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

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How the “Solito” author helped push the inclusion of noncitizen artists like him.

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.

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