They’re the most prestigious awards in America, not just for journalists, but historians, poets, playwrights, non-fiction writers, composers and novelists.
Novelist Joshua Cohen won his first fiction Pulitzer for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. A winner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award, it was described by the Pulitzer committee as “a mordant, linguistically deft historical novel about the ambiguities of the Jewish-American experience, presenting ideas and disputes as volatile as its tightly-wound plot.”
In the category of drama, James Ijames won for Fat Ham, a comedy earning rave reviews during its staging at the Wilma Theater in the playwright’s hometown of Philadelphia. Fat Ham opens very soon at New York’s Public Theater. It’s based on a play you may have heard of — Hamlet by William Shakespeare — but set at a southern barbecue restaurant. In a review last year, The New York Times described Fat Ham as “hilarious yet profound,” adding “it is the rare takeoff that actually takes off — and then flies in its own smart direction.”
The Pulitzer for nonfiction went to Andrea Elliott for Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. “The invisible child of the title is Dasani Coates,” wrote NPR critic Erika Taylor in her review of the book last year. Dasani was eleven years old, living with her parents and seven siblings in one of New York City’s shelters for families experiencing homelessness when she met the book’s author, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter who followed Coates and her family for eight years. She tracks what Taylor calls “a stunning array of heartrending tragedies and remarkable triumphs.”
Two prizes were given to historians, who happen to work in the same department at New York University. Ada Ferrer wrote Cuba: An American History, described by the Pulitzer committee as “original and compelling … spanning five centuries, of the island that became an obsession for many presidents and policy makers. ” And Nicole Eustace authored Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America. It is, the committee said, “a gripping account of Indigenous justice in early America, and how the aftermath of a settler’s murder led to the oldest continuously recognized treaty in the United States.”
Diane Seuss won the Pulitzer in poetry for frank: sonnets. The award racks up yet another win for small but mighty Graywolf Press, a Pulitzer powerhouse. Seuss is a celebrated Midwestern poet trained as a social worker; this book was described by the committee as “a virtuosic collection that inventively expands the sonnet form to confront the messy contradictions of contemporary America, including the beauty and the difficulty of working-class life in the Rust Belt. “
In the biography category, the late artist Winfred Rembert won the Pulitzer along with his collaborator Erin I. Kelly for Chasing Me To My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir Of The Jim Crow South.
“He didn’t want to tell his story for a long time,” the artist’s wife Patsy Rembert told NPR in this story from August 2021. “He would talk to me, and he said, ‘No one’s going to believe me.’ But we got some of this stuff documented. And I feel like him telling his story — he’s telling a story about a lot of — more Black people who endured these things, who didn’t have a voice, who couldn’t find a safe refuge to talk about it. Even today, some people won’t mention what happened to them or what they saw. A lot of things went on in the South that never reached the papers. No one wants to talk about it, but they happen. These things happen.”
And Raven Chacon’s Voiceless Mass, which premiered in Milwaukee, Wis., in November 2021, is this year’s Pulitzer winner for music.
The committee calls the work “a mesmerizing, original work for organ and ensemble that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with a haunting visceral impact.”
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This year’s Pulitzer Prizes for arts and letters were announced today. The honors went to a wide range of creators and authors. NPR’s culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas gives us the rundown.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: There are seven categories for the performing arts and books at the Pulitzers. This year’s prizes included a rare double win in the history category, in two titles that explore very different facets of America’s past. Nicole Eustace won for her book, “Covered With Night: A Story Of Murder And Indigenous Justice In Early America.” Ada Ferrer’s book is “Cuba: An American History.”
The winner for biography was “Chasing Me To My Grave” by Winfred Rembert, as told to Erin I. Kelly. In this memoir, the late leatherwork artist from Georgia recalled being arrested after fleeing a demonstration, escaping a lynching and spending seven years on chain gangs.
The general nonfiction award went to Andrea Elliott’s “Invisible Child.” For almost 10 years, Elliott followed the story of a young girl and her family as they grappled with homelessness. In an interview with Here And Now last October, Elliott, a two-time-Pulitzer winner, described the girl at the center of her story.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ANDREA ELLIOTT: From the very beginning, I felt just so drawn to Dasani because of her ability to articulate not only the injustice of her life, of being – living in this way, in this mouse-infested shelter, and being forced to wake up every morning in these conditions, but then also the promise of her life.
TSIOULCAS: The drama prize was given to “Fat Ham” by James Ijames, a reworking of “Hamlet” with a queer Black Southern college kid at its center. “Fat Ham” begins its official run in New York later this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, “FAT HAM”)
BRENNEN S MALONE: (As Juicy) I think my uncle had my father killed.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You got a new daddy.
MALONE: (As Juicy) And now my father wants me to kill my uncle.
TAYSHA MARIE CANALES: (As Opal) Man, you ain’t going to kill nobody.
MALONE: (As Juicy) I could.
TSIOULCAS: In the fiction category, author Joshua Cohen won for his novel “The Netanyahus,” which is subtitled “An Account Of A Minor And Ultimately Even Negligible Episode In The History Of A Very Famous Family.” And poet Diane Seuss won for her collection entitled “Frank: Sonnets.” In an interview in March 2021 with Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich., Seuss described how she’d settled on the sonnet as her form of choice.
DIANE SEUSS: It allows me to think through ideas of what memory is and how we remember and what is worth remembering and the strangeness of what we remember.
TSIOULCAS: And the Indigenous Dine composer Raven Chacon won for his “Voiceless Mass,” a work scored for pipe organ and ensemble.
Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE’S “WANT SOMETHING DONE”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.