16 Fiction Titles in the Running for the Second Aspen Words Literary Prize

November 19, 2018  • Aspen Words

Aspen Words today announced the longlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP), an annual award for a work of fiction that addresses a vital contemporary issue. The 16 longlisted titles include 11 novels and five short story collections, and a majority of the selections are by debut authors. The five finalists and winner will be selected by a five-member jury that includes acclaimed feminist writer Dorothy Allison, 2018 AWLP finalist Samrat Upadhyay, Aspen Institute executive vice president Elliot Gerson, literary scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, and Aspen Words board president Suzanne Bober. Aspen Words announced the longlist in collaboration with NPR Books, the official media partner for the award.

“It’s astonishing to see the number of debut authors on this list; new voices can often help us see the world more clearly, with a different perspective,” said Adrienne Brodeur, Executive Director of Aspen Words. “Many of the topics covered in these books are in the news cycle – gun violence, immigration, police brutality, Native American culture – but fiction allows us to examine these issues with more compassion. I hope that this list will help get these books in more readers’ hands, while also sparking meaningful dialogue around some of our greatest challenges today.”

The award, now in its second year, 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. Five finalists will be named on February 20, 2019 and the winner will be announced live at an Awards Ceremony in New York City on April 11, 2019.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Friday Black

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is from Spring Valley, New York. He graduated from SUNY Albany and went on to receive his MFA from Syracuse University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Guernica, Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, Printer’s Row, Gravel, and The Breakwater Review, where he was selected by ZZ Packer as the winner of the 2nd Annual Breakwater Review Fiction Contest. Friday Black is his first book.

Friday Black illuminates contemporary issues such as violence, race, and injustice in America. This book tackles urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest, and explores the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world.

The Boat People by Sharon Bala

Boat People

Sharon Bala lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she is a member of The Port Authority writing group. Her short story “Butter Tea at Starbucks” won the prestigious Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize in 2017. The Boat People is her first novel.

Inspired by a real incident, The Boat People is a gripping and morally complex novel about a group of refugees who survive a perilous ocean voyage to reach Canada –only to face the threat of deportation and accusations of terrorism in their new land. The Boat People is a high-stakes novel that offers a deeply compassionate lens through which to view the current refugee crisis.

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley

Lucky Man

Jamel Brinkley is a graduate of Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has received fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and Stanford University. “A Lucky Man” is his first book. He lives in California.

Jamel Brinkley’s story collection explores masculinity, and particularly Black masculinity, with a kind of close attention and sensitivity that is almost unheard of in contemporary fiction. At a time when rhetoric is becoming ever more toxic and polarizing, Brinkley brings readers back to the most fundamental aspects of humanity that all of his characters, and all of us share: sorrow and shame, joy and nostalgia.

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

America is Not The Heart

Elaine Castillo was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. America Is Not the Heart is her first novel.

An increasingly relevant story told with startling lucidity, humor, and an uncanny ear for the intimacies and shorthand of family ritual, America Is Not the Heart is a sprawling, soulful debut about three generations of women in one family struggling to balance the promise of the American dream and the unshakeable grip of history.

Brother by David Chariandy


David Chariandy grew up in Toronto and lives and teaches in Vancouver. His debut novel, Soucouyant, received nominations from eleven literary awards juries, including the Governor General’s Literary Award (finalist), the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize shortlist, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist. Winner of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Brother is his second novel and his first to be published in the United States.

Brother addresses important current and politically charged themes, specifically police brutality toward African Americans. Michael describes the events leading up to and the aftermath of the shooting of his brother Francis by the Canadian police. Brother also grapples with the responsibility that adult children have to their parents after growing up in poverty, as well as masculinity and the perception of homosexuality in the Black community.

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

Gun Love

Jennifer Clement is the author of multiple books, including Widow Basquiat. She was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship and the Sara Curry Humanitarian Award for “Prayers for the Stolen.” The president of PEN International, she currently lives in Mexico City.

Gun Love is the searing, unforgettable story of a young girl’s resilience, by the award-winning author of Prayers for the Stolen. Written in a gorgeous lyric all its own, Gun Love is the story of a tough but optimistic young woman growing up in contemporary America, in the midst of its harrowing love affair with firearms.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi


Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer and artist based in liminal spaces. Born and raised in Nigeria, they received an MPA from New York University and was awarded a 2015 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship. They won the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa. Their work has been published in various literary magazines, including Granta. Freshwater is their debut novel.

