This Wednesday, December 2, I had the great honor of attending PEN USA’s Literary Festival in Los Angeles. The LitFest Awards Banquet at the Beverly Hills Hotel (swanky!) celebrated this year’s winners of Pen USA’s literary awards in 10 categories as well as a lifetime achievement award. I served as a judge in the creative nonfiction category along with writers Barbara Abercrombie and Laura Pritchett.
Here I am at the Festival banquet with writers Edward Farmer and Barbara Abercrombie.
In order to judge the Creative Nonfiction category, Barbara, Laura and I read the 60 nominated books over the summer. All the nominees were strong this year and it was very difficult to winnow the group down to one overall winner and four Honorable Mentions.
Ultimately we decided Steve Lopez deserved the top prize for his book THE SOLOIST. No, it’s NOT like the movie. The book is sooooo much better. I felt that if we had to choose one book out of the 60 to put in a time capsule this would be it as Lopez’s book manages to chronicle all that is good and wrong with our society. If we survive as a nation hundreds of years from now, it is because we have learned to overcome the problems he describes in his book–homelessness, poverty in one of the richest cities in the world, inadequate health care (especially mental health care), the near-demise of our newspapers, and severe financial woes. But Lopez’s book is not grim; it is beautiful and hopeful. He shows that our society IS beautiful, there are many kind people, we have created great institutions of learning and of the arts. We appreciate beauty, kindness, music, friendship. If we don’t survive as a society, we will be missed. Lopez tells this story by writing about his friendship with Julliard-trained cellist, Nathaniel Ayers, whom he finds living on the streets of L.A., without a cello, but still playing music on a violin with two strings.
Here’s a picture of Steve Lopez accepting his award. (I don’t know him personally, but he seems like a genuinely humble and kind man. He’s one crackerjack writer, I do know!)
The Honorable Mentions went to: Rick Bass, WHY I MOVED WEST ( a plea for environmental protection); Mahvish Rukhsana Khan’s MY GUANTANAMO DIARY (amazing, witty, powerful, searing account written by a lawyer who as a law student volunteered to help make sure Gitmo detainees received legal representation—and in some cases, helped to win their freedom when they were found to be completely innocent); John Rechy’s ABOUT MY LIFE AND THE KEPT WOMAN (a beautifully written memoir of the acclaimed writer’s early life as a Mexican American in El Paso…living in an era when it was perfectly legal to discriminate openly against Mexican Americans…and his years spent as a gay hustler in NYC and LA when it was perfectly legal to discriminate against gay men…even arresting them for simply being in a bar together!); and finally Kao Kalia Yang’s moving memoir, THE LATEHOMECOMER, about her family’s journey as Hmong caught up in the aftermath of America’s secret war in Laos, their perilous journey to refugee camps in Thailand and their heartrending separation in America (truly beautiful story!). I highly recommend all five books!!!!
PEN USA is the western branch of PEN International, the nonprofit writers’ group that “works to defend the freedom of writers around the world who’ve been imprisoned or otherwise threatened by their governments.” In the U.S. PEN promotes literacy programs, creative writing programs in public schools, prisons, and other institutions that reach populations that otherwise may not have a voice in the mainstream media. (It’s a really cool group!)
PEN USA specifically is made up of writers who live West of the Mississippi River.
To find out more about PEN USA, please click this link: PEN USA mission statement