Skip to main content

"Michelle Obama: A Life" Makes PEN Awards Short List

Peter Slevin's biography of the first lady a finalist for distinguished prize

EVANSTON, Ill.  --- “Michelle Obama: A Life” by Northwestern University journalism professor Peter Slevin has been named to the shortlist of the prestigious 2016 PEN Literary Awards, which honors the best in new literature.

Slevin’s book is one of five biographies in contention for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award and its $5,000 prize. The finalists will be judged on their literary, narrative and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research.

A former Washington Post correspondent and faculty member at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, Slevin chronicled Obama’s trajectory from her working-class childhood on Chicago’s largely segregated South Side to Princeton, Harvard, and ultimately, the White House. 

Probing deep into her family history -- dating back to slavery – Slevin explored the myriad forces that shaped, challenged and inspired her along the way.

Michelle Obama “comes across in this thoughtful biography as constantly searching and frequently torn between different worlds — not just black and white but also working-class and elite,” said the New York Times Sunday Book Review.  

Slevin began reporting on the Obamas during the 2007 presidential campaign while working as the Washington Post’s Chicago bureau chief. During more than seven years of research for the book, Slevin interviewed Obama’s relatives and friends, mentors and former colleagues. He drew on unpublished or largely unknown interviews with Obama, her mother and her husband.

“Whether I was trying to solve a riddle of the reporting, the thinking or the writing, it was very energizing to work on,” Slevin said. He wrote in the acknowledgements, “Truth be told, there was never a day when I did not look forward to working on this project.”

Spanning fiction, nonfiction, poetry, biography, essays, translation and more, this year's PEN awards will confer over $200,000 to some of the best writers and translators working today.

Other finalists for the eight categories of PEN prizes include poet and essayist Susan Howe for her book of uncollected essays “The Quarry,” Ta-Nehisi Coates for “Between the World and Me,” Marilynne Robinson for “The Givenness of Things: Essays” and Angela Flournoy for her debut novel, “The Turner House.”

The winners for all 2016 awards will be announced on March 1, with the exception of those for Debut Fiction, Art of the Essay, and Literary Science Writing awards, as well as the PEN Open Book and the PEN/Fusion Prize, which will be named live at the 2016 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony on April 11 at The New School in New York City.

For the last 90 years, PEN American Center has been working to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.

The complete list of finalists can be found on the PEN website.

Slevin’s upcoming appearances include:

Highland Park Library, Wednesday, Feb. 17

Literary Feast, Broward County Library, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Saturday, March 5

Tucson Festival of Books, Sat. March 12, “Powerful Women in Washington,” with Linda Hirshman

Sun. March 13, “The Obamas,” with David Maraniss

  • The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz
  • Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art by Nancy Princenthal
  • John le Carré: The Biography by Adam Sisman
  • Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

Editor's Picks

Back to top