PEN America has given African literature enthusiasts reason to celebrate. Four African authors are among the finalists for the 2017 PEN America Literary Awards. Among them is Nigerian-American Teju Cole, the first writer in the awards’ 54-year history to be nominated twice in one year: for the $10,000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award. Many people consider his nominated collection of 40+ essays, Known and Strange Things, his master work. Cole competes against two African-American men, novelist Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad) and poet Tyehimba Jess (Olio), in what PEN America President Andrew Solomon calls “reaffirming the power of literature to sustain truth in a post-truth world.”
Cole’s astonishing dual nomination reflects, in fact, his commitment to hybridity in his work and life. Speaking with African writer Taiye Selasi in The Guardian, Cole explained: “I’m a bit of a problem for the categorisers, partly because I don’t fight the categories. I’m comfortable being described as Afropolitan, or African, or American, or pan-African. Or Yoruba, or Brooklynite, or black, or Nigerian. Whatever. As long as the labels are numerous.”
In the fiction categories, African women bring narratives of domestic and economic struggles complicated by minority identities. Breakout Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (Knopf/Penguin Random House) will compete for the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Petina Gappah’s wondrously imaginative The Book of Memory (Farrah, Straus, & Giroux) may take home the $5000 PEN Open Book Award. Zimbabwean Gappah is joined in the category by cherished Nigerian-British author Helen Oyeyemi. Oyeyemi’s sixth book and first story collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours (Penguin Random House), is honored with an Open Book nomination.
Most awards will be announced on February 22. However, fans will have to wait until March 27 to find out if Cole wins the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and Gyasi claims the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.