Imbolo Mbue is the 2017 winner of the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award for her debut novel, Behold the Dreamers (Random House; PRH Audio/BOT; trade pbk to be published in late May OverDrive Sample). The Faulkner honors a work of literary fiction by an American author and claims to be “the largest peer-juried award in the country,” awarding $15,000 to the winner and $5,000 to each finalist. While some of the awards from the separate PEN America Foundation come with more money, as high as $75,000, the juries include non-writers.
The novel, about an immigrant from Cameroon trying to become a U.S. citizen, set during the recession, got some strong press when it was published an appeared on several best of the year lists, but did not receive the level of recognition that Colson Whitehead did for The Underground Railroad, which won the National Book Award.
It was a People magazine’s “Book of the Week,” described as a “page-turner about race, class and the Wall Street meltdown … Mbue’s writing is warm and captivating, but her message is pointed: American dreams can and do turn into nightmares.”
The Washington Post chief critic, Ron Charles, said that it comes at the right time, as it “illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse.”
The NYT covered it in the Sunday Book Review, calling it “a capacious, big-hearted novel.”
The award was founded in 1980 by Mary Lee Settle who donated her National Book Award prize money to begin the award in support of a group of authors who felt the NBA had become too commercial. The name of the award honors William Faulkner, who similarly donated the money from his 1949 Nobel Award to create the Faulkner Foundation to give awards to authors. It was dissolved in 1970.
When this year’s finalists were announced, Ron Charles praised the selections as being a “sign of new diversity in books,” moving away from a time when “all the stars of American literature seemed to be straight white guys named John.”
The other finalists are:
After Disasters, Viet Dinh (Amazon/Little A)