Today Aspen Words announced the shortlist for the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award for a work of fiction with social impact. Announced in collaboration with media partner NPR Books, the list includes three novels and two short story collections. Two of the finalists, Lesley Nneka Arimah and Zinzi Clemmons, are debut authors, while Mohsin Hamid, Samrat Upadhyay, and Jesmyn Ward have all published multiple books to critical acclaim. A five-member jury read twenty longlisted titles and narrowed it down to five that stood out for both their literary achievement and their thoughtful consideration of a vital social issue. The jury will select a winner, who will be announced live at an awards ceremony in New York City on April 10.
“We were looking for works that engaged social issues variously and deeply, but equally important, works that were beautifully rendered and illuminated the world anew,” said Alondra Nelson, one of the prize judges and president of the Social Science Research Council. “The most challenging part of the process was weighing different books that had a lot to say and a lot to offer, but worked in very different styles and genres,” said head judge Phil Klay, who won the 2014 National Book Award for his short story collection Redeployment. Learn more about the five nominees below.
What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of stories marks the debut of a truly remarkable talent. The tales she spins, set mostly in her native Nigeria and in the United States, are told with rare and stunning beauty. Whether describing a post-apocalyptic future, a battle of the spirits, or tension between a mother and daughter, her writing is poignant and rich, full of staggering images and stunning twists. But even her bleakest portraits of pain are marked by a nourishing belief in the virtue of perseverance and the power of hope.
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
In What We Lose, Zinzi Clemmons has crafted a profound and formally daring novel about a young woman reconciling herself to the death of her South African-born mother. Clemmons writes with deep intelligence and tremendous emotional force about loss, identity, family, and the subtle ways social structures intrude upon the space we try to carve out for ourselves and for those we love.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s magical realist novel about refugees, is a work of deep humanity. His sentences are exquisite, capable of jaw-dropping surprise, elegant emotional exploration, and bone-chilling horror within a few clauses. And by bringing the contemporary refugee crisis into countries that have mostly ignored the suffering beyond their borders, he forces us to ask ourselves how we are reacting to the crisis and what potential we have to do better. In a world with 50 million displaced people, this is a novel that affects us all.
Mad Country by Samrat Upadhyay
The stories in Mad Country bring news: of Nepalese in Nepal, of immigrants in Middle America, of the confused and heartbroken. These are stories without the least sentimentality and a great deal of humor. In each story is a direct engagement with history and the political without the smallest trace of the didactic. Surely this must be recognized as something magical.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Writing at the height of her powers, in Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward brings us a brutally honest family history—a stark genealogy of those linked in life and after death by the roots and branches of racism. Ward’s writing is at turns lyrical and elegiac, intricate and plainly said, yet always deeply affecting. This revelatory work illuminates the historical ties that bind us all.