Toronto poet M. NourbeSe Philip awarded $66K PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature

The playwright, fiction writer and essayist was recognized by PEN America for her four decades of merging "vital formal experimentation and considerations of race, gender, colonialism and African Diasporic identity."
M. NourbeSe Philip is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and playwright. (Gail Nyoka)

Toronto writer M. NourbeSe Philip has been announced as the 2020 recipient of the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature. 

The $50,000 U.S. ($66,445 Cdn) award honours a writer whose body of work shows "enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship."

Philip is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and playwright whose writing explores the linguistic, political and social legacies of oppression through history to present-day.

"M. NourbeSe Philip's writing has, for four decades, merged vital formal experimentation and considerations of race, gender, colonialism and African diasporic identity," said PEN America, which administers the prize, in a press release.

Philip was born in Tobago and moved to Canada to study political science and law at the University of Western Ontario. She worked as a lawyer in Toronto while writing her early poetry, publishing her first collections in the 1980s — Thorns, Salmon Courage and She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks.

Her most recent poetry collection is Zong!. The book is named for a slave ship from November 1781 on which 150 Africans were drowned on captain's orders so the ship's owners could collect insurance money. Philip examined the legal text from the case to create a collection that mourns, sings, chants and curses.

Philip released her debut novel, Harriet's Daughterin 1988. The award-nominated book tells the coming-of-age story of a 14-year-old girl in Canada who idolizes Harriet Tubman.

Blank is a collection of Philip's previously out-of-print essays and new works. The book explores questions of race, cultural appropriation, America under the Trump administration and how we define multiculturalism in Canada.

The PEN/Nabokov award jury panel included Alexis Okeowo, George Elliott Clarke, Hari Kunzru, Lila Azam Zanganeh and Viet Thanh Nguyen.

British playwright Tom Stoppard is the 2020 recipient of the $25,000 PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award for Leopoldstadt, a work set in the Jewish quarter of early 20th century Vienna that the 82-year-old Stoppard has said may be his last play.

    Philip and Stoppard will receive their awards on March 2, 2020 at a ceremony in New York. It will be part of the annual PEN American Literary Awards.

    Others receiving prizes will be The Call playwright Tanya Barfield, who will be given the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award, and Rigoberto González, winner of the PEN/Voelcker Award for poetry. Gonzalez's poetry books include Other Fugitives and Other Strangers and Black Blossoms.

    With files from the Associated Press.