The Aspen Words Literary Prize is a $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue. The 14 titles included in the 2024 longlist include four story collections and 10 novels with four debut voices.
“It’s always an honor to announce the Aspen Words Literary Prize longlist. These dynamic works of fiction tackle subjects including racism, religion, capitalism, antisemitism, the United States judicial system, and others, and in doing so, exemplify our mission to connect people through stories,” said Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur. “It is our hope that you will find them engaging, illuminating, and provocative, and that they will spark dialogue in your communities.”
The finalists will be announced on March 13, 2024, and the winner will be revealed at an awards celebration, which is free and open to the public, at the Morgan Library in New York City on April 25, 2024. Learn more about each author and their works below.
Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is the New York Times-bestselling author of Friday Black. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, The Paris Review and elsewhere. In his book Chain-Gang All-Stars, prisoners compete in CAPE, or Criminal Action Penal Entertainment, a highly popular, highly controversial, profit-raising program in America’s increasingly dominant private prison industry. Moving from the Links in the field to the protestors to the CAPE employees and beyond as prisoners compete for their freedom, Chain-Gang All-Stars is a kaleidoscopic, excoriating look at the American prison system’s unholy alliance of systemic racism, unchecked capitalism, and mass incarceration and a clear-eyed reckoning with what freedom in this country really means.
Temple Folk by Aaliyah Bilal
Aaliyah Bilal has published stories and essays with The Michigan Quarterly Review and The Rumpus. Temple Folk is her first short story collection. In it, Black Muslims contemplate the convictions of their race, religion, economics, politics, and sexuality in America. With an unflinching eye for the contradictions between what these characters profess to believe and what they do, Temple Folk accomplishes the rare feat of presenting moral failures with compassion, nuance and humor to remind us that while perfection is what many of us strive for, it’s the errors that make us human.
Witness by Jamel Brinkley
Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories, which won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. In his book Witness, he explores what it really means to really see the world around you. And what does it cost us, both to see and not to see? In 10 stories, each set in the changing landscapes of contemporary New York City, a range of characters—from children to grandmothers to ghosts—live through the responsibility of perceiving and the moral challenge of speaking up or taking action.
The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa by Stephen Buoro
Stephen Buoro was born in Nigeria in 1993. The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa is his first novel. In it, Nigerian teenager Andy is forced to reckon with his identity and desires and determine how to live on what he calls the Cursed Continent. Crackling with energy, this tragicomic novel provides a stunning lens into contemporary African life, the complicity of the West, and the impossible challenges of growing up in a turbulent world.
Enter Ghost by Isabella Hammad
Isabella Hammad’s writing has appeared in Conjunctions, The Paris Review, The New York Times and elsewhere. She was awarded the 2018 Plimpton Prize for Fiction and a 2019 O. Henry Prize. Enter Ghost is a story of diaspora, displacement, and the connection to be found in family and shared resistance. It follows Palestinian Sonia Nasir as she returns to her family’s homeland to visit her sister and find a new sense of self amidst unexpected and challenging obstacles. Timely, thoughtful, and passionate, Isabella Hammad’s highly anticipated second novel is an exquisite feat, an unforgettable story of artistry under occupation.
The Laughter by Sonora Jha
Sonora Jha is the author of the memoir How to Raise a Feminist Son and the novel Foreign. After a career as a journalist covering crime, politics and culture in India and Singapore, she moved to the United States to earn a PhD in media and public affairs. Sonora’s op-eds, essays, and public appearances have been featured in the New York Times, on the BBC, in anthologies, and elsewhere. An explosive, tense, and illuminating work of fiction, The Laughter is a fascinating portrait of privilege, radicalization, class, and modern academia that forces us to confront the assumptions we make as both readers and as citizens.
What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez by Claire Jiménez
Claire Jiménez is a Puerto Rican writer who grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island. She is the author of the short story collection Staten Island Stories, which received the 2019 Hornblower Award for a first book from the New York Society Library and was named a finalist for the International Latino Book Awards, a New York Public Library Favorite Book about New York, and Best Latino Book of 2019 by NBC News. What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez, her debut novel, is a vivid family portrait, in all its shattered reality, exploring the familial bonds between women and cycles of generational violence, colonialism, race, and silence, replete with snark, resentment, tenderness, and of course, love.
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang is the #1 New York Times bestselling and Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award nominated author of Babel, the Poppy War trilogy, and the forthcoming Yellowface. With its totally immersive first-person voice, Yellowface grapples with questions of diversity, racism, and cultural appropriation, as well as the terrifying alienation of social media.
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
Rebecca Makkai’s last novel, The Great Believers, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; it was the winner of the ALA Carnegie Medal, the Stonewall Book Award, the Clark Prize, and the LA Times Book Prize; and it was one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2018. I Have Some Questions for You is a stirring investigation into collective memory and a deeply felt examination of one woman’s reckoning with her past, with a transﬁxing mystery at its heart.
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
James McBride is the author of the New York Times–bestselling Oprah’s Book Club selection Deacon King Kong, the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird, the American classic The Color of Water, and more. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store tells the story of Black and Jewish residents of the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s and ’30s.
When Trying to Return Home: Stories by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a writer, poet, and university professor. She has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, CantoMundo, Kimbilio, and the Sundress Academy for the Arts. Profoundly moving and powerful, the stories in When Trying to Return Home dig deeply into the question of belonging. Forming a web of desires and consequences that span generations, McCauley’s Black American and Afro–Puerto Rican characters remind us that these voices have always been here, occupying the very center of American life—even if we haven’t always been willing to listen.
The People Who Report More Stress: Stories by Alejandro Varela
Alejandro Varela is a writer based in New York. His debut novel, The Town of Babylon, was published by Astra House and was a finalist for the National Book Award. A collection of humorous, sexy and highly neurotic tales about parenting, long-term relationships, systemic and interpersonal racism and class conflict from the author of The Town of Babylon, The People Who Report More Stress deftly and poignantly expresses the frustration of knowing the problems and solutions to our society’s inequities but being unable to do anything about them.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward has received the MacArthur Genius Grant, a Stegner Fellowship, a John and Renee Grisham Writers Residency, the Strauss Living Prize, and the 2022 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. She is the historic winner—first woman and first Black American—of two National Book Awards for Fiction. Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation.
Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang
C Pam Zhang is the author of How Much of These Hills Is Gold, winner of the Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award and the Asian/Pacific Award for Literature, longlisted for the Booker Prize, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the National Book Critics’ John Leonard Prize, and one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year. Sensuous and surprising, joyous and bitingly sharp, told in language as alluring as it is original, Land of Milk and Honey lays provocatively bare the ethics of seeking pleasure in a dying world. It is a daringly imaginative exploration of desire and deception, privilege and faith and the roles we play to survive. Most of all, it is a love letter to food, to wild delight and to the transformative power of a woman embracing her own appetite.