Winners of the PEN America 2023 Literary Awards


PEN America 2023 Literary Awards

“Since 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards Program has honored outstanding voices in fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, biography, children’s literature, translation, drama, and more. With the help of our generous partners and supporters, this year PEN America conferred over 20 distinct juried awards, grants, and prizes, awarding more than $350,000 to more than 40 writers and translators.”


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.

Judges: Lauren Groff, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Madeleine Thien

Winner: Dr. NoPercival Everett (Graywolf Press) Bookshop


To an exceptional book-length work of any literary genre by an author of color.

Judges: Jenn Baker, Nina McConigley,  Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Erika L. Sanchez

Winner: The Black PeriodHafizah Augustus Geter (Random House), Bookshop

From the judges’ citation: “The Black Period is multiple things at once: an astute reflection of the author as witness and narrator to the universal, a deeply personal and lovingly rendered tome, as well as a mirror of intersectional lives and experiences deserving of joy and visibility. Weighing the past and the present, weaving histories and livelihoods across continents and cultures, Hafizah Augustus Geter’s lyrical prose alongside the realistic portraiture by Tyrone Geter deftly create a book that is brilliant, bold, and genre-defying.”

the black period cover, a painted image of three black figures


To an author whose debut collection of short stories represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future work.

Judges: Susan Muaddi Darraj, Chris Gonzalez, Nafissa Thompson Spires

Winner: Night of the Living RezMorgan Talty (Tin House Books), Bookshop

From the judges’ citation: “Morgan Talty’s Night of the Living Rez percolates with tales about contemporary life and community on the Penobscot Indian Nation reservation. Here, Talty is a master of the craft; he understands the narrative power of the short story form, its ability to serve as both a mirror and a compass. These linked stories probe generational trauma and tradition with honesty, unrelenting humor, and depth, through memorable characters who ask, ‘“How did we get here?”’ and ‘“How do we get out of here?”’ Talty’s stories are made of fire and walk among us. May they walk for years to come and make their home deep in our canon.”


To a debut novel of exceptional literary merit by an American author.

Judges: Gina Apostol, Oscar Cásares, Matthew Salesses

WinnerCalling For a Blanket DanceOscar Hokeah (Algonquin Books), Bookshop

From the judges’ citation: “The world woven by Oscar Hokeah in Calling for a Blanket Dance is seamed with heartbreak and tragedy on resistance’s loom: thus, this story of interlaced Kiowa, Cherokee, and Mexican lives is ultimately one of triumph—not only the triumph of art but of humanity. We see the protagonist, Ever Geimausaddle through the shifting lenses of intergenerational memory: we hear voices of pain, betrayal, humor, loss, goodwill, and above all love. There is much in our current world to bereave, to resist, and to change. With writers like Oscar Hokeah, we, his readers and audience, will also find the stories that bind us if we listen to his art’s call.”

cover for oscar hokeah's calling for a blanket dance, featuring a collage of a black man's face, a dollar bill, and a ribbon


For a seasoned writer whose collection of essays is an expansion on their corpus of work and preserves the distinguished art form of the essay.

Judges: Jill Lepore, John McWhorter, Simon Winchester

WinnerA Left-Handed WomanJudith Thurman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Bookshop

From the judges’ citation: “Anyone concerned that the art of the essay might be falling into desuetude need only read Judith Thurman, winner of this year’s PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. With her formidable intelligence, her unbounded curiosity, her care and sensitivity with the most lapidary of prose, her serene facility with pieces that range in length from extended captions to near-encyclopedic entries, Thurman has retrieved and revived the form and set it afire once more, leaving all who read her astonished, astounded, and delighted.“

cover of judith thurman's a left-handed woman, a pencil sketch of a left hand


To a poet whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence.