Freshwater chronicles the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her because she is born “with one foot on the other side.” Unsettling, heart-wrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

Small Country by Gaël Faye

Small Country

Gaël Faye was born in 1982 in Burundi to a French father and Rwandan mother. In 1995, after the outbreak of the civil war and the Rwandan genocide, the family moved to France. An author, songwriter and hip-hop artist, he released his first solo album, “Pili Pili sur un croissant au beurre,” in 2013. Small Country is his first novel. A bestseller in France, it has been awarded numerous literary prizes, including the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, and is being published in thirty countries worldwide. He lives in Paris.

Small Country is the evocative coming-of age-story of a young boy, a lost childhood and a shattered homeland. A novel of extraordinary power and beauty, Small Country describes an end of innocence as seen through the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of civil war and genocide. Shot through with shadows and light, tragedy and humor, it is a stirring tribute not only to a dark chapter in Africa’s past, but also to the bright days that preceded it.

Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

Brandon Hobson is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and his writing has appeared in such places as Conjunctions, NOON, The Paris Review Daily, and The Believer. He is the author of Desolation of Avenues Untold, Deep Ellum, and The Levitationist. He teaches writing in Oklahoma, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribe.

The book addresses the Native American experience in rural America through the perspective of a teenage orphan in the foster care system. It is about coming-of-age in a marginalized subset of American culture—and how that can be a lonely, dark experience.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

American Marriage

Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, including Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. Jones holds degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She teaches creative writing at Emory University and lives in Atlanta.

An American Marriage grapples with issues of race, wrongful imprisonment, and mass incarceration—the culmination of research the author began at a fellowship at Harvard in 2011. It makes these issues personal, by giving them faces and emotions.

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon


R.O. Kwon is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing is published or forthcoming in The Guardian, Vice, Buzzfeed, Time, Noon, Electric Literature, Playboy, and elsewhere. She has received awards from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Omi International, the Steinbeck Center, and the Norman Mailer Writers’ Colony. Born in South Korea, she has lived most of her life in the United States.

The Incendiaries is a powerful, darkly glittering novel of violence, love, faith, and loss, as a young woman at an elite American university is drawn into acts of terrorism by a cult tied to North Korea. It is a brilliant examination of the minds of extremist terrorists, and of what can happen to people who lose what they love most.

Severance by Ling Ma


Ling Ma received her MFA from Cornell University. Prior to graduate school she worked as a journalist and editor. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Vice, Playboy, Chicago Reader, Ninth Letter and elsewhere. A chapter of Severance received the 2015 Graywolf SLS Prize. She lives in Chicago.

Severance upends conventions by shifting the frame to a young woman’s coming-of-adulthood and coming-out-of-grief through work. It’s delightfully satirical, calling out the tropes of the genre and our thoughtless patterns in smart, subtle takes on authority and power structures.

Bring Out the Dog by Will Mackin

Bring Out The Dog

Will Mackin, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and Tin House, and has been anthologized in the Best American Short Stories 2014. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in New Mexico with his wife and two children.

Bring Out the Dog is a mesmerizing debut collection that reveals what it’s like to be a member of an elite special operations team, where missions take place behind night vision, ancient credos, and layers of secrecy. Moving between settings at home and abroad, in vivid language that reflects the wonder and discontent of war, Mackin draws the reader into a series of surreal, unsettling, and deeply human episodes. Told without a trace of bravado, and with a keen, Barry Hannah-like sense of the absurd, Mackin manages to capture the tragedy and heroism, degradation and exultation in the smallest details of war.

There There by Tommy Orange

There There

Tommy Orange is a recent graduate from the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is a 2014 MacDowell Fellow, and a 2016 Writing by Writers Fellow. He is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. He was born and raised in Oakland, California, and currently lives in Angels Camp, California.

There There is a wondrous and shattering portrait of the urban Native American. Tommy Orange has written a stunning novel that grapples with a complex and painful history, with an inheritance of beauty and profound spirituality, and with a plague of addiction, abuse, and suicide.

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel

If You See Me

Neel Patel is a first-generation Indian American who grew up in Champaign, Illinois. His short stories have appeared in The Southampton Review, Indiana Review, The American Literary Review, Hyphen Magazine, and on He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he is at work on his debut novel.

In If You See, Me Don’t Say Hi, Neel Patel writes about first-generation Indian Americans navigating work, love, success, and family in America today. He explores in particular depth the experience of being gay, being part of a biracial relationship, and navigating the expectations of your community while being true to your personal identity.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People

Nafissa Thompson-Spires earned a PhD in English from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from ­­­­­­the University of Illinois. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The White Review, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, StoryQuarterly, Lunch Ticket, and The Feminist Wire, among other publications. She is a 2016 participant of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, a 2017 Tin House workshop participant, and a 2017 Sewanee Writers’ Conference Stanley Elkin Scholar. Born in San Diego, California, she now lives in Illinois with her husband.

Hailed by critics as exceptional and drawing comparisons to Paul Beatty and Toni Cade Bambara, Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body.

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