FOR NONFICTION

This award is given to a distinguished book of general nonfiction possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues. And this year’s judges are Sanjiv Bhattacharya, Geraldo Cadava, and Sofija Stefanovic.

Winner: The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial Reckoning by Eve Fairbanks (Simon & Schuster)


Looking for even more great recommendations? Check out the complete 2023 PEN American Literary Award Longlists.