In November, Aspen Words announced the longlist for the fifth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award recognizing a work of fiction that addresses a vital social issue. The selected books explore questions of freedom and identity, exile and belonging, and are set against the ravages of colonialism, consumerism, and classism. While the jury works on selecting a shortlist, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, how they view their role as a writer in this cultural and political moment, and the best piece of writing advice they’ve received.
Omar El Akkad is an author and a journalist. His novel What Strange Paradise is an intimate and vivid look at the current refugee crisis. It is a story of empathy and indifference, of hope and despair—and about the way each of those things can blind us to reality.
How do you view your role as a writer in this cultural and political moment?
I think my role as a writer is the same as it has always been—to say something true about what it means to be human. That the cultural and political moment has become increasingly cruel and deranged might make that obligation more challenging, but it doesn’t fundamentally change what I’m trying to accomplish every time I write a story.
What inspired you to write What Strange Paradise?
I’ve been a migrant since the age of five, which means I’ve spent most of my life as a guest on someone else’s land. Having no adequate answer to the question, “Where are you from?” I gravitated to fiction from a young age, drawn to what seemed then and still seems now a kind of superpower—to create and alter the boundaries of a made-up world to fit the contours of one’s own experience. From the day I wrote my first short story, I was hooked.
What is the core tenet of your book’s philosophy?
To look away is to be complicit.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received on writing fiction?
One of my editors at my old newspaper once told me to write every story as though I was also writing the next day’s follow-up at the same time. She meant it as journalism advice, but it has proven to be an incredibly useful perspective on writing fiction.
What are you currently reading?
The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany. It’s a lucid dream of a text, written amidst the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Cairo, and expertly translated by Robin Moger, who I think is one of the finest Arabic-to-English translators in the world.