The shortlist, announced in collaboration with media partner NPR Books, includes three novels and two short story collections. The finalists—Susan Abulhawa, Rumaan Alam, Louise Erdrich, Danielle Evans, and Randall Kenan—have all published previous books to critical acclaim. Kenan’s short story collection was released before his death in August of last year.
The finalists were selected by a five-member jury including Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw, and Luis Alberto Urrea. The shortlisted titles address a broad range of important contemporary social issues, from the dissolution of Indigenous lands to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the intersectionality of being Black and queer, as well as racism in America.
“The five finalists were selected from an extremely strong longlist of 15 titles,” said Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur. “These books demonstrate the power of fiction to transform the way we see the world around us. They deal with serious topics, but among these novels and story collections are also stunning love stories and characters who will make you laugh out loud.”
The $35,000 winner will be announced at a virtual awards ceremony on Wednesday, April 21. 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:
This utterly compelling novel of love, passion, and politics is also a story of personal and revolutionary awakening. Susan Abulhawa weaves a thrilling account of Nahr and her life—from young girl to independent woman—into the larger tapestry of Palestinian dispossession and resistance. Formed through the calamitous experiences of invasion, war, occupation, and sexual exploitation, Nahr becomes a political prisoner who is yet free in her own mind. An agent of history and a full-fledged subject of her own existence, Nahr stands at the center of Abulhawa’s ambitious epic. -Viet Thanh Nguyen
Susan Abulhawa discusses her need to affirm Palestinian existence in this interview.
Leave the World Behind is a truly rare piece of work–a completely original, utterly mysterious, gripping page-turner.From cover to cover, Rumaan Alam manages to conjure almost unbearable tension on multiple levels, from the intimate to the existential, and do it with power, humor, and profound insight into human behavior. The story is precisely of the moment in how it tackles race, class, and the fragility of our planet, yet is absolutely timeless. And terrifying. Good luck putting it down. -Daniel Shaw
Read Rumaan Alam’s thoughts on how privilege informs crisis response in this interview.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich’s novel The Night Watchman is a magisterial summation of her influential work while at the same time setting a new foundation for the future. A historical novel that is also a story of love, a familial chronicle, a book about Indigenous community and anti-tribal animus, it opens worlds incessantly. It can move from comedic visions of eccentric boxers to terrifying stories of the disappearances of Native women, hints of ghost stories, and a prophetic explosion of violence inside the nation’s capital city. It is a wise and transformative masterwork. -Luis Alberto Urrea
The weight of history—especially that which has been hidden, ignored, or whitewashed—lies at the core of thisbrilliant collection of stories. From the slow unraveling of a wedding weekend, to what emerges in the social media aftermath of a college student’s wearing of a Confederate flag bikini, to the titular story built around the ingenious concept of a government agency for correcting historical inaccuracies—these six short stories and a novella dig deep around race, class, gender and family history. The collection unsettles, provokes, and stays with a reader the way all great stories do. –Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Learn why Danielle Evans calls her book “alarming topical” in this interview.
If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan
In If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan creates a sensual world that is delicate and durable enough to contain and honor the mysteries of the lives of its vast range of characters, living and dead. These 10 linked, deeply atmospheric stories take readers on a journey through the mundane and the miraculous, in which the boundary between the sacred and profane is never certain. Largely set in fictional Tims Creek, North Carolina, these stories attend lovingly to the rich complexity of Black and queer identity in the author’s signature shining, subtle prose. We were greatly saddened by Randall Kenan’s premature passing, and this final published work stands as a fitting and enduring legacy. -Emily Bernard