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Javier Zamora’s Fight Against the Pulitzer Prizes—and American Exceptionalism

Mother Jones; Gerardo Del Valle/Courtesy of Javier Zamora

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On Tuesday, the Pulitzer Prize Board expanded the eligibility for the books, drama, and music awards by including artists who are not US citizens. The new policy, which begins in the 2025 cycle, will include “permanent residents of the United States and those who have made the United States their longtime primary home.” Over 2,500 entries are submitted to the Pulitzer’s 23 categories every year, and only 8 receive the $15,000 cash award for books, drama, or music. There was some irony in the fact that the prestigious prize established in 1917 in the will of Hungarian immigrant Joseph Pulitzer to celebrate American art and journalism would exclude noncitizens. However, this policy has been a defining feature of eligibility for all the Pulitzer categories since their respective inceptions. 

Writers have denounced the Pulitzer’s citizenship requirement in the past but failed to solicit a response. But then, Javier Zamora, poet, and author of Unaccompanied and Solito, petitioned the Pulitzer Prize Board to open its literature awards to noncitizens in a searing Los Angeles Times op-ed in July. His 2022 memoir, which hit the New York Times bestseller list, was nonetheless ineligible to receive one of literature’s highest honors because of Zamora’s citizenship status. “After 19 years here without a green card, then four years with an EB-1 ‘Einstein Visa,’ after earning a master’s degree in writing from New York University and fellowships from Harvard and Stanford, I still wasn’t enough to be equally considered among my literary peers,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Zamora, who traveled from El Salvador to the US without his parents as a child in the late 90s, was soon joined by a coalition of high-profile authors who publicly petitioned the Pulitzer Prize Board and denounced the use of citizenship requirements. “Whether undocumented writers are writing about the border or not,” they wrote in Literary Hub, “their voices are quintessentially part of what it means to belong and struggle to belong in this and to this nation.” In response, the Board amended the citizenship policy and pledged their commitment to “ensuring that the Prizes are inclusive and accessible to those producing distinguished work in Books, Drama, and Music.” The same week the Pulitzer Prizes changed its policy, a federal judge in Texas declared DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created to protect thousands of undocumented youth from deportation, illegal. To Zamora, the two announcements—and the continued enforcement of restrictive citizenship policies at organizations such as the National Book Awards and PEN Amerca—are linked.

I caught up with Javier via Zoom to talk about Pulitzer’s announcement, nationalism in the literary world, and the work that remains to be done.

When did you first realize you were ineligible for the Pulitzer Prize for literature due to your citizenship status?

I didn’t realize until they asked me to be a judge. I had no idea before then. When my memoir, Solito, came out, my agent and publisher told me that we needed to petition the National Book Awards, but they never mentioned the Pulitzer, so I assumed I qualified for it. Once the cycle came through, I was like, ‘Oh I wasn’t nominated, whatever.’ But what hurt was that they wanted me to be a judge. I couldn’t even be nominated and now you’re asking me to judge next year? It just didn’t make sense to me. The op-ed is a much less angry version of what I actually felt. 

I mean we’re talking the day after a judge said people aren’t allowed to get DACA anymore. As an immigrant and previously undocumented person living in this country, we know the government doesn’t want us here. So, it doesn’t really hurt as much when you expect people not to want you, but when a literary organization demands your papers it hurts. It made me angry.

What happened after you wrote the op-ed? How did that larger coalition of writers come together?

This is how you can be an ally, right? I don’t know much about Ingrid Rojas Contreras‘ story but I know she wasn’t born in this country. I know as much as she said in her memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds. Ingrid was the only person who DM’d me after I wrote the op-ed. She said this is fucked up. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer this year and she asked, “What can I do?” She came up with the idea of drafting a letter. Then people like Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, another previously undocumented writer, got involved and that was the core group. After we got together and drafted the letter, we just emailed everyone in our network. Once we hit that point, it was mostly them, and I took a step back.

How did it feel to have that type of support?

