Sara Paretsky has been named the fourth recipient of the Paul Engle Prize, presented by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization.
The prize, established in 2011, honors an individual who, like Paul Engle, represents a pioneering spirit in the world of literature through writing, editing, publishing, or teaching, and whose active participation in the larger issues of the day has contributed to the betterment of the world through the literary arts.
Paretsky will receive the prize, which includes a one-of-a-kind work of art and $10,000, during a special ceremony as part of the Iowa City Book Festival on Oct. 2. The event is at 7 p.m. at the Coralville Public Library. She will be joined by noted NPR and Washington Post book critic Maureen Corrigan, who will conduct a Q&A with Paretsky. The event is free and open to the public.
Paretsky is best known as the author behind the bestselling Chicago-based V.I. Warshawski mystery series, including the new novel, Brush Back. She revolutionized the mystery world when the series debuted in 1982 with Indemnity Only, a book that challenged the stereotypes of women in fiction as victims or vamps. Over the course of 17 Warshawski novels, Paretsky has crafted a tough, street-smart yet feminine heroine who allows her creator tackle social issues.
The author has spent much of her career opening doors for other writers – particularly women – and assisting those without a voice. That work includes the creation in 1986 of Sisters in Crime, a group that has evolved into a worldwide organization that supports women crime writers. She currently serves as president of the Mystery Writers of America, a post she says she took to help address the issue of diversity in the genre. She has won numerous awards for her writing and for this work, but many of her contributions go unheralded.
Paretsky came to Chicago from her native Kansas in part due to a passion for social justice. She worked as a community organizer during the Civil Rights era, and more recently, served with then-state senator Barack Obama on the board of Thresholds, a group that serves Chicago’s mentally ill homes. She also has mentored teens in Chicago’s most troubled schools, and works closely with literacy and reproductive rights groups.
Speaking about the award, Paretsky said, “We all have one or two fundamental questions about life—about our own lives—that we keep returning to, and trying to sort out. Mine have to do with speech and silence: who gets to speak, who has to listen. When you’re powerless, it can be hard to speak, easy to remain silent.
“I try to understand cruelty, both the petty acts we all do from time to time, and the gross acts, lynch mobs, Auschwitz, Rwanda, that most of us pray we’ll never commit. I’m not interested in reading or writing books that seek to inhabit the minds of torturers. Rather, I want to know the mind of that rare person who steps forward, who speaks.
“Perhaps my biggest fear is that in an extreme situation, I would be neither hero nor villain, but the hidden bystander, the person who watches lynch mobs or thugs dragging my neighbors out of their houses. I keep hoping that if I study Mandela, or Havel, I will become stronger, less willing to take the soft option.
“Receiving the Paul Engle prize is an honor which I’m not sure I deserve—but which I gladly accept. I hope it will help me remember a commitment to high-risk speech.”
Paretsky will appear throughout the Corridor during a visit to the area. More details will be available at www.cityofliteratureusa.org/paul-engle-day.
The Paul Engle Prize is made possible through the generous support of the City of Coralville, which is home to 11 permanent sculptures with artistic and literary ties to Iowa. The sculptures all have ties to work found in The Iowa Writers’ Library, housed in the Coralville Marriott, which features about 800 books written by former students, graduates and faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The Engle Prize itself is a one-of-a-kind work of art created by M.C. Ginsberg in Iowa City. The piece is crafted to reflect the work and impact of the recipient, while tying it to the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature.
Paul Engle (October 12, 1908 – March 22, 1991), though best remembered as the long-time director of the Writers’ Workshop and founder of the UI’s International Writing Program, also was a well-regarded poet, playwright, essayist, editor and critic. In addition to recognizing a writer, like Engle, makes an impact on his or her community and the world at large through efforts beyond the page, the award is designed to raise awareness about Engle and his works.
Previous winners of the prize are:
- James Alan McPherson, a longtime instructor at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Elbow Room
- Kwame Dawes, a professor at Nebraska University, editor of the journal Prairie Schooner, and author of the recent poetry collection, Duppy Conqueror
- Luis Alberto Urrea, a multi-genre author whose works include the novel Into the Beautiful North, the non-fiction work, The Devil’s Highway, and the recent poetry collection, The Tijuana Book of the Dead.