Recently, PEN America announced the 2020 winners of their prestigious PEN America Literary Awards honoring authors who have made significant contributions to the literary world. The prizes celebrate books published in both fiction and non-fiction, including sports writing, science writing, essays, poetry, translation, and more.
The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease by Daisy Hernández
PEN/JEAN STEIN BOOK AWARD WINNER
To the author of a book-length work of any genre for its originality, merit, and impact, and that has broken new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence
Growing up in a New Jersey factory town in the 1980s, Daisy Hernández believed that her aunt had become deathly ill from eating an apple. No one in her family, in either the United States or Colombia, spoke of infectious diseases. Even into her thirties, she only knew that her aunt had died of Chagas, a rare and devastating illness that affects the heart and digestive system. But as Hernández dug deeper, she discovered that Chagas–or the kissing bug disease–is more prevalent in the United States than the Zika virus.
After her aunt’s death, Hernández began searching for answers. Crisscrossing the country, she interviewed patients, doctors, epidemiologists, and even veterinarians with the Department of Defense. She learned that in the United States more than three hundred thousand people in the Latinx community have Chagas, and that outside of Latin America, this is the only country with the native insects–the “kissing bugs”–that carry the Chagas parasite.
Through unsparing, gripping, and humane portraits, Hernández chronicles a story vast in scope and urgent in its implications, exposing how poverty, racism, and public policies have conspired to keep this disease hidden. A riveting and nuanced investigation into racial politics and for-profit healthcare in the United States, The Kissing Bug reveals the intimate history of a marginalized disease and connects us to the lives at the center of it all.
Skinship: Stories by Yoon Choi
PEN/ROBERT W. BINGHAM PRIZE WINNER FOR DEBUT SHORT STORY COLLECTION
To an author whose debut collection of short stories represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future works of fiction.
A long-married couple is forced to confront their friend’s painful past when a church revival comes to a nearby town… A woman in an arranged marriage struggles to connect with the son she hid from her husband for years… A well-meaning sister unwittingly reunites an abuser with his victims. Through an indelible array of lives, Yoon Choi explores where first and second generations either clash or find common ground, where meaning falls in the cracks between languages, where relationships bend under the weight of tenderness and disappointment, where displacement turns to heartbreak. Skinship is suffused with a profound understanding of humanity and offers a searing look at who the people we love truly are.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
PEN/HEMINGWAY AWARD WINNER FOR DEBUT NOVEL
To a debut novel of exceptional literary merit by an American author.
Reese almost had it all: a loving relationship with Amy, an apartment in New York City, a job she didn’t hate. She had scraped together what previous generations of trans women could only dream of: a life of mundane, bourgeois comforts. The only thing missing was a child. But then her girlfriend, Amy, detransitioned and became Ames, and everything fell apart. Now Reese is caught in a self-destructive pattern: avoiding her loneliness by sleeping with married men. Ames isn’t happy either. He thought detransitioning to live as a man would make life easier, but that decision cost him his relationship with Reese–and losing her meant losing his only family. Even though their romance is over, he longs to find a way back to her. When Ames’s boss and lover, Katrina, reveals that she’s pregnant with his baby–and that she’s not sure whether she wants to keep it–Ames wonders if this is the chance he’s been waiting for. Could the three of them form some kind of unconventional family–and raise the baby together?
Migratory Birds by Mariana Oliver, translated by Julia Sanches
PEN TRANSLATION PRIZE WINNER
For a book-length translation of prose from any language into English, published in 2019.
In her prize-winning debut, Mexican essayist Mariana Oliver trains her gaze on migration in its many forms, moving between real cities and other more inaccessible territories: language, memory, pain, desire, and the body. With an abiding curiosity and poetic ease, Oliver leads us through the underground city of Cappadocia, explores the vicissitudes of a Berlin marked by historical fracture, recalls a shocking childhood exodus, and recreates the intimacy of the spaces we inhabit. Blending criticism, reportage, and a travel writing all her own, Oliver presents a brilliant collection of essays that asks us what it means to leave the familiar behind and make the unfamiliar our own.
frank: sonnets by Diane Seuss
PEN/VOELCKER AWARD WINNER FOR POETRY COLLECTION
To a poet whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence.
Diane Seuss writes in this brilliant, candid work, her most personal collection to date. These poems tell the story of a life at risk of spilling over the edge of the page, from Seuss’s working-class childhood in rural Michigan to the dangerous allures of New York City and back again. With sheer virtuosity, Seuss moves nimbly across thought and time, poetry and punk, AIDS and addiction, Christ and motherhood, showing us what we can do, what we can do without, and what we offer to one another when we have nothing left to spare. Like a series of cels on a filmstrip, frank: sonnets captures the magnitude of a life lived honestly, a restless search for some kind of “beauty or relief.” Seuss is at the height of her powers, devastatingly astute, austere, and–in a word–frank.
