Mohsin Hamid won the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP) tonight for his novel Exit West. The award, one of the largest literary prizes in the United States, 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.
“The book is my attempt to write against this growing anti-migrant sentiment,” Hamid said. “I wanted to portray migrants as heroes, not criminals. But more than that, I wanted to show that everyone is a migrant, even those who never move geographically, because moving through time, aging, is itself a form of migration.”
Exit West is a beautifully crafted novel that deeply draws readers into the lives of modern refugees. By slowly dissolving borders through the course of his book, Hamid imagines a world in which a narrow isolationism becomes untenable, and the global community must find a more just way of welcoming the displaced.
“Mohsin Hamid’s sentences are exquisite, capable of jaw-dropping surprise, elegant emotional exploration, and bone-chilling horror within a few clauses,” the AWLP jury said. “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.”
Endowed in perpetuity by an anonymous donor, the $35,000 prize will be awarded annually to an influential work of fiction. Open to authors of any nationality, it is one of few awards focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact. Eligible works include novels or short story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, race, or other social issues.
The winner was announced live at an awards ceremony at the historic Morgan Library in New York City. The program was emceed by Linda Holmes, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour.” Michel Martin, weekend host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” led a discussion on the finalist books. The 2018 finalists included Lesley Nneka Arimah (What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky), Zinzi Clemmons (What We Lose), Samrat Upadhyay (Mad Country), and Jesmyn Ward (Sing, Unburied, Sing). The finalists and winner were selected by a five-member jury including Stephen Carter, Jessica Fullerton, Phil Klay, Alondra Nelson, and Akhil Sharma. In addition to the cash award, the winner of the AWLP received a unique trophy designed by sculptor Michael Lorsung of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, Colorado.
In addition to Exit West, Mohsin Hamid is the internationally bestselling author of Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and Discontent and its Civilizations. His award-winning novels have been adapted for film, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and translated into more than 30 languages. He now resides in Lahore, Pakistan, his birthplace, after living in New York and London.
“I’m really grateful to be honored with this prize in particular,” Hamid said in his acceptance speech. “It looks to books to have an impact on the world.”