It felt good that people wanted to help. But if I’m being honest, it’s sad that it’s always led by the people who have something at stake. Ingrid, myself, and Marcello all have green cards now, but we would have been those people who could not have won before. I like that other citizens also signed the petition, but I wish other people who have nothing at stake would have also offered their help from the beginning.

And of course, the problem with this whole ordeal is the people on the Pulitzer board have the privilege of not having an immigration background. I don’t know the board personally so if that’s not the case then there are people whose jobs are at stake or felt like they couldn’t say anything. But I want to be clear that this isn’t just about poetry. It’s not only about writing. This is about immigration and how we understand immigrants in this country.

How did your work as an artist who grapples with questions of nationhood, citizenship, and art shape your activism on this issue?

Coming from the country I come from, and coming from the rural poor, you quickly understand that art, in all its forms, writing included, has to mean something. It has to have something at stake. Because otherwise why are we making art? Growing up in my nation in the ’90s, my parents knew activists who were murdered. They knew writers who were murdered or exiled. So I grew up with this knowledge. My parents encouraged me to become a writer, but they also feared it because writers in this country were the equivalent of writers in Latin America and the Global South, which meant to them I was doing something dangerous. That stuck with me as a teenager.

In my opinion, American poetry followed a very white and privileged road for a long time. It took me until college to learn about writers like June Jordan who helped establish Poetry For The People and wanted to stay tied in some way to the Global South. And that meant a lot to me because not only was I part of a lineage of writers in the Global South who, for lack of a better word, were political writers, but also there were American writers who were doing the same thing, but for whatever reason weren’t getting the accolades or attention they deserved. That is the type of activism and writing that I’ve always known.

What do you think of Pulitzer’s rule change?

It’s great. I like that they didn’t wait until the October deadline. That says something. I think they understand that they’re backward. Literally, Pulitzer himself was a Hungarian immigrant. It also gives me hope that other groups are listening and that they also open things up. But the timing is just absurd; it was announced right as we got the ruling of DACA. Artist organizations have an opportunity to show the rest of the country how to imagine a world where everybody is included. 

Are there other literary groups that still cling to these kinds of restrictions?

I don’t know the exhaustive list, but the National Book Awards and PEN America still have barriers in place. PEN is going to hate me for this because they switched to a petition-based thing in 2018. I think they didn’t want Undoupoets to blow over to them. And if you ask me, Pulitzer could clarify their position even more. I want them to fully say “Undocumented people can apply to this.” And that’s far from the case for PEN America and the National Book Awards. You’ve got to petition and prove that you are applying or attempting to apply for a green card. You don’t have to have a green card, but you have to show proof that you are in the process of doing that. To me it’s bullshit. Who do they think they are? Homeland Security? No, you’re a literary organization.

Why do you think literary groups think citizenship matters for these “best of” American literature awards?

The average American doesn’t know how to define the word American, so they default to birthright citizenship. We saw this with President Obama and the birthers. But because Americans don’t know how to define “American” even well-meaning organizations struggle to do it.

I hope that the Pulitzer Prizes and the National Book Awards know that I understand that they aren’t the biggest bad guys out there. We have Homeland Security and Congress. These groups are not that. But what they do lack is the understanding that “American” means everybody. It means everybody who wants and believes in a safe world, freedom, liberty, and justice—for all. If I am fleeing a country because of my sexual identity, gender identity, or because I don’t feel safe, I have the right to obtain liberty and justice. That’s what the United States is all about. But I don’t think that the average American understands that.

What are the costs of keeping these kinds of citizenship restrictions and assessments in place? What does it do to the literary canon?

It’s robbing these groups of brilliant writers and opportunities. Americans lack imagination if they can’t conceive of someone outside of birthright citizenship having something to contribute to this country. Everybody always goes back to the Founding Fathers. A lot of them weren’t even born here. And they couldn’t imagine a better world. That is part of the problem. We think in 2023 that the Founding Fathers had the best imaginations. Men who founded this nation and owned slaves. It’s our duty now to imagine the actual future because they couldn’t even imagine our presence.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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