Rumaan Alaam on How Privilege Informs Crisis Response

February 16, 2021  • Aspen Words

On February 17, Aspen Words will announce the shortlist for the fourth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award recognizing a work of fiction that addresses a vital social issue. Fifteen works are still in the running, and the diverse list includes 13 novels and two short story collections. While the jury works on narrowing down this list to five finalists and a winner, Aspen Words chatted with the nominees about their work, how they view their role as a writer in the cultural and political moment, and the best piece of writing advice they’ve received. 

Rumaan Alam is the author of Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother. His latest novel Leave the World Behind is a suspenseful and provocative story of a vacation gone wrong. When a white family hears a knock on the door of their vacation home, they find the black homeowners have returned, saying that a mysterious blackout has swept New York City. As the two families try to figure out what is going on and whether they can trust each other, the book investigates how our particular privileges inform our response to a crisis and asks who—if anyone—might be equipped to save us from such a catastrophe. 

How do you view your role as a writer in this cultural and political moment, and why is the time right for your book? 

I hope the book—not my book, the book itself—continues to matter in the culture, thus, by extension, to my mind, the writer is an important figure. But I don’t think any writer can proceed while believing that true of themselves, or at least, I can’t. My role is just to keep trying. Indeed, the judgment of whether the time is right for a certain book is in the hands of the reader, not the writer. 

What is the core tenet of your book’s philosophy? 

The future is uncertain, and the future isn’t some distant point; it’s tomorrow. 

If you weren’t a writer what would you be? 

In my dreams, a painter. In reality, an ad man. 

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received on writing fiction? 

Read—promiscuously, deeply, constantly. 

Which books have brought you hope or solace, or expanded your awareness over the last year?

For me, the book has always held everything—joy, diversion, beauty, surprise. I needed those this year, or maybe I need them all the time. Some books (read this year if not published this year) that provided this (and more) include Lynn Steger Strong’s Want, Celia Paul’s Self-Portrait, Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, Patrick Modiano’s Invisible Ink, Shirley Hazzard’s Collected Stories, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, Heather Clark’s Red Comet, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life—honestly too many to list here. 

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January 25, 2021 • Aspen Words