Books have the power to open minds and spark social change. The Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP) was established to recognize an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue. Sixteen titles published in the past year are up for the 2019 prize. Aspen Words asked some of the authors on the longlist to reflect on their favorite books from years past that embody the mission of the AWLP.
Ling Ma, author of Severence, recommends:
Recently, I read Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, first published in 1982 and reissued by New Directions. To say that it moved me deeply isn’t enough. It reads like a dream that has been perfectly realized; the more you try to deconstruct it, the more mysterious and essential and merciless it appears. I couldn’t predict any of its moves; it acts according to its own nature.
Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People, recommends:
If the Aspen Prize could reach all the way back to 1931, I’d hope it would go to George Schuyler’s Black No More. It’s not only one of my favorite novels, but it’s one of the first black satirical novels I read. I learned so much about structure, humor, and playfulness from Schuyler, and in many ways, he provided a foundation for the black postmodernist and post-soul writers who became my inspiration.
Will Mackin, author of Bring Out the Dog, recommends:
I’ve been doing a lot of car repair lately and so I’ve gone back to an old favorite: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Pirsig’s focus on what is good and why it’s good struck a chord with me when I first read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in high school in the early 1980s. Reading it now I recognize the urgency in Pirsig’s words. If in 1974 no one seemed to care about what they did or why they did it, those crises of purpose and meaning have only gotten worse. Contrary to so many philosophical/self-help books of today, Pirsig offers no easy solutions. Instead, he encourages us to imagine how things came into being, how those things change over time, and, through a better understanding of both phenomena, how we can exercise some agency over uncertainty and entropy, and therefore be more at ease with ourselves and the world that we’ve created.
Akwaeke Emezi, author of Freshwater, recommends:
Chinelo Okparanta’s Under The Udala Trees was the first novel I ever read that centered queer Nigerians, taking care to establish them in a pivotal moment in the timeline of Nigeria’s history. Her work is transformative on a global scale and I honestly think her impact on thought and culture is vastly underappreciated.
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, recommends:
I have become very interested in seeing The Street by Ann Petry awarded a revival of interest and readers. Petry was a pioneer of intersectional feminist art. Her heroine Lutie is a mother, a maid, and an artist. She longs for a life of passion, possibility, and respectability. When she faces sexual assault, she chooses her own safety and dignity and pays a bitter price. The Street was a blockbuster in the 40s, but it has faded from the canon of American Letters, probably due to the double yoke of racism and sexism, but the novel still resonates and has much to teach us about our present moment.