2021 PEN America Literary Awards Longlists

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Pen America has released longlists for their variety of literary awards. There are some expected choices and a few surprises, too.

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Notably, this is the first year that a single book appears on three lists: Sharks in the Time of Saviors, the debut novel from Kawai Strong Washburn, is longlisted for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel, and the PEN Open Book Award.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is longlisted twice, and so is Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors along with Luster: A Novel by Raven Leilani.

Nearly half of the writers on these lists identify as people of color, 60% are women, and half of the titles were put out by university or independent presses.

Finalists for the awards will be announced in February 2021. Now, on to the longlists!

This $75,000 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.”

This year’s judges were: Vievee Francis, Fred Moten, Tommy Orange

  • Borderland Apocrypha, Anthony Cody (Omnidawn)
  • Be Holding: A Poem, Ross Gay (University of Pittsburgh Press)
  • Luster: A Novel, Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Pew, Catherine Lacey (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • The Butterfly Lampshade, Aimee Bender (Doubleday)
  • The Death of Vivek Oji: A Novel, Akwaeke Emezi (Riverhead Books)
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel, Kawai Strong Washburn (MCD)
  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)
  • This is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home, Lauren Sandler (Random House)
  • The Freezer Door, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)

Given to “an exceptional book-length work of any literary genre by an author of color,” this $10,000 award was judged this year by Toi Derricotte, Brandon Hobson, Katie Kitamura, Jamil Jan Kochai, Akil Kumarasamy, and Solmaz Sharif.

  • Deluge, Leila Chatti (Copper Canyon Press)
  • How to Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa (Little, Brown and Company)
  • A Treatise on Stars, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (New Directions Publishing)
  • The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir, E. J. Koh (Tin House)
  • Storage Unit for the Spirit House, Maw Shein Win (Omnidawn)
  • Wild Peach, S*an D. Henry-Smith (Futurepoem Books)
    Small Press Distributions
  • Inheritors, Asako Serizawa (Doubleday)
  • Little Gods, Meng Jin (Custom House)
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel, Kawai Strong Washburn (MCD)
  • Un-American, Hafizah Geter (Wesleyan University Press)

This $25,000 award goes “to an author whose debut collection of short stories represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future work.”

This years judges were Ben Marcus, Elizabeth McCracken, and Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

  • Alligator & Other Stories, Dima Alzayat (Two Dollar Radio)
  • If the Body Allows It: Stories, Megan Cummins (University of Nebraska Press)
  • Further News of Defeat: Stories, Michael X. Wang (Autumn House Press)
  • You Will Never Be Forgotten: Stories, Mary South (FSG Originals)
  • The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories, Caroline Kim (University of Pittsburgh Press)
  • Imaginary Museums, Nicolette Polek (Soft Skull Press)
  • Adults and Other Children: Stories, Miriam Cohen (Ig Publishing)
  • A House Is a Body: Stories, Shruti Swamy (Algonquin Books)
  • Inheritors, Asako Serizawa (Doubleday)
  • Heartland Calamitous, Michael Credico (Autumn House Press)

This $10,000 award goes to “a debut novel of exceptional literary merit by an American author.” Judges for the 2021 awards were Ramona Ausubel, Jack Livings, and Stuart Nadler.

  • Crooked Hallelujah, Kelli Jo Ford (Grove Press)
  • Spindle City: A Novel, Jotham Burrello (Blackstone Publishing)
  • Goshen Road: A Novel, Bonnie Proudfoot (Swallow Press)
  • How Much of These Hills Is Gold: A Novel, C Pam Zhang (Riverhead Books)
  • Temporary: A Novel, Hilary Leichter (Coffee House Press)
  • Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel, Kawai Strong Washburn (MCD)
  • Shuggie Bain: A Novel, Douglas Stuart (Grove Press)
  • Luster: A Novel, Raven Leilani (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel, Maisy Card (Simon & Schuster)
  • Cuyahoga: A Novel, Pete Beatty (Scribner)

This $5,000 award goes to “a poet whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence,” and was judged by Sherwin Bitsui, Cynthia Cruz, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Keelan, and Bao Phi.

  • Upend, Claire Meuschke (Noemi Press)
  • Negotiations: Poems, Destiny O. Birdsong (Tin House)
  • The Age of Phillis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Wesleyan University Press)
  • Homie: Poems, Danez Smith (Graywolf Press)
  • Salat, Dujie Tahat (Tupelo Press)
  • Blessed as We Were: Late Selected and New Poems, 2000–2018, Gerald Stern (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, John Murillo (Four Way Books)
  • Habitat Threshold, Craig Santos Perez (Omnidawn)
  • Conjure, Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)
  • Obit, Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press)

The winner of this award, “for a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English,” gets $3,000. The judges are Daniel Borzutsky, Marissa Davis, and Meg Matich.

