This week, author Louise Erdrich was named the winner of the Aspen Words Literary Prize for The Night Watchman, a novel based on the life of her grandfather, one of the last remaining first speakers of Ojibwe. It takes place during the time of “Termination”—the 1953 federal policy of dispossession of Native Americans which sought to disband tribes and move Indigenous people into urban areas.
Erdrich accepted the award on behalf of her grandfather, and thanked those who, like him, “demanded justice, and who are still demanding justice and accountability from our institutions.” In this, she ties her tale of recent-historical fiction to the goals of the AWLP, a $35,000 annual award to a work that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.
Throughout the ceremony, presented in collaboration with media partner NPR Books, the presence of the pandemic loomed like a lonely ghost. If the very act of presenting a prize is difficult in a video chat (a Zoom call is no substitute for a podium call), the very act of writing—of being relevant, entertaining, and illuminating—is even more challenging.
As part of the award celebration, Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” moderated a conversation with Erdrich and three of the finalist authors: Susan Abulhawa (Against the Loveless World), Rumaan Alam (Leave the World Behind) and Danielle Evans (The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories). Kelly started by asking about the role of authors in times of isolation and fear.
Alam’s novel is almost eerily prescient on that count; in it, two families are forced to isolate together after a mysterious global catastrophe grinds society to a halt. But Alam suggests that this coincidence isn’t that surprising. “The artist has always been an antenna,” he said. “You can look back at work from five years ago and find something in it that clarifies something about the reality of the present moment.” He points to other novels of the past few years, including one by Erdrich, with themes of lockdown and isolation.
Indeed, it resonates through another finalist, Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World. That should not be surprising considering the book’s setting. “I’m always back in Palestine when I’m writing fiction,” she said. “Palestinians have actually lived under a different kind of lockdown for decades now. When I was a kid in Jerusalem, we often had curfews. And this was way before things got as bad as they are now.” In some places in Palestine, families can’t leave their homes for days or months on end.
Kelly also asked the authors what sort of writing would come out of the pandemic, a time in which the real world became stranger than fiction. Evans shares that curiosity but didn’t have an answer. “There’s a large part of many of us that just never wants to think about it again,” she said. “I think most of the work of fiction is that you take things in and you process them, and this has been a year where there haven’t been those opportunities to have the experiences that would usually fuel that; there’s nothing to burn.”
Erdrich, in her acceptance, addressed the same concern. “I worry that we may forget this year because it’s been so difficult,” she said, “But I think we should not. We should remember everything we can about this year. We should remember the people who did their jobs, the people who kept us alive, and the people who worked so hard to keep the world going.”
You can watch the entire Aspen Words Literary Prize ceremony below: