Aspen Words today announced the shortlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction that illuminates vital contemporary issues.
The shortlist, announced in collaboration with media partner NPR Books, includes four novels and one short story collection. One of the finalists, Bryan Washington, is a debut author, while Brian Allen Carr, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Christy Lefteri, and Valeria Luiselli have all published previous books to critical acclaim. The finalists were selected by a five-member jury including Alexander Chee, Amy Garmer, Saeed Jones, Helen Obermeyer, and Esmeralda Santiago.
The shortlisted titles address some of the most urgent social issues in America and the world today, such as drug addiction, homophobia, immigration, and income inequality. “Fiction has a way of mirroring real life. Whether from an exciting newcomer or experienced and celebrated authors, the issues raised in these books add to our understanding of contemporary life,” said head judge Esmeralda Santiago. “Most surprising for me as a reader was the humor in the midst of serious situations affecting the lives of a catalog of always engaging, well-drawn and diverse characters trying to be their best selves.”
Opioid, Indiana by Brian Allen Carr
The timing of Brian Allen Carr’s exquisite novel, Opioid, Indiana, is not a surprise. What is surprising is the redemption we feel in reading it. Opioid, Indiana, a fictitious town, is struggling for relevance and is decimated by addiction. We observe the activity of the residents through the acute observations of Riggle, a discarded, uneducated teen. Over the course of one week, we find the town and our protagonist are familiar, funny and lovable lost souls. Carr’s novel raises our empathy for all the young adults living on the street and gives us hope that they, like Riggle, will somehow transcend and survive. -Helen Obermeyer
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Patsy is a novel about an undocumented immigrant’s yearning to build a new life in the United States while connected by family and culture to Jamaica. Beneath the surface, it is a deeply affecting reflection on motherhood and the price women pay to define their own choices, desires and purpose in life. Dennis-Benn’s exquisite dialogue makes you want to read out loud, hearing its rhythm and tone, and her vividly drawn settings make it easy to enter Patsy’s world. Patsy is a novel as determined, honest and necessary as its protagonist. -Amy Garmer
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
With the first sentence, “I am afraid of my wife’s eyes,” we enter a world too visible for the protagonists who can’t, nevertheless, turn away. How do human beings process the horror around them, the senseless violence, the loss of what we hold dearest? Is it possible to ever feel safe, to love, to appreciate beauty? Christy Lefteri asks these questions of her characters, and ultimately, of us. We see wars on our screens and cross paths with the survivors in new lives in our neighborhoods, but we don’t see them. Lefteri brings us closer so we can, without fear. -Esmeralda Santiago
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli is informed, to powerful effect, by the author’s ongoing commitment to meditating on the seemingly infinite predicaments America’s immigration and refugee policy has brought to the fore. What I found so special about this book, though, was the unexpected route and experimental form the author uses to work through what all of this means for children and the very concept of “family.” -Saeed Jones
Lot by Bryan Washington
Few writers have done for their city what Washington has done for Houston, which is to say, to articulate how a new generation of citizens are living, loving and struggling there with both the legacies of their shared past and the new possibilities of the present. But in writing an interconnected short story collection about it, he has also mapped how climate change, income inequality, homophobia, anti-blackness, and anti-immigrant fervor are shaping our present, in what becomes a 21st-century picaresque, by the end— almost, even, an oracle. -Alexander Chee