Dear Literary Prizes, Don’t Honor That Wall

On Tuesday morning, this tweet flashed across the wide and lonely social-media landscape:

This new PEN award, named for Robert J. Dau, is different from the other two PEN American projects currently open for submissions.

The PEN submittable lists three current awards: 1) The aforementioned emerging-writer prize that ElectricLit calls big news; 2) a  2017 PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship; and 2) the 2017 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants that have twice (one, two) been featured on ArabLit this summer, in part because the prize needs more diverse submissions.

The PEN/Heim Translation Grant may have its flaws. But one notable un-flaw is that, “There are no restrictions on the nationality or citizenship of the translator[.]”

The Phyllis Naylor award rules don’t explicitly announce their openness to world authors, but there’s no mention of any citizenship or residency requirement, either. Only that, “The writer’s previous book(s) must be published by a U.S. trade publisher (not self-published).”

So it is disappointing to see that the new 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers has this caveat: “Authors must be either U.S. citizens and/or permanent U.S. residents.”

Certainly, you might say, this is PEN American‘s prize, and PEN Nigeria can take care of rewarding Nigerian authors, and just so with PEN Philippines and PEN Belize and PEN Antigua and PEN Stateless. There are prizes for Minnesotan authors, after all, and no one expects Iowans to be eligible. If Iowa doesn’t fund the arts to the same degree, then, well, Iowa should fix that.

That’s an argument.

US-writers-only awards implies a sort of literary protectionism. And sure, there’s a (good) argument to be made in markets that might be overwhelmed by larger and more assertive neighbors, as Canadian prizes and magazines often make sure there is space for Canadian authors. The Griffin Prize, for instance, has both a Canadian and an International track. Some UK writers were apparently “less than thrilled” when restrictions on a Booker Prize nominee’s nationality were lifted in 2013. But UK writers still have a fairly priveleged position in the literary world, at least as far as that can be said for any creative writer.

But anyway, for US-based prizes, there’s another argument: Literary prizes — far from honoring the hyper-militarized borders that choke our century and raise up fresh xenophobias — should violate these imaginary lines. Opt out. Sneer at them. Scoff at them. Ignore them, whenever possible. Create a different vocabulary, a different grammar of belonging.

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