The board that administers the Pulitzer prize announced on Tuesday that it will expand its eligibility requirements to consider authors, playwrights and composers who are not US citizens.
The prestigious award for books, drama and music, which had previously been open to just US citizens, will now consider permanent residents of the US and those who have made the US “their longtime primary home”, according to a press release on behalf of the Pulitzer prize board.
The new criteria will begin with the 2025 award cycle, which begins in the spring of 2024. The categories of books, drama and music still require that entries be originally published in English and in the US.
“The board is enthusiastic about ensuring that the prizes are inclusive and accessible to those producing distinguished work in books, drama and music,” said the board’s co-chairs, Professor Tommie Shelby and Neil Brown, in a statement. “This expansion of eligibility is an appropriate update of our rules and compatible with the goals Joseph Pulitzer had in establishing these awards.”
The decision was spurred in part by an open letter to the Pulitzer board published in August, which called for the awards to consider work by immigrants and undocumented writers.
“We believe it is essential to veer away from the definitions the state provides as to what it thinks constitutes US selfhood,” they wrote in the letter, first published on the site LitHub. “Whether undocumented writers are writing about the border or not, their voices are quintessentially part of what it means to belong and struggle to belong in this and to this nation.”
“The Pulitzer changing their citizenship requirements matters on so many levels – to the writers whose work can now be considered for this esteemed prize, to us lovers of literature, and to the future of American letters. Migrant literature is American literature,” said Ingrid Rojas Contreras, a Pulitzer finalist this year for her memoir, The Man Who Could Move Clouds. Rojas Contreras, who signed the letter, said the change is “long overdue, and I am so happy and grateful for the Pulitzer board in delivering this change to us now”.
The poet Javier Zamora, who signed the open letter, helped bring attention to the issue with an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in July. As an undocumented immigrant, Zamora’s memoir Solito was not eligible for a Pulitzer. “After 19 years in this country and with all I had worked to achieve, I still wasn’t enough to be equally considered alongside anyone who has the privilege to have been born in the United States. In other words like a human being,” he wrote.
“I’m so happy that the Pulitzer committee could finally imagine one of their winners being an undocumented or previously undocumented writer. It’s taken too long,” Zamora said via email. “This decision is of utmost importance because it tells future writers that there is nothing stopping them from believing that they can be part of the ‘american’ canon. A fact I didn’t have, but one that generations will enjoy and expand literature to great realms.
“I also hope that other organizations take note and stop asking people to prove they have a greencard or citizenship,” he added. “It’s the beginning of much needed change in the arts landscape of the United States.”
The eligibility requirement marks a significant change for the Pulitzer prizes, established in 1917 by the newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian immigrant who envisioned an award for distinctly American works.
The Pulitzer’s numerous journalism prizes have long considered submissions from journalists of any nationality, so long as the work was originally published by media based in the US. But with the exception of the history award, the literary, drama and music awards only considered US citizens.
Those awards will now leave the question of permanent or long-term residency up to the authors and publishers. “I think it’s defined by the identity of the writer: do you consider the United States your permanent home, and is this a work that in some regard would be considered American?” the administrator of the prizes, Marjorie Miller, told the New York Times.
The Pulitzer prizes follow the lead of other literary organization in expanding the eligibility requirements of their awards. The Academy of American Poets and The Poetry Foundation have opened up their awards to immigrants with temporary legal status, while the PEN/Faulkner awards have also opted to include non-citizens for their prizes.