Everything I Don’t Know by Jerzy Ficowski, translated by Jennifer Grotz and Piotr Sommer
PEN AWARD WINNER FOR POETRY IN TRANSLATION
For a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English.
“Thanks to these brilliant, careful, inspired translations, we can now read Jerzy Ficowski, one of Poland’s best kept secrets. This book is a marvel in its weird clarity and extraordinary range of styles and subjects, from the perfectly unassuming paradox of the title, all the way through to its final poems about bumblebees and Satie and mother nature, who scratches herself and ‘shudders / with a tsunami.’ How fortunate we are to have the unassailable evidence that all along, there was yet another genius of 20th century Polish poetry.”—Matthew Zapruder
Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache from the American South by Margaret Renkl
PEN/DIAMONSTEIN-SPIELVOGEL AWARD WINNER FOR THE ART OF THE ESSAY
For a writer whose collection of individual essays, published in 2019, is an expansion of their exceptional body of work focusing on the essay as an art form.
For the past four years, Margaret Renkl’s columns have offered readers of The New York Times a weekly dose of natural beauty, human decency, and persistent hope from her home in Nashville. Now more than sixty of those pieces have been brought together in this sparkling new collection.
“People have often asked me how it feels to be the ‘voice of the South,'” writes Renkl in her introduction. “But I’m not the voice of the South, and no one else is, either.” There are many Souths–red and blue, rural and urban, mountain and coast, Black and white and brown–and no one writer could possibly represent all of them. In Graceland, At Last, Renkl writes instead from her own experience about the complexities of her homeland, demonstrating along the way how much more there is to this tangled region than many people understand.
In a patchwork quilt of personal and reported essays, Renkl also highlights some other voices of the South, people who are fighting for a better future for the region. A group of teenagers who organized a youth march for Black Lives Matter. An urban shepherd whose sheep remove invasive vegetation. Church parishioners sheltering the homeless. Throughout, readers will find the generosity of spirit and deep attention to the world, human and nonhuman, that keep readers returning to her columns each Monday morning.
Fox & I: An Uncommon Friendship by Catherine Raven
PEN/E.O. WILSON LITERARY SCIENCE WRITING AWARD WINNER
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.
When Catherine Raven finished her PhD in biology, she built herself a tiny cottage on an isolated plot of land in Montana. She was as emotionally isolated as she was physically, but she viewed the house as a way station, a temporary rest stop where she could gather her nerves and fill out applications for what she hoped would be a real job that would help her fit into society. In the meantime, she taught remotely and led field classes in nearby Yellowstone National Park.
Then one day she realized that a mangy-looking fox was showing up on her property every afternoon at 4:15 p.m. She had never had a regular visitor before. How do you even talk to a fox? She brought out her camping chair, sat as close to him as she dared, and began reading to him from The Little Prince. Her scientific training had taught her not to anthropomorphize animals, yet as she grew to know him, his personality revealed itself and they became friends.
From the fox, Catherine learned the single most important thing about loneliness: we are never alone when we are connected to the natural world. Friends, however, cannot save each other from the uncontained forces of nature.
All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler by Rebecca Donner
PEN/JACQUELINE BOGRAD WELD AWARD FOR BIOGRAPHY
For a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Mildred Harnack was twenty-six when she enrolled in a PhD program in Germany and witnessed the meteoric rise of the Nazi party. In 1932, she began holding secret meetings in her apartment — a small band of political activists that by 1940 had grown into the largest underground resistance group in Berlin. She recruited working-class Germans into the resistance, helped Jews escape, plotted acts of sabotage, and collaborated in writing leaflets that denounced Hitler and called for revolution. Her co-conspirators circulated through Berlin under the cover of night, slipping the leaflets into mailboxes, public restrooms, phone booths.
When the first shots of the Second World War were fired, she became a spy, couriering top-secret intelligence to the Allies. On the eve of her escape to Sweden, she was ambushed by the Gestapo. At a Nazi military court, a panel of five judges sentenced her to six years at a prison camp, but Hitler overruled the decision and ordered her execution. On February 16, 1943, she was strapped to a guillotine and beheaded.
Historians identify Mildred Harnack as the only American in the leadership of the German resistance, yet her remarkable story has remained almost unknown until now.
All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family’s Keepsake by Tiya Miles
PEN/JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH AWARD FOR NONFICTION
For a distinguished book of general nonfiction published, possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues.
In a display case in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture sits a rough cotton bag, called Ashley’s Sack, embroidered with just a handful of words that evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love, passed down through generations.
In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose gave this sack filled with a few precious items to her daughter, Ashley, as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley’s survival as well. Soon after, the nine-year-old girl was separated from her mother and sold. Decades later, Ashley’s granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language—including Rose’s wish that “It be filled with my Love always.” Now, in this illuminating, deeply moving new book inspired by Rose’s gift to Ashley, historian Tiya Miles carefully unearths these women’s faint presence in archival records and draws on objects and art, to follow the paths of their lives—and the lives of so many women like them—in a singular and revelatory history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States.