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Pulitzer Prize 2020: Colson Whitehead joins elite group of writers to win fiction award twice

Other Pulitzer winners this year include podcast ‘This American Life’ and Anthony Davis for his opera ‘The Central Park Five’

Colson Whitehead is the fourth author to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice. AP
Colson Whitehead is the fourth author to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice. AP

This year’s Pulitzer Prize has been all about records set and met.

The prize-giving ceremony, which was due to take place on April 20, was postponed for two weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic. The winners were announced remotely on Monday, May 4, from the living room of Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy.

Canedy said the prize was being announced during a “deep and trying time”, but stressed that journalism continues to be as important as ever, as the arts “sustain, unite and inspire”.

She said the first Pulitzer Prizes – which are among the most coveted accolades for US journalists and authors – were awarded in 1917, less than a year before the Spanish flu pandemic struck.

Who took home the titles?

Colson Whitehead became the fourth author in the award’s history to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice.

The US author nabbed this year’s prize for fiction again for The Nickel Boys. He first won the award in 2017 for his novel The Underground Railroad, which became a literary phenomenon and rocketed Whitehead to international fame.

The heart-rending novel is based on the real story of the Dozier School, a reform school in Florida that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children. The story follows Elwood Curtis, who is sent to a juvenile detention centre after travelling to university classes in a stolen vehicle.

The Nickel Boys was praised by the Pulitzer Prize committee for its “spare and devastating exploration of abuse at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida that is ultimately a powerful tale of human perseverance, dignity and redemption”.

The other writers to have won the award twice are John Updike, William Faulkner and Booth Tarkington.

The New York Times won three journalism awards this year, including the coveted investigative reporting prize for an expose on New York City’s taxi trade, written by Brian Rosenthal.

There was also something new in this year’s prize announcement. The Pulitzer Prize presented its first award for audio reporting, to the staff of the podcast This American Life for its episode The Out Crowd.

The winning episode was praised by the committee for its “revelatory, intimate journalism that illuminates the personal impact of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy”.

LA Times writer Christopher Knight also became one of the few art critics to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. He earned the award for his searing columns exploring the controversial renovation of Los Angeles County Museum of Arts and the impact it would have on the museum’s mission and display of its collection.

The music Pulitzer was given to Anthony Davis for his opera The Central Park Five, which is based on the wrongful 1989 convictions of five African-American and Latino teenagers for the rape and assault of a white woman. The five teenagers were absolved of the conviction in 2002 after a serial rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime.

The Pulitzer Prize jury described Davis’s work as “a courageous operatic work, marked by powerful vocal writing and sensitive orchestration that skilfully transforms a notorious example of contemporary injustice into something empathetic and hopeful”.

The board also declared a posthumous award to Ida B Wells, an investigative journalist, for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching” in the 1890s.

The citation comes with a donation of about $50,000 (Dh183,650) in support of Wells’s mission, with recipients yet to be announced.

Updated: May 5, 2020 03:16 PM

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