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  • Lean Against This Late Hour, Garous Abdolmalekian (Penguin Books) Translated from the Persian by Ahmad Nadalizadeh and Idra Novey 
  • Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations, Amang (Phoneme Media) Translated from the Chinese by Steve Bradbury
  • Sense Violence, Helena Boberg (Black Ocean) Translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson
  • Katabasis, Lucía Estrada (Eulalia Books) Translated from the Spanish by Olivia Lott
  • Paper Bells, Phan Nhiên Hạo (The Song Cave) Translated from the Vietnamese by Hai-Dang Phan
  • My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems, Yi Lei (Graywolf Press) Translated from the Chinese by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi
  • Now at the Threshold: The Late Poems of Tuvia Ruebner, Tuvia Ruebner (Hebrew Union College Press) Translated from the Hebrew by Rachel Tzvia Back
  • Night truck driver, Marcin Świetlicki (Zephyr Press) Translated from the Polish by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
  • Love Poems/Poemas de amor, Idea Vilariño (University of Pittsburgh Press) Translated from the Spanish by Jesse Lee Kercheval University of Pittsburgh Press
  • A New Orthography, Serhiy Zhadan (Lost Horse Press) Translated from the Ukrainian by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin

$3,000 goes to the winner of the best “book-length translation of prose from any language into English.” Judges are Jacqui Cornetta, Somrita Urni Ganguly, Ana L. Méndez-Oliver, Amanda Sarasien, Niloufar Talebi, and Sevinç Türkkan.

  • Ornamental, Juan Cárdenas (Coffee House Press) Translated from the Spanish by Lizzie Davis
  • A Country for Dying: A Novel, Abdellah Taïa (Seven Stories Press) Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
  • Mansour’s Eyes, Ryad Girod (Transit Books) Translated from the French by Chris Clarke
  • Treasure of the Spanish Civil War and Other Tales, Serge Pey (Archipelago Books) Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith 
  • Our Riches, Kaouther Adimi (New Directions Publishing) Translated from the French by Chris Andrews 
  • Girls Lost, Jessica Schiefauer (Deep Vellum) Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel
  • That Hair: A Novel, Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida (Tin House) Translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker
  • Tokyo Ueno Station: A Novel, Yu Miri (Riverhead Books) Translated from the Japanese by Morgan Giles
  • The Family Clause: A Novel, Jonas Hassen Khemiri (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies
  • The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, Shokoofeh Azar (Europa Editions) Translated from the Persian by Anonymous

$15,000 goes 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. ”

2021 judges are Sandra Cisneros, John D’Agata, and Adam Gopnik.

  • Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, David Lazar (University of Nebraska Press)
  • Skull Cathedral: A Vestigial Anatomy, Melissa Wiley (Autumn House Press)
  • Wow, No Thank You.: Essays, Samantha Irby (Vintage)
  • Had I Known: Collected Essays, Barbara Ehrenreich (Twelve)
  • Terroir: Love, Out of Place, Natasha Sajé (Trinity University Press)
  • Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, Vivian Gornick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • Maybe the People Would Be the Times, Luc Sante (Verse Chorus Press)
  • Like Love, Michele Morano (Mad Creek Books)
  • Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays, Robert Michael Pyle (Counterpoint Press)
  • Figure It Out: Essays, Wayne Koestenbaum (Soft Skull Press)

This $10,000 award is given “for a work that exemplifies literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.” Judges are Nassir Ghaemi, Christine Kenneally, Erin Macdonald, and Banu Subramaniam.

  • A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You, Sean B. Carroll (Princeton University Press) 
  • The Better Half: On the Genetic Superiority of Women, Sharon Moalem, MD, PhD (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, Sonia Shah (Bloomsbury Publishing)
  • The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, Jennifer Ackerman (Penguin Press)
  • Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells, Harold McGee (Penguin Press)
  • Breath from Salt: A Deadly Genetic Disease, a New Era in Science, and the Patients and Families Who Changed Medicine Forever, Bijal P. Trivedi (BenBella Books)
  • The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers, Emily Levesque (Sourcebooks)
  • Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl, Jonathan C. Slaght (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 
  • Fathoms: The World in the Whale, Rebecca Giggs (Simon & Schuster)
  • Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, Nicholas A. Christakis(Little, Brown Spark) 

The winner of “a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research” receives $5,000.

Judges are Nicholas Buccola, Karl Jacoby, Nell Painter, and Anna Whitelock.

  • Mozart: The Reign of Love, Jan Swafford (Harper)
  • 999: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz, Heather Dune Macadam (Citadel)
  • MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, Ben Hubbard (Tim Duggan Books)
  • Warhol, Blake Gopnik (Ecco)
  • Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World, Amy Stanley (Scribner)
  • Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, Sudhir Hazareesingh (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
  • The Power of Adrienne Rich: A Biography, Hilary Holladay (Nan A. Talese)
  • Chasing Chopin: A Musical Journey Across Three Centuries, Four Countries, and a Half-Dozen Revolutions, Annik LaFarge (Simon & Schuster)
  • The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Peniel E. Joseph (Basic Books)
  • Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes, Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“For a distinguished book of general nonfiction possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues,” this award is judged by Roxane Gay, Thomas Page McBee, Dunya Mikhail, Eric Schlosser, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Laura Wides-Muñoz. The prize is $10,000.

  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Isabel Wilkerson (Random House)
  • Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, Saidiya Hartman (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • Our Bodies, Their Battlefields: War Through the Lives of Women, Cristina Lamb (Scribner)
  • The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom (Grove Atlantic)
  • In the Dream House: A Memoir, Carmen Maria Machado (Graywolf Press)
  • The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books)
  • Deported Americans: Life after Deportation to Mexico, Beth C. Caldwell (Duke University Press)
  • Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, David Zucchino (Atlantic Monthly Press)
  • Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker (Doubleday)
  • The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells (Tim Duggan Books)

Disclosure: Book Riot’s managing editor is on the PEN America Literary Awards Committee


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