Pulitzer Prizes Open to Noncitizens

Momo Chang
From the January/February 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

When nominations open later this year for the 2025 Pulitzer Prizes, a whole new group of writers have reason to be hopeful about their chances for the prestigious award. This past September, the Pulitzer’s board of directors opened eligibility in the books, drama, and music categories to permanent residents of the United States and others “who have made the United States their longtime primary home.”

The news represents a major victory for activists—particularly undocumented writers—who for years have been lobbying literary prize organizations to allow noncitizens to qualify for awards.

Novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras—who helped catalyze the decision with an open letter in August calling for the Pulitzer Prizes to consider noncitizen writers—cried when she heard the news. “It sends a message to migrant writers who are too early and too often discouraged from the path of writing,” she says.

Novelist Vanessa Chan, who is from Malaysia and is not a U.S. citizen, agrees. She shared Contreras’s letter with other writers to gather signatures. “It was the right mix of activism and very high-profile support,” says Chan of what finally moved the needle on this issue. Chan is the author of the novel The Storm We Made, published by Marysue Rucci Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in January.

The news created particular excitement for Javier Zamora, who published an essay last July in De Los, a Latine publication of the Los Angeles Times, petitioning the Pulitzer Prizes to open writing awards further to noncitizens. (Rules about the nationality of contenders for the Pulitzer Prizes have changed since the prizes were first awarded in 1917; by 1974, all categories but history books and those in journalism required winners to be U.S. citizens.) Zamora’s article had inspired Rojas Contreras’s letter, which was published on Literary Hub and shared by other organizations, including Undocupoets, which Zamora helped found in 2015 to create more opportunities for undocumented authors.

A couple of weeks before penning his essay, Zamora had been invited by the Pulitzer organization to be a judge in the memoir category for the 2024 prizes. The invitation struck Zamora as ironic: When Solito, his best-selling memoir about migrating as a child to the United States from his native El Salvador, was published by Hogarth in 2022, he had been ineligible to receive a Pulitzer because he was not a U.S. citizen.

“That really made me mad and frustrated,” Zamora says of the invitation to judge the Pulitzer. He e-mailed the organization to decline, stating that he would not judge a prize that undocumented writers, green card holders, and others who are not U.S. citizens cannot win “because of an unjust policy,” as he put it in De Los.

“Change in the literary world is long overdue,” says Rojas Contreras, explaining the inspiration to write her letter, “Dear Pulitzer Prizes: It’s Time to Recognize Literature by Noncitizens,” which was endorsed by luminaries such as Sandra Cisneros, Safiya Sinclair, and nearly three hundred others.

“We, the undersigned, believe that we have a duty to ask what constitutes the literature of a nation, and in asking this question, we believe it is essential to veer away from the definitions the State provides as to what it thinks constitutes U.S. selfhood,” the letter states.

Marjorie Miller, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, says the question of whether to further open the prize program to undocumented writers “got legs this year,” in part due to Zamora’s essay and the open letter. Another factor was advocacy by members of the memoir jury for the 2023 prize in memoir or autobiography, the inaugural year for that category of award, which went to Hua Hsu for Stay True (Doubleday, 2022).   

By the time jury members read the nominees, noncitizen writers were already weeded out, including Zamora’s Solito. When jury members realized this, they wrote a memo to the Pulitzer board stating that excluding noncitizen writers was unfair, says Cinelle Barnes, one of the members.

As they awaited a response, Zamora’s essay and Rojas Contreras’s letter appeared, which “put a fire in me,” Barnes says. She reached out to her fellow memoir jurors—Grace M. Cho, Danzy Senna, Amy Wilentz, and Ben Yagoda—who all supported a bigger push to change the Pulitzer’s eligibility requirements. Barnes, a memoirist and essayist who is from the Philippines, was previously undocumented.

With the support of the other jurors for the 2023 memoir prize, Cho and Barnes worked on a new letter to the board. When the board received it, Miller says, members took quick action.

“As we were discussing it, the Undocupoets and Lit Hub petitions were circulating, so that was creating more momentum,” she says.

Barnes remembers jumping up and down when sharing the news with her then-eleven-year-old daughter that the Pulitzer Prizes had opened these latest categories. Barnes became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2017, and her daughter witnessed the ceremony.

“She knew that it meant a lot to me,” Barnes says. “If an undocumented kid reading a book by an undocumented person is very powerful, it’s equally powerful to give artists an optimistic long view for what they can do and how they can be merited for their work.”

For Zamora, the announcement is bittersweet. “I’m glad that it took me not having papers to change something,” he says. As of this writing, Zamora is a green card holder.

He is also concerned about other issues confronting migrant communities in the Americas. He noted President Biden’s recent announcement of continuing the work of the previous presidential administration by building a wall between Mexico and the United States.

“This isn’t only about literature,” Zamora says. “Writers and artists have an opportunity and, I think, a duty, to show other nonartists, nonwriters a version of the world that doesn’t currently exist.”


Momo Chang is a Bay Area–based journalist and codirector of Oakland Voices, a community journalism training program and media outlet.