Aspen Words Literary Prize Announces Longlist of 16 Titles for 2020 Award

November 14, 2019  • Aspen Words

Aspen Words today announced the longlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP), an annual award for a work of fiction that addresses a vital contemporary issue. The 16 longlisted titles include 12 novels and four short story collections, with six of the selections by debut authors. Aspen Words presented the longlist in collaboration with NPR Books, the official media partner for the award.

The five finalists and winner will be selected by a five-member jury that includes acclaimed writer and professor Alexander Chee, founding director of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries Amy Garmer, literary activist and poet Saeed Jones, Helen Obermeyer, whose career spans work in the financial services industry to television show production, and best-selling memoirist Esmeralda Santiago.

“Fiction can help bridge divides across political, racial and socioeconomic lines,” said Aspen Words Executive Director and writer Adrienne Brodeur. “This year’s longlist includes titles that grapple with many of our biggest contemporary challenges—racial injustice, family separation and immigration, opioid addiction. But they are also stories of triumph and hope—a reckoning with colonial history, a reclamation of the American Dream, a reflection of human resiliency and a celebration of so many voices left out of conventional literature.”

The award is open to authors of any nationality and is one of the largest literary prizes in the United States with a purse of $35,000. It is one of the few focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact. The inaugural award was presented to Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for Exit West, his novel about migration and refugees. Tayari Jones won the 2019 prize for An American Marriage, her novel about racism and unjust incarceration.

Five finalists will be named on February 19, 2020 and the winner will be announced live at an Awards Ceremony in New York City on April 16, 2020.

Opioid, Indiana by Brian Allen Carr

Brian Allen Carr lives in Indiana. He is the author of the novel Sip, along with several novellas and story collections. Carr is the winner of a Wonderland Book Award and a Texas Observer Story Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Granta, Ninth Letter, Hobart, Boulevard and other publications.

Opioid, Indiana explores economic inequality, addiction, racism and mass shootings, in a voice that is unique and sharp.

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

Steph Cha is the author of the Juniper Song crime trilogy. Cha is now the noir editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books and a contributing book reviewer for The Los Angeles Times. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two basset hounds.

Steph Cha uses the tragic death of Latasha Harlins in 1991, the aftermath of which helped start the unrest in Los Angeles that led to the Rodney King riots, as inspiration for her novel Your House Will Pay. Set in the present day, it explores the relationship between an African-American family and a Korean-American family navigating the legacy of a decades-old crime to illustrate larger issues of racial injustice, generational violence and social unrest. With daily headlines about massive civil protests, criminal justice reform and diverse representation,Your House Will Pay is timely, urgent and moving.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Angie Cruz is the author of two novels, Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee, a finalist in 2007 for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She has published work in The New York Times, VQR, Gulf Coast Literary Journal and other publications, and has received fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts, Yaddo and The MacDowell Colony. Cruz is founder and editor in chief of Aster(ix), a literary and arts journal and is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dominicana follows Ana, a young woman who is married off to an older man in order to escape the political turmoil of the Dominican Republic. Away from her family and on her own in America, Ana is forced to choose between her duty to her family and her own happiness. Asking what the price of freedom is in America,Dominicana explores issues of race, immigration and gender.

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Nicole Dennis-Benn is the author of Here Comes the Sun, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Lambda Literary Award. Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, she teaches at Princeton University and lives with her wife in Brooklyn.

Patsy gives voice to a woman who looks to America for the opportunity to choose herself first—not to give a better life to her family back home. Nicole Dennis-Benn charts the geography of a hidden world—that of a paradise lost, swirling with the echoes of lilting patois, in which one woman fights to discover her sense of self in a world that tries to define her. Passionate, moving and fiercely urgent, Patsy is a prismatic depiction of immigration and womanhood, and the lasting threads of love stretching across years and oceans.

Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Kali Fajardo-Anstine is from Denver, Colorado. Her fiction has appeared in The American Scholar, Boston Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The Idaho Review, Southwestern American Literature and elsewhere. Fajardo-Anstine has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and Hedgebrook. She received her MFA from the University of Wyoming and has lived across the country from Durango, Colorado, to Key West, Florida.

Sabrina & Corina was born of the author’s desire to provide literary representation of her community: Latinas of indigenous ancestry in the American West. The collection began as a love song to Denver, a multicultural space, a convergence zone where the various cultures that made Fajardo-Anstine came together in a unique blend. For much of the author’s life, she felt unseen, discarded or dismissed in dominant literature. From a long line of artists and storytellers, Fajardo-Anstine inherited an urge to explore the Southwestern storytelling tradition as it relates to place, violence against women, feminism and family.

The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami is the author of The Other Americans, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Secret Son and The Moor’s Account, which won the American Book Award, the Arab American Book Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Harper’s Magazine and The Guardian. A professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside, Lalami lives in Los Angeles.

The Other Americans is a timely and powerful novel about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant, Driss Guerraoui—at once a family saga, a murder mystery and a love story, informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture. As the characters—deeply divided by race, religion and class—tell their stories, connections among them emerge, even as Driss’ family confronts its secrets, a town faces its hypocrisies, and love, messy and unpredictable, is born.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Brought up in London, Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees. She is a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University. Her novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo was born out of her time working as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee center in Athens. She also is the author of the novel A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is about a couple who must leave war-torn Syria and make the treacherous journey to the UK. It brings faraway events that we see on the news close to home—and brings home the realization that the most ordinary of lives can be completely upended in unimaginable ways.

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India. She is the author of the essay collection Sidewalks, the novels Faces in the Crowd, The Story of My Teeth, and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award and has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. She lives in New York City.

Lost Children Archive tells a powerful narrative of migration and family, taking place across the United States and culminating at the Mexican border. Following the points of view of a mother, a boy and a group of migrant children journeying alone, the book reflects on what happens when families are separated and when we cannot protect our children from the greatest dangers; and—in a world that erases some of its people—on how stories themselves might be told: how we preserve history and experience in words, sounds and pictures.

The Beadworkers by Beth Piatote

Beth Piatote is an associate professor of Native-American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University, is the author of numerous scholarly essays and creative works and is the recipient of multiple awards and fellowships. She is Nez Perce enrolled with Colville Confederated Tribes, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her two children.

The Beadworkers, an inventive, mixed-genre debut collection, draws on Indigenous aesthetics and forms to offer a powerful vision of Native-American life in contemporary America. Piatote’s stories span throughout the past century, and some take place against the backdrop of the 1960s Fish Wars and Wounded Knee in 1890. Inevitably, her work contends with the environment, violence and justice.

The Affairs of the Falcóns by Melissa Rivero

Melissa Rivero was born in Lima, Peru, and raised in Brooklyn. Undocumented for most of her childhood, Rivero became a U.S. citizen in her early twenties. Her writing has taken her to the VONA/Voices Workshops, Bread Loaf and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony. In 2015, Melissa was an Emerging Writers Fellow at the Center for Fiction. She is a graduate of New York University and Brooklyn Law School, and currently works on the legal team of a startup. She still lives in Brooklyn with her husband, two sons and their rescue dog.

Melissa Rivero offers a poignant, moving portrait of undocumented immigration in her debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns. Following an undocumented family who leaves behind the political strife of Peru and seeks a better life in New York City, this novel brings to light the difficult decisions, overwhelming fear and sense of instability that are ingrained in the everyday lives of undocumented immigrants. But it also showcases the incredible perseverance and strength that defines these families and offers a political perspective that is at once critical and hopeful.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin has been a recipient of an Iowa Review Award in fiction and a winner of the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for Novel-in-Progress. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. A native of New Orleans, Ruffin is a graduate of the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop and a member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.

In We Cast a Shadow, Maurice Carlos Ruffin follows the tradition of Ralph Ellison, Paul Beatty and other seminal black writers who have used satire and humor to shed light on our white supremacist history. His novel is about how anti-black racism becomes internalized and wielded against the ones we love most.

The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott

Rion Amilcar Scott’s first book, Insurrections, won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, the Rumpus, PANK and Confrontation, among other publications.

In The World Doesn’t Require You, Rion Amilcar Scott shatters rigid genre lines to explore larger themes of religion, violence and love—all told with sly humor and a dash of magical realism. Established by the leaders of the country’s only successful slave revolt in the mid-19th century, Cross River still evokes the fierce rhythms of its founding. As the book builds to its finish, the reader comes to appreciate the intricacy of the world Scott has created—one where fantasy and reality are eternally at war.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong is the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds, winner of the Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize. His writings have also been featured in The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker and The New York Times. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, highlights issues of class and gender. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class and masculinity. The novel asks central questions about addiction, violence, trauma and family structure.

Lot by Bryan Washington

Bryan Washington has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, MUNCHIES, American Short Fiction, GQ, FADER, The Awl and Catapult. He lives in Houston.

Lot is a story collection set in Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States and a sprawling, diverse microcosm of America. Here, the son of a black mother and a Latino father is coming of age. He’s working at his family’s restaurant, weathering his brother’s blows, resenting his older sister’s absence and discovering he likes boys. Around him, others live and thrive and die in Houston’s myriad neighborhoods. With soulful insight into what makes a community, a family and a life, Lot explores trust and love in all its unsparing and unsteady forms.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including The Underground Railroad, which was a No. 1 New York Times best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships, he lives in New York City.

In The Nickel Boys, the bravura follow-up to The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is the best-selling author of more than two dozen award-winning books, including the New York Times-best-selling National Book Award finalist, Another Brooklyn. Among her many accolades, Woodson is a four-time National Book Award finalist, a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a two-time NAACP Image Award winner and a two-time Coretta Scott King Award Winner. Her New York Times-best-selling memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, received the National Book Award in 2014. She lives with her family in New York.

Red at the Bone centers around two families in Brooklyn from different social classes, joined together by an unexpected pregnancy and the child that it produces. Moving forward and backward in time, Woodson unfurls the history of each generation to show how they all arrived at this moment and uncovers the role that history, racism and community have played in the experiences, decisions and relationships of these families.