15 Books That Help Turn Fiction into Action

November 12, 2020  • Aspen Words

This week, Aspen Words announced the longlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, an annual award for a work of fiction that addresses a vital contemporary issue. The 15 longlisted titles include 13 novels, five of them debuts, and two short story collections. Though the majority of books on the list came from Big Five publishing houses, some small presses, including Tin House, Catapult, and Feminist Press, were represented on the longlist for the first time.

The jury for the prize—Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw, and Luis Alberto Urrea—will read all longlisted books to determine the five finalists and winner. Aspen Words presented the longlist in collaboration with NPR Books, the official media partner for the award.

“The books on this longlist examine subjects that cut across racial, economic, political and sexual divides,” said Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur. “In the pages of these books, we read about many of the issues that are playing out before our eyes during this time of social upheaval—climate collapse, government breakdown, racism, and sexism. And therein lies the power of reading fiction: to create empathy and allow us to imagine better ways of existing.”

The award is open to authors of any nationality and is one of the largest literary prizes in the United States with a purse of $35,000. It is one of the few focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact. The inaugural award was presented to Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for Exit West, his novel about migration and refugees. Tayari Jones won the 2019 prize for An American Marriage, her novel about racism and unjust incarceration, and Christy Lefteri received the award in 2020 for her novel of a couple’s journey from war-torn Syria, The Beekeeper of Aleppo.

This year’s finalists will be announced on February 17, 2021. The winner will be revealed at a virtual awards celebration the week of April 19, 2021.

Black Sunday by Tola Rotimi Abraham

Tola Rotimi Abraham is a writer from Lagos, Nigeria. She lives in Iowa City and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in journalism. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has taught writing at the University of Iowa. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in CatapultThe Des Moines RegisterThe Nigerian Literary Magazine, and other places.

Illuminating issues of racism, sexism, and poverty, Black Sunday presents the reader with twin sisters Bibike and Ariyike. This novel tells a tale of grace and connection in the midst of daily oppression and the constant incursions of an unremitting patriarchy. This is a novel about two young women slowly finding, over twenty years, in a place rife with hypocrisy but also endless life and love, their own distinct methods of resistance and paths to independence.

Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa

Susan Abulhawa is a Palestinian American writer and political activist. She is the author of Mornings in Jenin—translated into thirty languages—and The Blue Between Sky and Water. Born to refugees of the Six-Day War of 1967, she moved to the United States as a teenager, graduated with degrees in biomedical science and neuroscience, and established a career in medical science. In July 2001, Abulhawa founded Playgrounds for Palestine, a non-governmental children’s organization dedicated to upholding the Right to Play movement for Palestinian children. She lives in Pennsylvania.

In Against the Loveless World, Nahr is a Palestinian refugee and political prisoner who tells her story from an Israeli solitary-confinement cell. As the themes of nationalism, radicalized violence, and women’s rights drive the international news cycle, Nahr’s story offers an intimate look at what drives people to extreme actions.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam is the author of Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere. He studied at Oberlin College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Deeply exploring race, class, parenthood, and environmental issues, Leave the World Behind is a suspenseful and provocative story of a vacation gone wrong. When a white family hears a knock on the door of their vacation home, they find the black homeowners have returned, saying that a mysterious blackout has swept New York City. As the two families try to figure out what is going on and whether they can trust each other, the book investigates how our particular privileges inform our response to a crisis and asks who—if anyone—might be equipped to save us from such a catastrophe.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. A “5 under 35” honoree, her work is featured in The New YorkerThe Paris Review, and Jezebel, and her debut novel The Mothers was a New York Times bestseller.

The Vanishing Half combines a riveting page-turner of love, abandonment, and betrayal with deep social and cultural insights about race and identity. Told from multiple perspectives, the novel skillfully empathizes with characters from all ages and walks of life.

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Diane Cook is the author of the story collection Man V. Nature, which was
a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Tin House, Granta, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She received a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is a former producer for the radio show This American Life. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

In The New Wilderness, Bea’s five-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly wasting away, consumed by the smog and pollution of the overdeveloped metropolis that most of the population now calls home. If they stay in the city, Agnes will die. There is only one alternative: The Wilderness State, the last swath of untouched, protected land, where people have always been forbidden — until now. Bea, Agnes, and eighteen others volunteer to live in the Wilderness State, guinea pigs in an experiment to see if humans can exist in nature without destroying it. As Agnes embraces the wild freedom of this new existence, Bea realizes that saving her daughter’s life means losing her in a different way.

Fiebre Tropical by Juliana Delgado Lopera

Juli Delgado Lopera is an award-winning Colombian writer and historian based in San Francisco. Delgado Lopera is the author of Quiéreme and the illustrated, bilingual oral history collection ¡Cuéntamelo! which won a 2018 Lambda Literary Award and a 2018 Independent Publisher Book Award. They are the recipient of the 2014 Jackson Literary Award and has received fellowships from the Brush Creek Foundation of the Arts, Lambda Literary Foundation, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The SF Grotto, and an individual artist grant from the SF Arts Commission. Their work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Foglifter, Four Way Review, and Broadly, among others. Delgado Lopera is formerly the creative director of RADAR Productions, a queer literary nonprofit in San Francisco.