Judges: Molly McCully Brown, Kimiko Hahn, Willie Perdomo, Alison Rollins

WinnerTo The Realization of Perfect HelplessnessRobin Coste Lewis (Penguin Random House), Bookshop

From the judges’ citation: “The scope and breadth of Robin Coste Lewis’ To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness is mythic, grandiose, ambitious and yet pointed, piercing, as well as personal. This collection is innovative in its use of various mediums and its collage-like weaving of texts and figures including the African American explorer Matthew Henson, Henry David Thoreau, James Baldwin, and others. Employing an adept methodology of reframing, Lewis asks us to expand the ways we might imagine what it means to “read” and “see” on the plane or stage of a book’s page. As readers migrate through To The Realization of Perfect Helplessness they are met with twists and turns that function to defy and subvert one’s expectations of what an image can be and what imagery can do. Ultimately, Lewis’ work tenderly forces our collective imagination to evolve.”

cover of robin coste lewis' to the realization of perfect helplessness, a sepia tone photograph of city dwellers on a street corner


For a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English.

Judges: Baba Badji, Mona Kareem, Julia Leverone

WinnerThe Loose Pearl, Paula Ilabaca Nuñez (Coimpress)
Translated from Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky

From the judges’ citation: “In this courageous translation of Paula Ilabaca Nuñez’s The Loose Pearl, Daniel Borzutzky moves through the prose and the poetic, acutely, to bring us closer to the vulnerability of language. With such risks, he takes translation into a new direction, opening a new conversation around the practice and the choice of the translator. Borzutzky introduces English readers to the work of Ilabaca Nuñez not through a selection of her work, but with a specific artwork that she had first published on her blog in 2017 as a series of poems and images. The speaker in this book is split between the pearl and the loose one as she challenges her translator to carry her poems through gender, language, power, and sex. Ilabaca Nuñez’s Spanish is neatly and brilliantly rendered so that the anguish of experience comes through; Borzutzky extends the legacy of revolutionary Chilean poetry through this deft work, adding to a complex national and global conversation about what poetry can do for, and in, the social and political spheres, and how translation raises words and bodies to the stage.”

book cover for paula ilabaca nunez the loose pearl, a woman in profile


For a book-length translation of prose from any language into English.

Judges: Layla Benitez-James, Slava FaybyshSora Kim-Russell, Elton Uliana

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

From the judges’ citation: “At once a period piece and tailor-made for today, People from Bloomington by Budi Darma depicts the quietly unsettling lives of the exotic Midwesterners of 1970s Bloomington, Indiana. Tiffany Tsao’s pitch-perfect Indonesian to English translation of Darma’s seven short stories seamlessly weaves the uncanny with what Darma describes as “the difficulties that people face in relating to one another while negotiating their own identities.”

Under the surface of their deceptively ordinary setting, Darma’s stories feel haunting and all too prescient. In the collection’s opening story, “The Old Man with No Name,” a foreign student observes a neighbor’s strange ritual: “Every day, the man would point his gun at the ground below, taking aim at a large rock beneath a tulip tree, never firing any bullets.” Instead of taking his story seriously, his landlady dismisses his concern: “If he really does have a gun, he obviously has a permit for it. And if he doesn’t have a permit, then they’ll arrest him at some point.”

In her foreword, Intan Paramaditha notes that Darma was completing a PhD on Jane Austen during his time in Bloomington and takes on her penchant for observation and social commentary while allowing tension to unfold “not through fantasy, horror, or magical realism, but in small ruptures within the mundane daily lives…poking holes in reality rather than violating it,” calling to mind writers like J. D. Salinger, Shirley Jackson, and George Saunders.

