The 2017 PEN America Center Literary Awards evening touted a marvelous array of African and African-American authors among the writers recognized at this year’s gala. Celebrated at the New School’s glamorous John L. Tishman Auditorium on March 27, the winners reflect the complex tapestry of the African diaspora. The awards’ final night came with some surprises. Nigerian-American Teju Cole was expected to but did not receive the top prize: a $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for his essay collection Known and Strange Things. Ghanaian-American Yaa Gyasi’s sweeping African and American slavery narrative Homegoing was favored to win the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.
However, the $25,000 Debut Fiction award went to African-American Rion Amilcar Scott’s story collection, Insurrections. This quietly-received University of Kentucky Press volume showcases the newcomer’s fiction in such publications as the Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International, the Washington City Paper, The Toast, and Confrontation. This same night, veteran African-American playwright Susan Lori-Parks enjoyed a surprise performance of a scene from her Broadway play Topdog/Underdog. She accepted the $2,500 Master American Dramatist honor as one of three PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater awards, first announced on February 22. Parks’ daring storylines and theatrical style subvert traditional dramatic conventions in her accomplished body of politically-charged work.
Her legacy paved the way for such new dramatists as Tarell Alvin McCraney, a sensation fresh off a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award win for Moonlight, the film version of one of his early plays. The Yale School of Drama professor won the Pels Award for American Playwright in Mid-Career. McCraney selflessly views his work as being for the good of others, and dedicated his Academy Award to “all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don’t see themselves.” At the March 27th festivities, McCraney announced he would donate his $7,500 PEN America cash prize to help other black writers.
Thomas Bradshaw rounds out a trio of African-American playwrights for PEN America’s drama awards. The Northwestern University theater professor was named the Pels award Emerging American Playwright. The conferring judges summarized Bradshaw’s early body of work as “electrifying.” It includes the plays Purity, Prophet and Strom Thurmond Is Not a Racist. Like McCraney, Bradshaw’s emergence expands his offerings to film and television, with a current TV series in development for Harpo and HBO.
Other African authors relaxed in their high-profile commendations after PEN America’s initial February 22 awards announcements. British-Nigerian author Helen Oyeyemi, known for her novels, received the $5,000 PEN Open Book Award for a recently-published book by a person of color. The judges cited her story collection What is Not Yours Is Not Yours because it “mimics, questions, rearranges, and transforms whatever we might think real life is.” In 2005 Oyeyemi burst onto the global publishing scene with The Icarus Girl, a novel she wrote at the age of 21.
Much is on the horizon for Nigerian-American Angela Ajayi and Nigerian-Brit Grace Oluseyi, two of twelve writers to receive The PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. The $2,000 recognition encourages writers who achieve their first story publication in the prior year. In 2016, Ajayi’s “Galina” appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal and Oluseyi’s “A Modern Marriage” debuted in Boston Review. PEN America’s diverse awarding signals increased opportunities for African and African-American writers to magnify their gifts within mainstream arts and culture.