WASHINGTON, DC—Chloe Aridjis’ Sea Monsters (Catapult) has been selected as the winner of the 2020 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
“In these extraordinary times, the written word has never been so important or healing,” said Louis Bayard, PEN/Faulkner Awards Committee Chair. “Sea Monsters, along with our other four finalists, exemplifies the richness, artistry, and diversity of the American literary landscape.”
This year’s judges—Patricia Engel, Ru Freeman, and Porochista Khakpour—considered more than 400 novels and short story collections by American authors published in the US during the 2019 calendar year. Submissions came from more than 160 publishing houses, including small and academic presses. There is no fee for a publisher to submit.
“It is one thing to have a guideline to choose ‘a first among equals’ and another to have to actually accomplish it,” said this year’s judges in a prepared statement. “We did our work in full knowledge that our own long association with the publishing world as critics, writers, and readers should permit us to put our own distinctive stamp on the awarding of this prize and serve to expand its impact. The responsibility of anointing one book meant, therefore, having long and illuminating discussions around the fact that equality contains two significant words, ‘equal’ and ‘quality,’ and to wrestle with both simultaneously. Our strenuous advocacy for a first-ever long-list stemmed from our commitment to elevate the ten exceptional books and their creators whose enormous talents belong in the often insular North American literary tradition. Each of our five finalists deserves the prize for the ways they opened new veins of investigation in terms of craft, theme, and voice. Each book moved and inspired us deeply and is a cause for celebration. It is a testament to the fairness of this process that we explored every possible reason to award the prize to each of these writers before choosing our winner: Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis. Set against spectacular Oaxacan landscapes and full of surrealist possibilities, Sea Monsters is a stunning exploration of the ways its brilliant teenage narrator’s interior and exterior worlds are both fluid and in opposition. This dreamlike near-fable of equal parts philosophical and intellectual vigor is a book unlike any other; a true standout and a gift for these times in which we are all craving escape.”
Chloe Aridjis is a Mexican American writer who grew up in the Netherlands and Mexico. She is the author of three novels: Book of Clouds, which won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France; Asunder, set in London’s National Gallery; and Sea Monsters. Chloe completed a PhD at Oxford in nineteenth-century French poetry and magic shows and was guest curator of the Leonora Carrington exhibition at Tate Liverpool. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014 and the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writers Award for 2020. Chloe is a member of XR Writers Rebel, a group of writers who focus on addressing the climate emergency. She lives in London, where she often writes for art journals.
“I feel deeply honored, grateful, and overwhelmed to receive this news, which arrives at a moment of strange, unfamiliar isolation from the outside world,” said Aridjis. “I have been carrying this story with me for 30 years, ever since living it, and never in my wildest dreams would have expected it to join such splendid company. Sea Monsters is at heart a novel about transformation, and my most fervent wish at present is that when humanity emerges from this crisis, we do so transformed, with a greater appreciation of one another, and of other species, and with a vast sense of renewal.”
The PEN/Faulkner Award is America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction. As the author of the winning book, Aridjis will receive a $15,000 prize. The authors of each of the other finalists—Yiyun Li, for Where Reasons End; Peter Rock, for The Night Swimmers; Maurice Carlos Ruffin, for We Cast a Shadow; and Ocean Vuong, for On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous—will receive $5,000. Recent winners include Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi; Improvement by Joan Silber; Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue; Delicious Foods by James Hannaham; Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish; and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
All five books and their authors will be honored in a 40th Anniversary PEN/Faulkner Award Celebration tribute video that will be released on Monday, May 4. The video will include citations from our 2020 judges and appearances by all five finalist authors. Those who are interested in viewing our virtual celebration can join the organization’s email list to be notified when the video makes its debut.
ABOUT OUR 2020 JUDGES
Patricia Engel is the author of The Veins of the Ocean, winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, winner of the International Latino Book Award; and Vida, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and Young Lions Fiction Awards and winner of Colombia’s national prize in literature, the Premio Biblioteca de Narrativa Colombiana. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her stories have been anthologized in The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and elsewhere.
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan and American writer, poet, and activist whose work appears internationally in English and in translation. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), a New York Times Editor’s Choice Book. She is the editor of the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine (2015) and co-editor of Indivisible: Global Leaders on Shared Security (2018). She writes for the UK Guardian, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe and blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review and is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Lannan Foundation. She is a winner of the Mariella Gable Award for Fiction and the JH Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University.
Porochista Khakpour is an Iranian American novelist, essayist, and writer. Her debut novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic, 2007) was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, one of Chicago Tribune‘s Fall’s Best, and the 2007 California Book Award winner in the “First Fiction” category. Her second novel The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014) was a 2014 “Best Book of the Year” according to NPR, Kirkus, Buzzfeed, Popmatters, Electric Literature, and many more. Among her many fellowships is a National Endowment for the Arts award. Her nonfiction has appeared in many sections of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Elle, Slate, Salon, and Bookforum, among many others. She has also written the memoir SICK (Harper Perennial, 2018); and the collection of essays Brown Album (Vintage, 2019). Her work has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. Her third novel, Tehrangeles, will be
published by Knopf Doubleday in 2020. Born in Tehran and raised in the Los Angeles area, she lives in New York City’s Harlem.
ABOUT THE PEN/FAULKNER FOUNDATION
The PEN/Faulkner Foundation celebrates literature and fosters connections between readers and writers to enrich and inspire both individuals and communities. We achieve that mission in three ways. We administer the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story to help call the world’s attention to literary achievements. We bring authors and free books into under-resourced DC public and public charter school classrooms to inspire the next generation of readers and writers. And we curate an annual series of Literary Conversations centered around the work of accomplished authors that are designed to inspire public discourse about deeply relevant subjects.