Winners of the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards Announced

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Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

The winners of the 2021 PEN America Literary Awards were announced in their first-ever online ceremony since the Awards began 57 years ago. It was hosted by Kara Young and featured many guest appearances, including Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis. In total, $380,000 in prizes were awarded to a diverse range of writers, translators, poets, editors, journalists, and others. Although they were not able to host the usual festivities, the online ceremony is available to watch in its entirety on Youtube!

PEN America was founded in 1922, with the intent to “foster international literary fellowship” in the wake of World War I. Originally, PEN stood for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists, but now honors a range of expressions and artists who work with words.

Before reading the winners, you can check out our previous posts about the long list and short list of finalists!

Be Holding: a Poem by Ross Gay cover

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

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: Be Holding: a Poem by Ross Gay

From the judges: “Ross Gay’s Be Holding is nothing short of glorious…a wondrous, profound exploration of how much captured moments in time can mean. “

 Inheritors by Asako Serizawa cover

PEN Open Book Award ($10,000)

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

Winner: Inheritors by Asako Serizawa

From the judges: “The variety of narratives in the Inheritors by Asako Serizawa is nothing short of remarkable…the precision and care with which she writes her sentences and builds her worlds never falters.”

Further News of Defeat: Stories cover

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

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

Winner: Further News of Defeat: Stories by Michael X. Wang

From the judges: “Hilarious and tragic, political and domestic, beautiful and brutal, not in turn but miraculously at the same time…Further News of Defeat is intensely interested in the questions and sorrows and strange jokes of being a human being in the world.”

Sharks in the Time of Saviors cover

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

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

Winner: Sharks in the Time of Saviors: A Novel by Kawai Strong Washburn

From the judges: “A precisely observed, deeply humane novel that marries mythology, social and filial folklore, and the visceral realities of a single Hawaiian family teetering between poverty and comfort, disconnection and profound kinship.”

Had I Known cover

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

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: Had I Known: Collected Essays by Barbara Ehrenreich

From the judges: “Often prescient, her essays in this latest collection span several decades, explaining how we got to where we are today. A brave and brilliant thinker, she is most remarkable for reminding us how to be human.”

Obit cover

The PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry Collection ($5,000)

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

Winner: Obit by Victoria Chang

From the judges:Obit’s conceptual brilliance is wired with intensity and intimacy. Chang writes about deep personal grief in a way that feels expansive and inviting, never sacrificing intelligence and heart.”

Raised by Wolves cover

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

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

Winner: Raised by Wolves: Poems and Conversations by Amang, translated by Steve Bradbury

From the judges: “In bringing his intriguing dialogues with Amang into the collection, Steve Bradbury not only offers us excellent translations of work from a spirited and deeply skilled contemporary poet, but also positions the act of translation as one of discovery.”

A Country for Dying cover

PEN Translation Prize ($3,000)

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

Winner: A Country for Dying: A Novel by Abdellah Taïa, translated by Emma Ramadan

From the judges: “Ramadan renders each character’s quest for identity — trans, female, gay, black — with a sympathetic ear, beautifully translating the unsung voices emerging from the French colonial wreckage.”

Owls of the Eastern Ice cover

PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award ($10,000)

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: Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght

From the judges: “This is a compelling book that deftly weaves the cultural challenges of field research, and the entangled worlds of humans, technology, and nature with novelistic dexterity.”

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments cover

PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000)

For a distinguished book of general nonfiction published in 2019 or 2020, possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective that illuminates important contemporary issues.

Winner: Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman

From the judges: “Hartman brings these women to life with grace and intelligence…a triumphant, compelling, utterly original work of scholarship. It is a bold, beautiful experiment.”

Stranger in the Shotgun City cover


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

Winner: Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World by Amy Stanley

From the judges: “This is an inspiring book both in content and form…a work of great literary excellence as well as a compelling new history of life in 19th century Japan.”

Check out the winners announcement, including the judges’ full statements on each of the winners!

PEN America has more than 7,500 members across the country, and they fight for freedom of expression. You can learn more about them and check out their literary programs and free expressions programs at their website.