Hisham Matar, Adonis Big Winners at 2017 PEN America Literary Awards

PEN America’s 2017 awards were announced last night in a ceremony Publishers Weekly called “scaled up” and “political,” and which PEN said they imagined as a “celebration of literature on par with awards shows for other art forms”:

Photo courtesy PEN America.

The headlining first-ever PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, worth $75,000, went to Hisham Matar for his brilliant The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Lands In Between (review, essay) in what PEN America’s news release calls a “dramatic live announcement.”

Other awards announced live on Monday night included the new PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, which went to the Syrian poet Adonis, who PEN America called somewhat reductively in their news release “the greatest living poet of the Arab world.”

Adonis, we know from Denys Johnson-Davies’ memoir, was mentioned as a possibility for the Nobel Prize for Literature as early as 1988, when the prize went to Naguib Mahfouz. The Syrian poet — whose work was at the vanguard of the great shifts in Arabic poetry of the mid 20th century — has been mentioned off and on as a finalist for the Nobel ever since, although his political statements have sometimes complicated the reception of his work.

The new PEN/Nabokov Award was given for a body of work “of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship.” As its winner, Adonis receives a $50,000 prize.

Translator Elisabeth Jaquette also got a shoutout at the awards ceremony as one of the PEN/HEIM grantees for 2017, awarded for translation-in-progress of Sudanese writer Rania Mamoun’s Thirteen Months of Sunrises.

The fancied-up ceremony was hosted by former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, and its theme was “Books Across Borders.”