Colson Whitehead wins the Pulitzer for the second time

Colson Whitehead wins the Pulitzer for the second time

Wednesday, May 6, 2020 5:06 pm

Colson Whitehead

By Nehru Odeh

American writer, Colson Whitehead, has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He won the highly coveted prize with his latest novel, The Nickel Boys, a book which chronicles the abuse of black boys at a juvenile school in Florida.

This award makes him only the fourth writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice.  Other writers who have won the prize twice include Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner and John Updike. Whitehead, a 50-year-old New Yorker, had earlier won the 2017 prize in the same category for his book The Underground Railroad.

Whitehead, who once said he grew up wanting to be the black version of horror writer Stephen King, is on his way to achieving his dream. His award-winning novel was inspired by the real-life horror story of the Dozier School for Boys in the Florida panhandle, where children convicted of minor offences were subjected to violent abuse.

The Harvard graduate’s novel was praised by the Pulitzer 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.”

Whitehead is the author of seven novels, including his 1999 debut work, The Intuitionist, and The Underground Railroad (2016), for which he won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has also published two books of non-fiction. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”). Currently, Whitehead is working on an eighth novel (originally conceived and begun before he wrote The Nickel Boys). The work-in-progress is an untitled crime novel set in Harlem during the 1960s. His wife is a literary agent and they have two children.

Whitehead showed great promise when his debut novel, The Intuitionist, was released. And he has not disappointed since then. Esquire magazine named the novel the best first novel of the year, and GQ called it one of the “novels of the millennium.” Novelist John Updike, reviewing The Intuitionist in The New Yorker, called Whitehead “ambitious,” “scintillating,” and “strikingly original,” adding, “The young African-American writer to watch may well be a thirty-one-year-old Harvard graduate with the vivid name of Colson Whitehead.”

This year’s awards, postponed for several weeks due to the coronavirus, were announced remotely in the living room of Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy via an online, at-home, video. She noted that the first Pulitzers were awarded in 1917, less than a year before the outbreak of the Spanish Flu. She also referred to the “deeply trying times” in which these prizes are being announced but how journalism remains as important as ever and how the arts continue to “sustain, unite and inspire”. The prizes are among the highest honours for US-based journalists and authors.

And, for the first time in its history, the Pulitzer committee bestowed a prize in audio reporting, which was awarded to This American Life for its episode The Out Crowd, which examined US President Donald Trump’s policy requiring thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated. The episode was a collaboration with Molly O’Toole of the Los Angeles Times and Emily Green of Vice News, who will also share the prize.

The New York Times newspaper topped the list of publications for journalism honours with three awards, including the prestigious investigative reporting prize for Brian Rosenthal’s expose of New York City’s taxi industry, showing how predatory lenders exploited vulnerable drivers.

In collaboration with ProPublica, the Anchorage Daily News won what is widely regarded as the most coveted Pulitzer, for public service journalism, in recognition of its work on the lack of police coverage in many small towns in Alaska.

The honour for breaking news photography went to staff at Reuters news agency for their images of last year’s Hong Kong protests.

A posthumous special citation was awarded to African-American civil rights activist and early champion of investigative journalism Ida B Wells, who died in 1931, for her “outstanding and courageous reporting” on lynching. The citation comes with a donation of at least $50,000 (£40,100) in support of Ms Wells’ mission, with recipients to be announced.

Pulitzer Prize winners 2020 in full.


    Breaking news reporting – Courier-Journal, Kentucky

    Investigative reporting – Brian Rosenthal, New York Times

    Breaking news photography – Reuters for coverage of the Hong Kong protests

    Public service journalism – Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Propublica

    Explanatory reporting – Staff of The Washington Post

    Local reporting – Staff of The Baltimore Sun

    National reporting – T Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi of ProPublica, Dominic Gates, Steve Miletich, Mike Baker and Lewis Kamb of The Seattle Times

    International reporting – Staff of The New York Times

    Feature writing – Ben Taub, The New Yorker

    Audio reporting – Staff of This American Life’s episode The Out Crowd

    Commentary – Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times

    Criticism – Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times

    Editorial writing – Jeffery Gerrit, the Palestine (Tx) Herald Press

    Editorial cartooning – Barry Blitt, contributor, The New Yorker

    Feature photography – Channi Anand, Mukhtar Khan and Dar Yasin, Associated Press

    Posthumous special citation – Ida B Wells, African-American civil rights activist

Books, drama and music:

    Drama -A Strange Loop by Michael R Jackson

    Fiction – The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

    History – Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America by W Caleb McDaniel

    Biography -Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser

    General non-fiction – The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America by Greg Grandin; and The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer

    Poetry – The Tradition by Jericho Brown

    Music – The Central Park Five by Anthony Davis

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