In March, Aspen Words announced the 2023 finalists for the sixth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award recognizing a work of fiction that addresses a vital social issue. The selected books explore the climate crisis, racism, xenophobia, and mental health, and feature a range of dynamic voices. While the jury works on selecting a winner, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, how they view their role as a writer in this cultural and political moment, and the best piece of writing advice they’ve received.
What about our current cultural and political moment inspired you to write How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water?
Although I wasn’t writing directly in response to a political moment I did write this book while Trump was president. So many anti-immigrant and anti-gay rhetoric and policies were and continue to threaten the freedom of queer and immigrant communities that informed this book.
Cara Romero was born out of my feelings of despair. In 2017, I felt acutely the ways immigrants and BIPOC community were under attack. I was questioning if writing a book was the most important thing I could be doing to help stop the violence against our communities. But then Cara emerged and spoke candidly to me about the issues I cared about including homophobia, gentrification, abuse. The novel is set during the Great Recession and tells the story from Cara’s point-of-view, who loses her job after working in the same place for over 25 years. Trump’s presidency and also living through the pandemic has many of us asking how do we start again? The novel illustrates how investing in our communities is essential for our overall health and sustainability.
What did you learn while writing this book?
I learned how to listen better to people I am not in agreement with. I took the time to listen to Cara Romero and think about how I could write with compassion a character who has made choices I would never make, some choices even infuriated me. Conflict, I have learned, even if it takes a lot of work to communicate and move through it, can produce intimacy and transformation. And in this way I learned a lot about acceptance. We don’t always have to agree. But we can work to listen generously and learn how to proceed with those we love with care and an open mind.
Which of the characters did you find most difficult to write?
In some ways all the characters challenged me because I am interested in writing characters that would make very different choices than I would. So while writing them I have to figure out how not to judge them, but instead complicate them. In fact, I try to look at my characters like I do with anyone I love who I have tension with: with compassion. In many ways this book is about how we mother. All the mothers in this book are so hard on each other even when they understand they can’t live without each other.
Some say writers should write the book they need to read. Why did you need this book, and what do you hope it says to others?
Paule Marshall told me that Grace Paley told her that the stories we are working on answer a question that we don’t even know we’re asking, and I think that’s how I enter a book. I follow the character, I build a world around them and the character reveals something to me that I wasn’t actively searching for but needed. When I started writing this book I wanted to give up on writing and start a new career. I was not feeling optimistic about publishing and the political climate. And honestly, I needed to laugh. And even though Cara Romero reflects the realities of many women in my community, who live in Washington Heights, who have gone through very difficult experiences, generations of trauma, violence and difficulty, she laughed and she made me laugh. And I need laughter.
What was the last book you couldn’t put down?
The last book I read I couldn’t put down was Grace and Carmen by Melissa Coss Aquino. From page one, I was deeply invested in Carmen and Grace and their wild predicament of having to negotiate between their tight bonds to each other and their ambitions. It had me up late turning the pages wanting to know if they will make it out of their wild predicament without destroying everything. If you love reading novels about creative, ambitious, and relentless women who are committed to community and making a way out of no way, I highly recommend this book.