Last week, Aspen Words announced the shortlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 annual award. The five shortlisted titles are novels that address a broad range of important contemporary social issues, including the global migrant crisis, the trauma of natural disasters, and racism in America.
“Several of these works speak to concerns in the current zeitgeist, while others remind us of disasters from the recent past that define our present and demand renewed attention,” said Adrienne Brodeur, executive director of Aspen Words.
The finalists—Hala Alyan, Myriam J.A. Chancy, Omar El Akkad, Kirstin Valdez Quade, and Dawnie Walton—were selected by a four-member jury. The prize winner will be announced at an awards ceremony on Thursday, April 21 at The Morgan Library in New York City. The event will feature a conversation with the finalists moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered.
Learn more about the five finalists, as described by members of the jury:
The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan
The Arsonists’ City is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to one another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the afterlife of violence, displacement, and upheaval. Alyan expertly balances her portrait of the way early dreams and parts of the self can vanish in adulthood with an exploration of how quickly home or a sense of normalcy can vanish or shift for an entire population, how easily a person, a city, or a way of life can become at once familiar and unrecognizable.
The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton
As innovative in form as it is soulful in delivery, The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is a dazzling exploration of the spectacular and eerie complications of the way race, gender, and punk rock necessarily collide. What can these collisions produce? The book is a tutorial in the possibilities and terrifying limitations of an interracial duo who seem to move in two very different directions upon their breakup. Dawnie Walton blurs the lines between revelation and realization in a book that witnesses, and really undulates under, the weight of professional and personal secrets, while picking away at the very real desire for American progress with few substantial models for reciprocal American reckoning.
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade
The Five Wounds is a gorgeous and openhearted novel full of vivid characters whose lives tell an illuminating story about addiction, self-improvement schemes, and what happens when the purveyors of social services are more invested in their own validation than in what they might promise the people who need them most. At the heart of this book is Angel, a pregnant teenager repeatedly asked to accept the unacceptable and settle for less. Kirstin Valdez Quade gives her the grace of the hard-won knowledge that she deserves to ask for more.
What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy
Myriam Chancy’s poignant and haunting novel, What Storm What Thunder, is a searing portrait of the earthquake of 7.0 magnitude that shook the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, leaving over a quarter-million dead. Through the chorus of ten unforgettable characters, the novel relentlessly and movingly retells the story of the earthquake, urging us to remember and rethink disaster. The devastation and catastrophic loss in Haiti could happen to any of us as we face climate emergency—regardless of where we live, this book is testimony to how our lives are entwined and how community is essential for our collective survival.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad
The world was shocked by the 2015 photo of a Syrian child lying dead on a beach after a boat carrying him and other migrants shipwrecked. Seven years later, the shipwrecks, drownings, and migrant crisis continue. Omar El Akkad’s alternately dream-like and photo-realistic novel, What Strange Paradise, imagines a similar journey of a Syrian boy and an ark of fellow refugees. In spare, unsparing prose, El Akkad limns the callousness and kindness of his characters, lifting them off the front page and bringing them fully to life, and forcing us to respond.