Imani Perry is having a moment in the limelight, and we hope she’s relishing every minute of it. When she first came to our offices to talk about her Lorraine Hansberry biography, Looking for Lorraine, we knew it was going to be special. Fast forward to this year’s PEN/America Awards, and we delighted in seeing just how special her book is. She won the PEN America/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography! Nell Irvin Painter, Sam Stephenson, and Rachel Syme were the judges for the award. Here’s what they said about her book:
“Lorraine Hansberry packed a lot of ambition into a short life. When she died in 1965, at only 34 years old, she was already a New York legend: her award-winning drama, A Raisin in the Sun, about a black family living in segregated Chicago, became the first ever play by a black woman to debut on Broadway. But she did much more than write plays: Hansberry was also a devoted civil rights activist and venerated public intellectual, and a friend and colleague of James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nina Simone, and Malcolm X. Imani Perry’s Looking For Lorraine celebrates Hansberry, in all her accomplishments and appetites, but it does not shy away from the complexities and entanglements that made Hansberry’s life story as dramatic and serpentine as one of her plays. Perry approaches her subject with both empathy and a sharp, critical eye; this is a biography that exercises several muscles at once. Perry’s sentences are intimate, warm, and crisp; in considering Hansberry in all of her prismatic multiplicities, Perry has written a singular book.”
Hansberry’s life, notably her literary and political life beyond her play A Raisin in the Sun, remained largely unknown, and Perry aimed to change that with Looking for Lorraine. Perry accepted the award in honor of Hansberry, saying that the playwright herself was the constant driver and inspiration for the book. She thanked Hansberry for her courage, for living proudly as a Black, lesbian feminist long before any of those identities were recognized as things to be proud of in the public arena. Toward the end of her acceptance speech, Perry said, “I thank her for giving me the opportunity to become more fully [me] . . . . In many ways, Lorraine brought me to the fullness of who I am.”
(Boost the volume to hear Imani Perry’s acceptance speech: it’s very low.)
The accolades don’t end there. The New York Times named Looking for Lorraine one of the 100 Most Notable Books of 2018. The Black Caucus of the American Library Association named it an Honor Book for nonfiction. And it’s a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ nonfiction, the 2019 Pauli Murray Book Prize for the best book in Black intellectual history, and the Triangle Award for best achievement in LGBTQ literary works. Keep the awards and nominations coming! We’ll be keeping an eye on them and rooting for her when the award ceremonies are held later this year.
Oh, and then this happened. Were you watching Jeopardy! on March 15? Looking for Lorraine was a clue in the category of New York Times 100 Most Notable Books. Not only has Perry’s book made its mark in literary canon, but in Jeopardy! canon, too! It isn’t even a year old yet and it’s already showing the cultural impact Perry is having.
If you can’t get enough of Perry’s writing, you’ll be ecstatic to know that she has a new book coming out this September. In Breathe: A Letter to My Sons, Perry writes from the heart as a Black mother and feminist to share her meditations on Black resistance and resilience and how to live fearlessly in an unjust world with her children. “Imani conveys how terrifying it is to be black in America but instructs her sons to refuse to be cowed by fear and injustice, insisting they live a robust and full life,” our editorial director Gayatri Patnaik said. “It’s truly a remarkable book and an original one, and I can’t wait for readers to discover it.” We can’t wait either.