Last night, Dawnie Walton was named the winner of the Aspen Words Literary Prize for her novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev. The $35,000 award, one of the largest literary prizes of its kind, was established by the Aspen Institute to honor a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.
Walton’s book follows the meteoric rise of a fictional interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour. Her work explores identity, place, and the influence of pop culture.
The inspiration for the novel came after Walton watched 20 Feet From Stardom, a documentary about the background singers—most of them Black women. Everyone knows their voices from iconic rock songs, but their names often get discarded. Walton said, “I wanted to dream up an Afro-punk ancestor who would’ve been a queen to me as a Black woman who grew up loving alternative music and other outré offshoots of rock & roll. I wanted her to be messy and artsy and way ahead of her time, while also loud—no matter what room she’s in, and no matter the personal cost—about her love for and commitment to her Black community.”
In a citation, the AWLP jury called the novel “as innovative in form as it is soulful in delivery.” In it, Walton “blurs the lines between revelation and realization in a book that witnesses, and really undulates under, the weight of professional and personal secrets, while picking away at the very real desire for American progress with few substantial models for reciprocal American reckoning.”
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is Walton’s debut novel. Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly, she has received fellowships in fiction from MacDowell and Tin House, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
As part of the awards program, Mary Louise Kelly, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” moderated a conversation with Walton and three of the finalists: Hala Alyan (The Arsonists’ City), Myriam J.A. Chancy (What Storm, What Thunder) and Kirstin Valdez Quade (The Five Wounds). A fourth finalist, Omar El Akkad (What Strange Paradise), was unable to attend the event due to a prior commitment.
You can watch the full awards ceremony below: