Author Christy Lefteri is a child of refugees, and her latest novel, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, is meant “to shed light on the often-devastating plight of refugees, through an intimate portrayal of one family—their losses, their fears, traumas, hopes, and their ability or inability to love each other because of these things.”
“My role as a writer,” she says, “is to help the reader to walk in these characters’ shoes, to feel what they feel so that perhaps they can develop a deep empathy and understanding.” In that, she has certainly succeeded.
In recognition of this moving work of fiction, The Beekeeper of Aleppo has been named winner of the $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize. The award, one of the largest literary prizes in the United States, was established by the Aspen Institute to honor work that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.
The book tells the story of a couple who flees war-torn Syria—and a heart-wrenching family tragedy—to make a treacherous journey to the United Kingdom. “This is a story about loss and hope,” says Lefteri, “about losing our sense of safety, the place that we call home. It is about losing our sense of self, amplified by displacement and migrating, losing our identity, becoming known only as a refugee.
“With the first sentence,” says AWLP head judge Esmeralda Santiago, “we enter a world too visible for the protagonists who can’t, nevertheless, turn away.” The novel, she says, demands that we contemplate the way we humans process the horror around us, the senseless violence, the loss of what we hold dearest.
Lefteri brings more than her own family’s experience to the narrative, which also draws from her time working as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee center in Athens. “When I met people in Greece and saw how much they suffered, I began to realize that real hope and resilience lies in being able to mourn for what we have lost and reconnect with the people who are still by our side.”
“I want The Beekeeper of Aleppo to represent all refugees worldwide,” says Lefteri. “I think more than ever, we need fiction which helps us to not just see but to feel the struggles that refugees face in today’s world.”
In addition to the best-selling The Beekeeper of Aleppo, published by Ballantine Books, Lefteri is the author of the novel A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible. She lives in London, where she is a lecturer in creative writing at Brunel University.
The Aspen Words Literary Prize is presented in collaboration with media partner NPR Books. For its first two years, the award was presented live at a ceremony at The Morgan Library in New York City, but this year brings the celebration online. View conversations surrounding the winning novel, as well as interviews with four other finalists and a conversation between Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur and Aspen Institute President Dan Porterfield on the prize’s Celebration Page.