2023 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Finalists Announced

Jonathan Escoffery, Kathryn Harlan, Dionne Irving, Yiyun Li, and Laura Warrell make up the short list of finalists for the 2023 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

The 2023 PEN/Faulkner finalists were announced Tuesday.

The Penn/Faulkner Award for Fiction is a prestigious literary prize awarded annually to the best work of fiction published by an American author in the previous year. The award was founded in 1980 by the writers’ organization PEN (now known as PEN America) and named after William Faulkner, who was a PEN member.

The award is unique in that it is juried solely by writers, and the winner receives a cash prize of $15,000. Previous winners include such notable authors as Philip Roth, John Updike, Ann Patchett, Sherman Alexie, and Joan Didion.

The award is intended to recognize excellence in fiction writing and to promote the importance of literature in American culture. It is open to any American author who has published a book of fiction in the previous year, regardless of their nationality or residence.

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery

Topper and Sanya escape their native Kingston due to political violence and move to Miami in the 1970s with their two children. However, they soon realize that America is not the paradise they hoped for, and as Black immigrants, they are excluded from society. Despite facing Hurricane Andrew and the 2008 recession while living in a cursed house where even the pet fish struggles to survive, the family is driven by their intense desire to survive.

Jonathan Escoffery’s debut novel, If I Survive You, presents a series of linked stories centered on Trelawny, the younger son, as he navigates racism, financial disaster, and bad luck. Trelawny struggles to find his place in the world after a fight with Topper but manages to climb out of homelessness through a series of odd jobs. Meanwhile, Delano, his brother, makes a disastrous attempt to get his children back, and Cukie, Trelawny’s cousin, searches for a father who does not want to be found. Each character faces significant challenges in their quest for stability, and the book highlights the dangers of climbing without a safety net. Escoffery’s writing style is vibrant, witty, and engaging, and he masterfully weaves together humor and heart to explore the experiences of those who are caught between cultures and homes in a world dominated by capitalism and whiteness.

Fruiting Bodies by Kathryn Harlan

Fruiting Bodies is a collection of stories that explore the fantastical, gothic, and uncanny experiences of characters on the brink of transformation. Most of the characters are queer women, and the stories touch on themes of discovery, desire, and coming-of-age in times of crisis. The stories are infused with echoes of timeless myths and folklore, as characters navigate through personal and societal upheavals. For instance, in “The Changeling,” two young cousins fear that their new family member might be a dangerous supernatural being. In “Endangered Animals,” a woman prepares to say goodbye to her almost-love while they travel across a country ravaged by climate change. In “Fiddler, Fool, Pair,” an anthropologist is drawn into a magical and perilous gamble, while in the title story, a couple feasts on mushrooms that sprout from one partner’s body until an unwanted male guest disrupts their idyll.

Kathryn Harlan’s Fruiting Bodies is a bold, innovative, and striking work that draws from various literary traditions and establishes the author as an exciting new voice in fiction.

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The Islands by Dionne Irving

The Islands follows the lives of Jamaican women–immigrants or the
descendants of immigrants–who have relocated all over the world to escape the ghosts of colonialism on what they call the Island. The stories are set in Europe, Jamaica, and the United States, and feature a cast of unsettled and uncertain characters. One story sees a couple leave San Francisco for Florida, seeking reinvention but instead finding their marriage in disrepair. Another story features a touring comedienne who is the only Jamaican mother at a prep school and feels pressure to volunteer for International Day. In a third story, a travel writer reconnects with her estranged mother.

Dionne Irving reveals the intricacies of immigration and assimilation in this debut, establishing a new and unforgettable voice in Caribbean-American literature. Restless, displaced, and disconnected, these characters try to ground themselves–to grow where they find themselves planted–in a world in which the tension between what’s said and unsaid can bend the soul.

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li

Fabienne, Agnès’ childhood best friend, has passed away. Agnès, who had been helped by Fabienne to escape their French countryside upbringing ten years ago, receives the news while living in America. As a child in a war-torn rural town, the two friends created a private world, which was disrupted when Fabienne came up with a life-changing plan, leading Agnès on a journey filled with success, tragedy, and heartbreak. The Book of Goose is a captivating narrative that spans from postwar France to Paris, an English boarding school, and a peaceful home in Pennsylvania, where Agnès can start anew.

This poignant book explores themes of friendship, art, exploitation, and memory.

Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell

In 2013, Circus Palmer, a trumpet player from Boston in his forties, is devoted to his music and living a carefree life without any attachments. While preparing for a performance in Miami, he discovers that his drummer and secret love interest, the free-spirited Maggie, is pregnant with his child. Rather than facing the conversation, Circus escapes, triggering a series of revelations from the women in his life. Notably, his teenage daughter Koko, who worships him and is discovering her own sexuality, and her mentally unstable mother who is struggling to recover from a failed marriage and rejection by Circus. Warrell expertly presents a rich tapestry of diverse female voices, telling a gripping, passionate story about risk and passion, fathers and daughters, single women and wives, and ultimately, reconciliation and hope. The novel explores how one can find a sense of belonging when love is unreciprocated.

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