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Historian Amy Stanley wins literary awards for 'Stranger in the Shogun's City'

Receives 2021 PEN and National Book Critics Circle Awards for biography

Amy Stanley, professor of history in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University has won the 2021 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography for “Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Japanese Woman and Her World” (Scribner, 2020).

PEN America's award recognizes biographies of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research. 

In her acceptance speech during the April 8 livestream award ceremony, Stanley said, "A lot of people told me that a book about an unknown woman in Japan, in the early 19th century, in a city that no one had ever heard of, was never going to be embraced by American audiences."

On March 26 Stanley received the National Book Critics Circle Award for biography for "Stranger in the Shogun's City."

Amy Stanley
Amy Stanley

“It’s the story of a rebellious, discontented woman who sacrificed everything to be there,” according to Stanley’s website. “The book follows her from her childhood in Japan’s snow country through three catastrophic marriages and a devastating famine to her escape to the shogun’s capital. It’s about how a woman used the city to recreate herself — as a maidservant, a tenement-dweller, a samurai’s wife — and how she, and others like her, built the global megalopolis we know today.”

Stanley, a historian of early modern and modern Japan with special interests in women’s/gender history and global history, said the award was “a huge surprise.”

“I was shocked that I won with so many amazing books in the field, but it was especially moving for me to win for the story of an ordinary woman's life,” said Stanley, an Evanston resident. “Biographies are usually about famous, or at least extremely accomplished, people. Tsuneno was just an average woman, but I think her struggle to determine the shape of her own life resonates even now, as women of my generation continue to face similar obstacles related to the expectation that they will subordinate their own desires in order to be good wives and mothers.” 

Each year, the National Book Critics Circle presents awards for the finest books published in English in six categories: fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry and criticism. These are the only national literary awards chosen by critics themselves.

In addition, “Stranger in the Shogun’s City” was shortlisted for the Baillie-Gifford prize, the UK's most prestigious prize for non-fiction.  

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