What to Read When You’re a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize Winner


The PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers recognizes twelve emerging fiction writers each year for their debut short story published in a literary magazine or cultural website last year and aims to support the launch of their careers as fiction writers.

Each of the twelve winning writers receives a cash prize of $2,000 and the independent book publisher Catapult publishes the twelve winning stories in an annual anthology entitled Best Debut Short Stories: The PEN America Dau Prize, which will acknowledge the literary magazines and websites where the stories were originally published. Head here for additional information, including submission guidelines, for the award.

Below, 2020 winners share books that have inspired them in their journeys as writers and/or have helped to shape the work they do. Best Debut Short Stories 2020 is out now from Catapult, and you can read editor Yuka Igarashi’s introduction here.


Kristen Sahaana Surya recommends:

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
I love darkness in stories, even in their most commercial (and often exploitative) forms—I vividly remember bingeing the Investigation Discovery channel when it was still new, and I’m a big fan of subreddits like r/nosleep. Any story that can merge art with darkness always has my heart, and Ogawa’s collection is breathless, seamless, and viscerally dark. I have always struggled with the short form—novels feel more natural to me; you have more space to create a sense of wholeness—so what really hit me about this collection was not just the “BAM!” haunting imagery that’s in each piece but also the way that Ogawa weaves all of it together, the cohesion, the way everything blends. I also really love prose that sits comfortably in a poetic space; even for someone reading her work in translation, she puts melody on the page.

Read Kristen’s award-winning story here at The Rumpus!


Ani Cooney recommends:

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
When I first read this brilliant collection by Lysley Tenorio, I found every story indelible and true to what I’ve seen and lived in my Filipino upbringing. I admire the humor, the queerness, the absurdities, and the poignancy that Tenorio weaves into these stories. This book is a gem to me: as a queer Filipino writer, I find it so rare to see a reflection of myself in stories. I see myself, and more, in the beauty and complexity of Monstress.


David Kelly Lawrence recommends:

Picture by Lillian Ross
Picture, by Lillian Ross, is a piece of reportage that feels like a novel, about a movie that is not as good as the book it is based on, which in turn is not as good as Picture, by Lillian Ross.


Mohit Manohar recommends:

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
I first read The God of Small Things when I was fifteen and have returned to it many times since. The book does nothing short of reinvent English for its own purpose. The novel does not unfold in a linear fashion; instead it has an architectural layout: the reader enters a room—be it the mind of a character or a description of the changing seasons—and is gently let into another. Only after one has passed through all the rooms is the shape of the house—the novel—apparent. Yet at no point does Arundhati Roy sacrifice emotional intensity to pyrotechnics. The God of Small Things not only tells a great and moving story about childhood, love, class, caste, and how “things can change in a day,” but is also a meditation on how to tell a story, any story. When I write, I often keep a copy near me, like a talisman.


Valerie Hegarty recommends:

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard
I’m currently rereading The Poetics of Space by the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard in which he applies phenomenology to architecture. Bachelard focuses on the personal and emotional response to buildings both in life and in literary works, considering spaces such as the attic, the cellar, and drawers. I was led back to this writing as I am working on a series of sculptures that involve reconstructing fragments of a domestic interior with more phantasmagorical elements based on journal entries I have been writing since the beginning of the pandemic.


Kikuko Tsumura recommends:

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G. K. Chesterton
I don’t believe in God, but the challenges faced by Gabriel Syme, the main character in this novel, nonetheless resonate very strongly with me. The portrayal of Syme as he is led so thoroughly around the houses in his battle with a secret anarchist council, dragging himself onwards through his fear, teaming up with others in the attempt to overcome the difficulties facing him, is really a portrait of every one of us. I don’t think I’ve read another book with such a diverting plotline. I think of this book as a standard to aspire to when I’m writing.


