This week, Aspen Words announced the longlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, an annual award for a work of fiction that addresses a vital contemporary issue. The $35,000 prize is awarded annually to an influential work of fiction that demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. Open to authors of any nationality, the award is one of the largest literary prizes in the United States, and one of the few focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact. The 16 longlisted titles are novels, eight of them debuts. More than half the books were published by small and mid-size independent presses.
The five finalists and winner will be selected by a jury comprised of novelist, editor, and professor Angie Cruz; award-winning fiction writer Danielle Evans; founder and CEO of Planet Word Ann Friedman; award-winning American memoirist Kiese Laymon; and poet and theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama.
“The 16 novels that comprise this year’s longlist explore questions of freedom and identity, exile and belonging, and are set against the ravages of colonialism, consumerism, and classism,” said Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur. “But what makes these works so powerful is how the stories are told through the multidimensional lens of family—nuclear, relational, parentless, childless—revealing how tenderness and tenacity shape outcome.”
The finalists will be announced on February 23, 2022, and the winner will be revealed at an awards celebration at the Morgan Library in New York City on April 21, 2022.
Radiant Fugitives by Nawaaz Ahmed (Counterpoint Press)
Radiant Fugitives is a dazzling novel following three generations of a Muslim Indian family confronted with a nation on the brink of change. Their reunion unearths years of betrayal and misunderstanding, and their family, like the country itself, must grapple with acceptance, forgiveness, and enduring love. Nawaaz Ahmed was born in Tamil Nadu, India. Before turning to writing, he was a computer scientist. Radiant Fugitives is his first novel.
What Strange Paradise by Omar El Akkad (Knopf)
What Strange Paradise is an intimate and vivid look at the current refugee crisis. It is a story of empathy and indifference, of hope and despair—and about the way each of those things can blind us to reality. Omar El Akkad is an author and a journalist. He has reported from Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, and many other locations around the world.
The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan (HMH Books)
The Arsonists’ City interrogates the current and historical conflicts in Lebanon, the Syrian refugee crisis, the ongoing displacement of Palestinians, and issues of immigration to America and Europe. It also examines what it’s like to live as a brown person in America, homophobia, and issues of class and gender, both in the US and in the Middle East. Hala Alyan is a clinical psychologist and the author of the novel Salt Houses.
The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam (Scribner)
The Startup Wife takes on faith and the future with a gimlet eye and a deft touch. With a wickedly funny feminist look at startup culture and modern partnership, it asks can technology—with all its limits and possibilities—disrupt love? Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Tahmima Anam is an author and contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.
What Storm, What Thunder by Myriam J.A. Chancy (Tin House)
What Storm, What Thunder explores the lives of Haitian characters, linked through family and social networks, as they negotiate the catastrophic outcomes of the Haitian earthquake of January 12, 2010. The book is an unforgettable testimony to the tenacity of the human spirit. Myriam J. A. Chancy, Ph.D.is a Haitian-Canadian-American writer and professor at Scripps College.
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies (HMH Books)
A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself traces the complex consequences of one of the most personal yet public, intimate yet political, experiences a family can have—to have a child, and conversely, the decision not to have a child. The narrative chronicles the flux of parenthood, marriage, and the day-to-day practice of loving someone, as abortion rights and the experience of fatherhood illuminate the subtext. Peter Ho Davies is the author of The Fortunes and two short story collections.
Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng (Simon & Schuster)
Swimming Back to Trout River offers an authentic and emotional look at the struggles and joys immigrants face, and is particularly resonant in our current socio-political climate. Born in Shanghai, Linda Rui Feng is a professor of Chinese cultural history at the University of Toronto. Swimming Back to Trout River is her first novel.
Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Algonquin)
Set in a free Black community in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn and Haiti, Libertie is a timeless and timely examination of colorism, classism, community, and freedom that asks us: What does freedom actually mean? Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freedman. She is currently the features director at Harper’s Bazaar as well as a contributing writer for The New York Times.
Abundance by Jakob Guanzon (Graywolf Press)
Set in an America of big-box stores and fast food, Abundance trawls the fluorescent aisles of Walmart and the booths of Red Lobster to reveal the inequities and anxieties around work, debt, addiction, incarceration, and health care in America today. Jakob Guanzon was born in New York and raised in Minnesota. Abundance is his first novel.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Harper Collins)
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is a magisterial epic, both intimate and sweeping, about one American family and the daughter who discovers its secrets—spanning from her ancestors who came from Africa on slave ships and who were indigenous to Georgia, through the Civil War, to our present, fractious day. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is a fiction writer, poet and essayist. She is the author of five poetry collections. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is her first novel.
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott (Dutton)
Hell of a Book is a deeply honest, electrically funny novel that goes to the heart of racism, police violence, and the hidden costs exacted upon Black Americans, and America as a whole. Jason Mott is a writer of both novels and poetry.
Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen (Knopf)
Things We Lost to the Water features characters who are immigrants to the United States of America: a mother and two sons. It details the racism they face as Vietnamese people living in Louisiana, and the differences in assimilation between the older generation and the younger. Eric Nguyen is a writer who lives in Washington, DC. Things We Lost to the Water is his first novel.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers (W.W. Norton)
With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, Bewilderment is an intimate and moving novel, and at its heart lies the question: how can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet? Richard Powers has published thirteen novels. He lives in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade (W.W. Norton)
The Five Wounds is a stunning novel about a New Mexican family’s extraordinary year of love and sacrifice. Its characters will linger long after the final page, bringing to life their struggles to parent children they may not be equipped to save. Kirstin Valdez Quade teaches at Princeton University and lives in New Jersey. The Five Wounds is her debut novel.
Bewilderness by Karen Tucker (Catapult)
Along with critiquing Big Pharma, Bewilderness interrogates the health insurance, medical and restaurant industries, advocates for harm reduction strategies over tough love approaches, and shows how profit-driven rehab facilities exploit the Affordable Care Act, often leading to fatal results. Karen Tucker is an author who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her partner and multiple cats.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton (37 Ink)
Provocative and chilling, this coming-of-age story features a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in style and attitude alongside a backup chorus of unforgettable voices. Dawnie Walton is a fiction writer and journalist who lives in Brooklyn.