Lit by the hormonal neon glow of Miami, Fiebre Tropical is a heady, multilingual debut novel that follows a Colombian teenager’s coming-of-age as she plunges headfirst into lust and evangelism. It illuminates themes of immigration and adolescence, coming out and internalized homophobia, religion, and gender equity.

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Akwaeke Emezi is the author of the novel Freshwater, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and shortlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award, the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award, the Lambda Literary Award, and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and longlisted on many award lists. Freshwater was also named a Best Book of the Year by The New Yorker, NPR, the Chicago Public Library, and BuzzFeed. Emezi’s second book, Pet, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Freshwater has been translated into ten languages and is currently in development as a TV series at FX, with Emezi writing and executive producing with Tamara P. Carter.

In The Death of Vivek Oji, Emezi takes the complex and nuanced vision of identity and multiple consciousnesses first explored in Freshwater and applies it to a story that is far more direct—and fueled by a deeply compelling mystery that unfolds over the course of the novel. Propulsively readable and teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations and a dramatic story of loss and transcendence.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is the author of sixteen novels, volumes of poetry, children’s books, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her fiction has won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

The Night Watchman is based on the extraordinary life of Erdrich’s grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C. The novel explores themes of love and death and Native struggle with lightness and gravity, and with elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling.

The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories by Danielle Evans

Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, winner of the PEN America PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Paterson Prize, and a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” selection. Her stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories. She teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

The Office of Historical Corrections is Evans’ second book of fiction. Nine years after her first, her characters have grown up alongside her and are now struggling not with the confusions of adolescence but with complex and rich themes of adulthood: finding love, settling into an identity, losing a parent. Evans manages to be both timely and timeless, as she brings her signature voice and insight into the subjects of race, grief, apology, and American history.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. Her debut novel, Homegoing, was awarded the National Book Critic’s Circle’s John Leonard Award for best first book, the PEN/Hemingway Award for a first book of fiction, the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” honors for 2016, and the American Book Award. She lives in Brooklyn.

Transcendent Kingdom is a novel about faith, science, religion, and family that tells the deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression, opioid addiction, and grief, narrated by a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford school of medicine studying the neural circuits of reward-seeking behavior in mice.

If I Had Two Wings: Stories by Randall Kenan

Randall Kenan was the former chancellor of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. He lived in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

In the story collection, If I Had Two Wings, Kenan’s fictional territory of Tims Creek, North Carolina, shows an older man who rages in his nursing home; a parson who beats up an adulterer; an architect who lost his famous lover to AIDS and reconnects with a high-school fling; and Howard Hughes, seeking out the woman who once cooked him butter beans.

A Children’s Bible: A Novel by Lydia Millet

Lydia Millet has written twelve works of fiction. She has won awards from PEN Center USA and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and her books have been longlisted for the National Book Award, shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and named as New York Times Notable Books. Her story collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She lives outside Tucson, Arizona.

This indelible novel of teenage alienation in an unraveling world follows a group of twelve eerily mature children on a forced vacation with their families at a sprawling lakeside mansion. When a destructive storm descends on the summer estate, the group’s ringleaders decide to run away, leading the younger ones on a dangerous foray into the apocalyptic chaos outside. Addressing climate change, collective action, and complacency, A Children’s Bible is a prophetic, heartbreaking story of the generational divide.

A Girl is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project Prize in 2013 and was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize in 2014. Her story “Let’s Tell This Story Properly” was the global winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Jennifer lives in Manchester.

A Girl Is a Body of Water is a sweeping and powerful portrait of a young girl and her family: who they are, what history has taken from them, and—most importantly—how they find their way back to each other. Drawn from Ugandan folklore, the novel illuminates themes of feminism, Black womanhood, and the pressures of cultural assimilation.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Brandon Taylor is the senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Literary Hub. His writing has earned him fellowships from Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. He holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.

Real Life deals with themes of gender and sexuality, and unfolds over tension-filled dinner parties, frustrating lab sessions, and furtive sexual encounters as a group of friends fall in and out of love, argue, manipulate, and try to understand each other.

Memorial by Bryan Washington

Bryan Washington is a National Book Award “5 under 35” honoree and the author of the collection, Lot, which made the 2020 Aspen Words Literary Prize shortlist. He has written for The New YorkerThe New York Times, the New York Times MagazineBuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris ReviewTin HouseOne StoryBon AppétitGQ, The Awl, and Catapult. He lives in Houston.

Memorial is not a typical post-story-collection debut literary doorstop; it’s a riot to read, tackling big issues with humor and real people and an electric energy. It’s a love story with real sex, a rom-com with teeth. Themes of sexual orientation, love, and race drive this story and make it a timely and important book.

To Become a More Informed Voter, Read These Books
October 23, 2020 • Aspen Words