Video: Tina Fey, Erika Dickerson-Despenza & More Honored at 2023 PEN America Literary Awards

The night’s top honor, the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Award, went to prolific genre-defying author Percival Everett, for Dr. No.

By: Mar. 03, 2023

Comedy legend Tina Fey was honored last night at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards, a celebration of literary excellence hosted by actor, author, and former Obama White House aide Kal Penn at New York's The Town Hall. Fey was one of three luminaries-alongside titan of Hindi literature Vinod Kumar Shukla and acclaimed playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza-recognized with career achievement awards in a ceremony that also conferred 11 awards to writers and translators of the past year's most exemplary works-totalling $350,000 in prizes. The night's top honor, the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Award, went to prolific genre-defying author Percival Everett, for Dr. No. (See below for a full list of book award winners.)

Watch the event below!

Longtime collaborator Rachel Dratch presented the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award to Fey and joked, "Tina, I will say this. If I had one wish for you tonight, it would be that you had written this speech I am giving in your honor. It would be far wittier and, let's face it, your speech would probably be turned into a Broadway play that could then become a movie that could in turn be a musical and then a movie musical and then back into a Broadway play and then into an avant garde performance piece downtown. If Tina wrote this speech about herself it would...make you laugh out loud, it would include some sort of social satire, probably with a feminist bent that would make you say YES! LADY POWER!! But nothing cringey, you would be belly-laughing and maybe not even realize you had learned something about society along the way."

Tina Fey continued her three-decade streak of making audiences laugh, saying, in her acceptance speech, "As a 52-year-old woman who's been living in New York and writing comedy for 30 years, there aren't too many rooms anymore where I feel like a charlatan and a failure, but we found one! It's tonight!...I am vibrating with the energy of a person who's afraid that the next thing she says will reveal her idiocy!...It's a pleasure to be here accepting an award named after the great Mike Nichols. It's such an honor to be associated with his name in any way. You could have called this award the 'Bitch, You Are No Mike Nichols Award' and I still would have gladly shown up and accepted it just to have my name in proximity with his career."

Kal Penn, whose inviting style was reminiscent of his by-turns hilarious, candid, and politically engaged 2021 memoir You Can't Be Serious, began his opening monologue, "This year's PEN America awards are particularly auspicious. It's PEN America's 100th anniversary, so it was particularly important that they find a host who embodies this organization's values. When they couldn't get one, they just went with someone who had 'pen' in their name." His speech took a more serious tone, touching on PEN America's documentation of "more than 2,500 instances of books being banned throughout the past school year." He took a moment to thank the audience for "standing with all the courageous librarians and teachers out there who are fighting for their students and for all the young people who are standing up for their rights in the face of campaigns to stifle their education. He added, "For all the authors who have had their books banned, the world sees your fight, and stands with you."

Celebrated choreographer and actor Adesola Osakalumi, who movement-directed the production of Erika Dickerson-Despenza's cullud wattah at The Public Theater, introduced Dickerson-Despenza, recipient of the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award, honoring a mid-career playwright with an outstanding voice. Lizan Mitchell took the stage to perform a monologue from Dickerson-Despenza's latest work, shadow/land, which will have its world premiere at The Public Theater in April 2023 (featuring Mitchell), beginning the playwright's 10-play Katrina Cycle. Dickerson-Despenza, who Osakalumi described as "an artist of both great courage and immense imagination," said, "My becoming begins with my ancestors...,the healers, griots, and keepers of the truth who passed down the word like a weapon, like a whisper. My becoming begins with dangerous word work, the archive of which will be the measure of my life. I am grateful to live my life in the continuum of Black women."

Percival Everett, an author who "has regularly exploded our models of genre and identity" (The New Yorker) accepted the PEN/Jean Stein Award, saying, "I don't go out much, and for an old horseman this is kind of tough. I'd like to thank PEN for all they do - it's an amazing organization. For the last 30 years I've had one agent [who] told me when we first started working together, 'you're never going to make me any money, so just write what you want to write. It was perhaps not well-advised, but I did." Backstage, he added, "It's nice to have the work recognized. It'd be nice to win an award every week. From PEN, it means a lot. The person who really means the most in all this is my wife, Danzy Senna. Without her, I wouldn't write anything."

Poet, writer, curator, organizer, and Lincoln Center's inaugural poet-in-residence Mahogany L. Browne presented the PEN/Voelcker Award For Poetry Collection, and in her introductory speech celebrated poets as "alchemists" and "soothsayers." Robin Coste Lewis accepted the award for To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness, saying, "My book is an attempt to decolonize time. It includes 179 photographs of my grandmother's that I found in South Central Los Angeles 25 years ago. But the thing is that whenever you say 'poetry/Black woman/Black grandmother/photograph/South Central,' people wax into some sentimentality I still don't understand. So let me offer a corrective that my book is not about the Great Migration, up-from-your-bootstraps Negroes, my book is about how in the hell did anyone convince us that 400 centuries was enough for us. That's what my book is about. And it's also about the legacy we owe to greater migrations across time of human beings and the role Black people have played in human evolution."

Florence Williams, winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Award for Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey agreed with a suggestion that her book serves as a "guide post" by broadly defining the word to help anyone who is suffering. She said her research "helped [her] to understand the ways we all suffer together and that as humans we are deeply wired for attachment." In Heartbreak, Williams wrote about her road back from divorce by combining a personal narrative as she investigated the scientific basis of loss.

PEN America President Ayad Akhtar, the playwright and novelist, turned in his speech from this year's "moving and groundbreaking works" to discuss what's at stake for the written word, and remind audiences of PEN America's critical role in defending free expression. "For the past 100 years, we've worked to defend the rights of writers to imagine, and speak, to create freely. As we look ahead to the next hundred years, our mission is fueled by new urgency. Alarming attempts to use the power of the state to ban ideas, and the books that contain them, have proliferated in this country, and we are also battling a dwindling space of civil exchange - and a growing belief on all sides of the political spectrum, that the harms of speech hold an equal or even greater claim on us than the freedom to speak."

With musical direction by Ulysses Owens Jr., Solea Pfeiffer, star of the original Broadway production of Almost Famous, opened the ceremony with a rousing rendition of "Feeling Good"; Bobby Conte, from Broadway's recent revival of Company, performed Tina Turner's "The Best" for a moving in memoriam tribute to figures the literary world lost last year. Liisi LaFontaine, star of the West End production of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, concluded the evening with a showstopping rendition of Beyoncé's "Love on Top."

Book Award Winners

PEN/Jean Stein Award: Percival Everett, Dr. No.
PEN Open Book Award: The Black Period, Hafizah Augustus Geter
PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection: Night of the Living Rez, Morgan Talty
PEN/Hemingway Award For Debut Novel: Calling for a Blanket Dance, Oscar Hokeah
PEN/Voelcker Award For Poetry Collection: To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness, Robin Coste Lewis
PEN Award for Poetry in Translation: Daniel Borzutzky, for the translation of Paula Ilabaca Nuñez's The Loose Pearl
PEN Translation Prize: Tiffany Tsao, for the translation of Budi Darma's People from Bloomington
PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay: A Left Handed Woman, Judith Thurman
PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award: Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, Florence Williams
PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award For Biography: Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, Dan Charnas
PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction: The Inheritors: An Intimate Portrait of South Africa's Racial Reckoning, Eve Fairbanks

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at


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