Darma’s work and Tsao’s translation are so spot-on that it would be easy to miss the fact that it is a translation in the first place: at the same time that it fulfills the oft-cited ideal that translations should read as if they were written in English, it subverts the primacy of the “native speaker.” We share Tsao’s hope, as deftly argued in her introduction, that this work might not only challenge readers’ expectations of Indonesian literature but also how we decide which works are lauded as “classic” and “universal.””

cover of budi darma's people from bloomington, an illustration of four black stick figures on a suburban landscape


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: Tim Folger, David Hu, Emily Raboteau

WinnerHeartbreakFlorence Williams (W. W. Norton & Company), Bookshop

From the judges’ citation: “In the wake of divorce after a 25-year marriage, veteran science journalist Florence Williams undertook to study the physiology of her pain and the solutions for recovery from heartache. Her resulting book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, chronicles healing from emotional loss and offers important insights into the mechanics and impacts of romantic grief. The judges of this year’s PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award were impressed by Williams’ brave, funny, and relatable scientific inquiry into her own heartache. What a gift, and comfort, to learn through her book that the way to get over a broken heart is through beauty, purpose, agency, and awe—and that science is in our corner.”

cover of florence williams' heartbreak a personal and scientific journey, a photograph of a canyon in the shape of a heart


For a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research.

Judges: Manu Bhagavan, Silvana Paternostro

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

From the judges’ citation: “J Dilla was a hip hop producer who achieved renown for his shockingly original sound, which defied expectations in such dramatic ways as literally to transform our understanding of rhythm, of music itself. He got us to listen differently. In telling this story, Dan Charnas has accomplished something remarkable, channeling Dilla here to surprise and delight us in words, upending our preconceived notions of biography and calling on us to read differently. Dilla Time is well-researched, nuanced, and paints a vivid portrait of its subject, all hallmarks of top-quality non-fiction. But it takes a revolutionary turn when it blends together the life of Dilla, the story of a city, and the development of hip hop.

This is a book about a young Black man with a stutter who grew up in the grim and derelict Detroit of the 80s, the burning city forging the trailblazing icon he would become. As we come to see things from his perspective, we learn how to count music and tap and clap in new ways, all while Charnas simultaneously teaches us why Black people came to Detroit, and why there’s bebop in Motown and hip hop in New York.

In its staggered layout, Dilla Time produces a polyrhythmic beat of its own, where the words don’t simply sing, they stretch, warp, stomp right through the page. Charnas gets his readers to see, think, and hear at the same time. In this, Charnas has created perhaps the truest tribute to Dilla and his legacy: a work of funky artistic achievement.

At the same time, we have a most human portrait of J Dilla, an honor student who dropped out because the ROTC cap “fucked with his hair,” and who worked for a time building planes on an assembly line. There are cameos from music greats like George Clinton and Erykah Badu, who pass through as we breathe in bittersweet moments of solitude and inspiration and come to understand the relationship between mother and son, the hip hop star and women.

Dilla Time is a beautiful and daring rendering of a brilliant young man with all too human qualities and frailties, who died tragically young. We finish the book yearning to go to the many tributes his family, DJ friends, and fans are still organizing, 17 years after his premature death at age 32. We are left wanting to hear more of J Dilla, even as the music time he innovated echoes through the beats of today.“


For a distinguished book of general nonfiction published, possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues.

Judges: Sanjiv Bhattacharya, Geraldo Cadava, Sofija Stefanovic

Winner: The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa’s Racial ReckoningEve Fairbanks (Simon & Schuster) Bookshop

From the judges’ citation: “The Inheritors by Eve Fairbanks is an intimate exploration of life after apartheid that looks beyond the broader issues of politics and economics and into the complex inner lives of ordinary South Africans, three in particular. Dipuo is a firebrand anti-apartheid activist, her daughter Malaika is a schoolgirl who loves Danielle Steele novels, and Christo is a White former soldier for the apartheid regime. In a feat of reporting that spans 12 years, Fairbanks follows their fortunes in the new country, creating a gripping story of race, power and human striving. But it is their interiority that makes this book sing. With profound psychological insight and luminous prose, Fairbanks unpacks the feelings of shame, rage and pride in her subjects as they struggle to confront old prejudices and create a post-apartheid identity. For its vivid portrait of a country in flux, and its powerful meditation on our desire to be better to one another, despite the complicated histories that prevent us from doing so, this book has a wisdom that carries far beyond South Africa.“