Minneapolis writers win PEN America literary awards

Laurie Hertzel, Star Tribune
·2 min read

Two Minneapolis writers have won prestigious PEN America literary awards for their debut books.

Jonathan C. Slaght and Kawai Strong Washburn were honored at a virtual awards ceremony Thursday evening.

Slaght's book, "Owls of the Eastern Ice," a riveting nonfiction account of his five-year mission to locate, band, track and conserve the elusive Blakiston's fish owl in a remote corner of Russia, won the PEN/EO Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, which carries a cash prize of $10,000.

This book "takes people outside, with a capital O," something we need especially now, Slaght said in a video message from his home in Minneapolis. Plus, "there's tigers and bears and owls!" His book, Slaght said, "is a reminder that wild places still exist." His book was also longlisted for a National Book Award.

Washburn's novel "Sharks in the Time of Saviors," a haunting, magical tale of a Hawaiian working-class family touched by the gods, won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel. That award, too, carries a prize of $10,000.

Speaking from his home via video, Washburn — wearing a jaunty bow tie and a small hat — seemed giddy at the news, but then grew serious.

"For me, this was a year of a lot of loss," he said. The pandemic erupted just days after his book was published in March. George Floyd was killed just a few miles from his home in May.

"To be in the middle of all that made for such a difficult year," he said. Receiving the award "is a nice silver lining to what was otherwise a dark year."

Washburn had been longlisted for an unprecedented four PEN America awards and was a finalist for two — the Hemingway Award, and the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which is given to the best book of the year in any genre.

That award went to poet Ross Gay for "Be Holding: A Poem."

Slaght and Washburn are both finalists for Minnesota Book Awards, to be announced April 29.

Other winners Thursday night included "Inheritors," by Asako Serizawa, for the PEN Open Book Award; "Further News of Defeat," by Michael X. Wang, for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut short story collection; "Obit," by Victoria Chang, for the PEN/Voelcker Award for poetry; "Raised by Wolves," by Amang, translated by Steve Bradbury, for the PEN award for poetry in translation; "A Country for Dying," by Abdellah Taia, translated by Emma Ramadan, for the PEN Translation prize; "Had I Known," essays by Barbara Ehrenreich, for the PEN essay award; "Stranger in the Shogun's City," by Amy Stanley, for the PEN biography award, and "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments," by Saidiya Hartman, winner of the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraight Award for nonfiction.

Laurie Hertzel • @StribBooks