On February 17, Aspen Words will announce the shortlist for the fourth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award recognizing a work of fiction that addresses a vital social issue. Fifteen works are still in the running, and the diverse list includes 13 novels and two short story collections. While the jury works on narrowing down this list to five finalists and a winner, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, how they view their role as a writer in the cultural and political moment, and the best piece of writing advice they’ve received.
Akwaeke Emezi is the author of the novel Freshwater, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a best book of the year by The New Yorker, NPR, the Chicago Public Library, and BuzzFeed. 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. The story is fueled by a deeply compelling mystery that unfolds over the course of the novel. Teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations; a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader.
How do you view your role as a writer in this cultural and political moment, and why is the time right for your book?
My role as a writer is the same as it is in any moment, to tell stories that center those of us who have been relegated to the margins, to hold that center no matter what, and I don’t think there’s a ‘right time’ for our stories, I think our stories transcend time and are always necessary.
What is the core tenet of your book’s philosophy?
Not a core tenet, but certainly a tenet of The Death Of Vivek Oji is that you can choose a new family and be loved by them for who you are. I wanted to remind readers that you don’t have to keep throwing yourself against a gaze that’s determined to unsee you; that’s how too many of us break. Leave, and be loved.
If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
I always wanted to be a dancer but at this rate, I’m heading toward being a farmer.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received on writing fiction?
Build a wall around your work. Protect it from everyone else, even your agents, until you know it’s ready to go out there.
Which books have brought you hope or solace, or expanded your awareness over the last year?
I started reading Alyssa Cole’s body of work, I’m about five books deep, and I’m absolutely in awe of how wonderful her worlds are. Reading the lives of Black queer and gender non-conforming characters like hers reminds me that so many of us are indeed doing the difficult work of imagining a better world.