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Pulitzers look to open books and arts prizes to noncitizens


The Pulitzer Prizes, named for Joseph Pulitzer, an immigrant from Hungary, were founded in 1917 to honor achievements in American letters at a time when Europe was seen as culturally dominant.

The literary and arts awards have long had a strict requirement: The works must be by “American authors,” which the Pulitzers define as U.S. citizens. (The exception is the history prize, which is open to any books about the United States, and the journalism awards, which are open to people of any nationality.)

That is likely to change soon. The Pulitzer board will take up the citizenship rule at its meeting in mid-October, said Marjorie Miller, administrator for the prizes. “There is definitely consensus that citizenship is too restrictive a determination for Americanness,” she said.

Though publishers and writers had raised the issue in the past, Miller said, a few recent events influenced the board’s decision to put citizenship on its agenda. The jury members for the memoir or autobiography prize, awarded for the first time this year (to “Stay True,” by Hua Hsu), noted that during their deliberations to pick three finalists, the citizenship requirement felt too restrictive. Miller also cited an open letter published on LitHub in August, calling on the Pulitzers to recognize literature by noncitizens.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras, whose memoir “The Man Who Could Move Clouds” was a Pulitzer finalist, said she wrote the letter after learning about the citizenship rule in an op-ed by poet Javier Zamora in the Los Angeles Times. “After reading Javier’s piece, I thought of the many books I love written by undocumented writers, imagined all the books yet to come, and it pained me that these books were not and could not be considered for the prize,” she wrote in an email interview.

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“I know almost with over 100 percent certainty that immigration is one of the major issues of this century,” said Zamora, pointing to some Pulitzer categories’ stated preference for works “dealing with American life.” He added: “I was displaced because of American policy in my country. And so now that I’m here and I write in English — I think I know more English words than Spanish at this point — you’re still grabbing onto a birth certificate, or citizenship, which I will be up for in a year? It doesn’t make sense.”

Writer and translator Francisco Cantú, one of the letter’s signers, said: “In fact, I think you could almost make the inverse argument — that to really understand America, you have to understand what it means to be on the other side of that citizenship line. What it means to be struggling for recognition, what it means to be systematically denied that Americanness, is a huge part of what America is and what it means to be American.”

The Pulitzers follow a string of institutions that have recently wrestled with whether, and how, to shift definitions of national literature. The Booker Prize, originally founded as the British answer to France’s Prix Goncourt, opened to Americans in 2014 and drew immediate backlash, including concerns that the Booker would lose its distinct character. Calls to change the rules back have continued since then, especially as, in some recent years, Americans took up as much as half of the longlist.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Academy of American Poets and the Poetry Foundation in 2015 expanded eligibility for their prizes to include immigrants with temporary legal status, following a petition by the group Undocupoets. The National Book Awards loosened their long-standing American citizenship requirement in 2018, when they added a petition process for publishers to certify that an author had lived in the United States for at least a decade and either considered themselves “an American immigrant who is currently and actively engaged in pursuing citizenship” or was “legally unable to pursue traditional pathways to citizenship.” That same year, the PEN/Faulkner Award dropped its citizenship requirement and opened up to American permanent residents.

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The Pulitzer board is looking to those and other prizes as it decides how to articulate its new standard for American authorship.

“What we’re doing now is trying to come up with the language that we want to use to define that,” Miller said. “We’ll find new language, and hope that works, and if it doesn’t, we’ll change it again.” But “we definitely want it to remain an American prize,” she said — which for books means “we definitely want it to be published in English in the United States.”

Jose Antonio Vargas, founder of the advocacy group Define American, and whose signature on the open letter notes the Pulitzer he won as part of a Washington Post team covering the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, said, “I think their decision to change their policy, if that’s what they decide to do, will have tremendous consequences, not only at the national level but at the local level.” Institutional reckoning is important in itself, he said: “To me, that is unequivocally the first step. Every organization now has to examine, ‘Why are these our criteria again?’”

Zamora’s ambitions reach further than one prize: “It’s not about the Pulitzer only,” he said. And nor is he only concerned about documented U.S. immigrants: “What I’m vying for is for even somebody with no papers at all, an undocumented person that has written a book, which there are a lot of — that they could be considered along with their peers.”

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POST AUTHOR: Sophia Nguyen

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