Willa C. Richards recommends:

State of Grace by Joy Williams
This book found its way to me at a crucial time; art can be beautifully serendipitous like that. I remember reading the opening paragraph while weathering a snowstorm in a cabin in New Hampshire. By the end of the first page I was completely immersed. I awoke from Williams’s narrative dream some weeks later in awe and I was equally parts destroyed and inspired when I found out it was her debut novel. I loved the dark, swampy, gothic settings, the inscrutability of her characters (especially Kate, who is fantastically bizarre), the difficult circuitousness of the plot, and the large and unruly messiness of the book altogether. To borrow an Anne Carson phrase, this is a book that “refuses to be cooked.” It requires a great deal of the reader (or at least it required a lot from me), but the work is wholly worthwhile. I was most profoundly struck by Williams’s stunning language—her sentences are lyrical and haunted and unexpected—and the way these sentences embed horror into the novel’s backbone. Everything in this book unsettles me: Kate’s disturbing childhood, her incestual and predatory father, her ill-fated friend Corinthian and his derelict zoo, the disassociated recollections of sorority rites and rituals, Kate and Grady’s meager existence in their airstream in the swamp, car crashes, fatal injuries, wild animal pageants gone awry, maulings, white mobs, and murder. State of Grace forced me to reconsider what I thought I knew about the novel as a form, which was exactly what I needed when I first encountered the book.


Sena Moon recommends:

Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy
We let some parts of ourselves shape us. Finding the self beyond what others prescribe it to be is hard enough, but going beyond what you perceive as you is a herculean task. This book maps some of that journey. Honestly, I’d recommend reading it just for its artful prose—you can tell the author is a poet.


Damitri Martinez recommends:

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Many coming out stories are jagged-edged and mournful. And while Sáenz does incorporate the emotional frustrations of discovering one’s sexuality, he offers something different by working to humanize young Mexican American boys and men; he gives them permission to turn inward and explore feelings they’ve not always been encouraged to have. His characters are daringly tender and courageously curious about their emotional needs and differences. This is a powerful, sweet book that has made a much-needed space for more stories to be told about Mexican American queer identities. Most importantly, it reminds us that it doesn’t matter how you learned to play—love is anyone’s game.


Mbozi Haimbe recommends:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
If a book draws you in and grips you tight, speaks to you and recognizes you, if you see yourself in the story and experience the protagonist’s grief and triumph as your own, then that book transcends paper and ink, surely becoming a small part of you. This is the reason I chose I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as the book that inspires me most.


Matthew Jeffrey Vegari recommends:

Enigma Variations by André Aciman
Never have I read a book that so precisely captures the competing, permeable emotions we experience in our attraction to others. Aciman reveals how these emotions change as we age, how love can manifest as lust and jealousy and melancholy, sometimes all at once. He is an expert in observing our vulnerabilities—and, most obviously, he is a writer of beautiful prose.


Shannon Sanders recommends:

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
I love stories about siblings—the secret languages, the long-held grudges, the commonality of experience that inevitably fractures. I try to do in my stories what Patchett does brilliantly in Commonwealth: depict the events that shape a family’s history, then describe the consequences that ripple outward. This book is full of beautiful scenes and sensory details (just thinking about it, I can smell the California oranges from the opening chapter). It’s a masterclass in storytelling.


And to close out this wonderful list, we just had to include Best Debut Short Stories 2020: The Pen America Dau Prize, out now from Catapult! – Ed.

 Best Debut Short Stories: The PEN America Dau Prize edited by Yuka Igarashi
Who are the most promising short story writers working today? Where do we look to discover the future stars of literary fiction? This book will offer a dozen compelling answers to these questions. The stories collected here represent the most recent winners of the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers, which recognizes twelve writers who have made outstanding debuts in literary magazines in the previous year. They are chosen by a panel of distinguished judges, themselves innovators of the short story form: Tracy O’Neill, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Deb Olin Unferth. Each piece comes with an introduction by its original editors, whose commentaries provide valuable insight into what magazines are looking for in their submissions, and showcase the vital work they do to nurture literature’s newest voices.