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2022 Pulitzer Prizes in arts and letters go to 'Fat Ham' and 'The Netenyahus'

New York Review Books

Updated May 9, 2022 at 4:52 PM ET

They're the most prestigious awards in America, not just for journalists, but historians, poets, playwrights, non-fiction writers, composers and novelists.

Novelist Joshua Cohen won his first fiction Pulitzer for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. Awinner of the 2021 National Jewish Book Award, it was described by the Pulitzer committee as "a mordant, linguistically deft historical novel about the ambiguities of the Jewish-American experience, presenting ideas and disputes as volatile as its tightly-wound plot."

In the category of drama, James Ijames won for Fat Ham, a comedy earning rave reviews during its staging at the Wilma Theater in the playwright's hometown of Philadelphia. Fat Ham opens very soon at New York's Public Theater. It's based on a play you may have heard of — Hamlet by William Shakespeare — but set at a southern barbecue restaurant. In a review last year, The New York Times described Fat Ham as "hilarious yet profound," adding "it is the rare takeoff that actually takes off — and then flies in its own smart direction."

/ Scribner

The Pulitzer for nonfiction went to Andrea Elliott for Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City. "The invisible child of the title is Dasani Coates," wrote NPR critic Erika Taylor in her review of the book last year. Dasani was eleven years old, living with her parents and seven siblings in one of New York City's shelters for families experiencing homelessness when she met the book's author, a Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter who followed Coates and her family for eight years. She tracks what Taylor calls "a stunning array of heartrending tragedies and remarkable triumphs."

Two prizes were given to historians, who happen to work in the same department at New York University. Ada Ferrer wrote Cuba: An American History, described by the Pulitzer committee as "original and compelling ... spanning five centuries, of the island that became an obsession for many presidents and policy makers. " And Nicole Eustace authored Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America. It is, the committee said, "a gripping account of Indigenous justice in early America, and how the aftermath of a settler's murder led to the oldest continuously recognized treaty in the United States."

Diane Seuss won the Pulitzer in poetry for frank: sonnets. The award racks up yet another win for small but mighty Graywolf Press, a Pulitzer powerhouse. Seuss is a celebrated Midwestern poet trained as a social worker; this book was described by the committee as "a virtuosic collection that inventively expands the sonnet form to confront the messy contradictions of contemporary America, including the beauty and the difficulty of working-class life in the Rust Belt. "

/ Graywolf Press
Graywolf Press

In the biography category, the late artist Winfred Rembert won the Pulitzer along with his collaborator Erin I. Kelly for Chasing Me To My Grave: An Artist's Memoir Of The Jim Crow South.

"He didn't want to tell his story for a long time," the artist's wife Patsy Rembert told NPR in this story from August 2021. "He would talk to me, and he said, 'No one's going to believe me.' But we got some of this stuff documented. And I feel like him telling his story — he's telling a story about a lot of — more Black people who endured these things, who didn't have a voice, who couldn't find a safe refuge to talk about it. Even today, some people won't mention what happened to them or what they saw. A lot of things went on in the South that never reached the papers. No one wants to talk about it, but they happen. These things happen."

And Raven Chacon's Voiceless Mass, which premiered in Milwaukee, Wis., in November 2021, is this year's Pulitzer winner for music.

The committee calls the work "a mesmerizing, original work for organ and ensemble that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with a haunting visceral impact."

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.