By Amanda Cleveland • May 21, 2023
The PEN/America Literary Awards program began honoring writers in 1963. In March, they announced their 2023 winners in a ceremony hosted by Kal Penn, and this month at their yearly Literary Gala, this year hosted by Colin Jost of Saturday Night Live, they bestowed additional prizes and honors. In addition to the awards covered here, PEN America also awarded grants to fourteen writers, and with their other awards gave over $350,000 total to writers and artists this year.
PEN America strives to honor the power writing has to change the world. Celebrating works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, science fiction, history, and more, here are this year's winners of some of their major honors.
Winner: Salman Rushdie
Presented on May 18, 2023, the acclaimed, Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie made his first public appearance since being injured in a knife attack nine months ago to accept this honor. Rushdie told the audience, "It's nice to be back—as opposed to not being back, which was also a possibility. I'm glad the dice rolled this way."
PEN America's president said the honor was bestowed on Rushdie "because of what he stood for and continues to stand for, and what this organization is fundamentally all about. Freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to inquire, freedom to make sense of reality without deference to dogma, irrespective of the consequences. He has enlarged the world's imaginative capacities and at such great cost to himself."
Rushdie's history of work has earned him praise and fury, awards and scrutiny, and have put him in physical danger, with a fatwa being issued after his work The Satanic Verses was published in 1988. His most famous work is the three-time Booker Prize-winning Midnight's Children.
Honors an important writer whose work has drawn a wide audience and who helps us understand the human condition in original and powerful ways.
Winner: Lorne Michaels
Michaels is a television and film producer, most famous for creating the show Saturday Night Live in 1975. Michaels was also originally a writer on the show in addition to producer and co-creator, before later becoming executive producer, a title he still holds today.
Presented annually to an international writer of conscience, imprisoned to silence them.
Winner: Narges Mohammadi
The author of White Torture: Interviews with Iranian Women Prisoners is currently imprisoned in Iran on charges of spreading anti-state propaganda. Mohammadi is a writer and human rights activist that has been campaigning to end the death penalty and end torture of prisoners. Her husband accepted the award on her behalf at the PEN America Literary Gala this year.
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.
Winner: Dr. No by Percival Everett
Awarded to an exceptional book-length work of any literary genre by an author of color.
Winner: The Black Period by Hafizah Augustus Geter
For an author whose debut collection of short stories represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise for future work.
Winner: Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty
Awarded to a debut novel of exceptional literary merit by an American author.
Winner: Calling for a Blanket Dance by Oscar Hokeah
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.
Winner: A Left-Handed Woman by Judith Thurman
Presented to a poet whose distinguished collection of poetry represents a notable and accomplished literary presence.
Winner: To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness by Robin Coste Lewis
Awarded for a book-length translation of poetry from any language into English.
Winner: The Loose Pearl by Paula Ilabaca Nuñez, translated from Spanish by Daniel Borzutzky
Awarded for a book-length translation of prose from any language into English.
Winner: People from Bloomington by Budi Darma, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao
This award is 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.
Winner: Heartbreak by Florence Williams
Given for a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research.
Winner: Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm by Dan Charnas
For a distinguished book of general nonfiction published, possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues.
Winner: The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning by Eve Fairbanks
Conferred annually to a living author whose body of work—either written in or translated into English—represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship.
Winner: Vinod Kumar Shukla
Shukla is novelist and poet whose works The Windows in Our House Are Little Door, Once It Flowers, Moonrise From the Green Grass Roof, Blue Is Like Blue have been translated to English from their original Hindi.
Honoring a writer whose transformative work enlightens and inspires audiences in the tradition of venerated comedian and filmmaker Mike Nichols.
Winner: Tina Fey
Fey is an award-winning actress, writer, and producer, most famous for her portrayal of Liz Lemon on the hit series 30 Rock. Bossypants, her first book, reached #1 on the New York Times best seller list. She has worked on other popular shows like Saturday Night Live and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Fey is currently working on a film adaptation of the Broadway hit Mean Girls: the Musical, itself adapted from Fey's 2004 film.
This year, PEN America awarded over 40 writers and $350,000 in prize money. You can see their full list of award, recognitions, honors and grants and learn more about the awards and judging process at their website.