Aspen Institute Announces 2021 Judges for Aspen Words Literary Prize

June 10, 2020

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Luis Alberto Urrea to serve on five-member panel

Contact: Elizabeth Nix
Senior Program Associate | Aspen Words
970-925-3122 ext. 4 |

Aspen, CO, June 10, 2020 – The Aspen Institute announced the judges for the fourth cycle of the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction that addresses vital contemporary issues.

The submission process for the award opens June 10 and will run through August 3. Publishers are invited to electronically submit book-length works of fiction, including novels, short story collections and translations, published in the United States in 2020. A preliminary selection committee will read the nominations before the longlist is announced in November. A five-member jury will then determine the finalists and the winner in the first quarter of 2021.

The judges include writer and professor Emily Bernard, recently named a 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow; Sarah Ladipo Manyika, writer and founding books editor for, and Board Director for the women’s writing residency, Hedgebrook; Viet Thanh Nguyen,  author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Sympathizer,” Daniel Shaw, a journalist, musician and co-host for the Aspen Words writers’ residency; and Luis Alberto Urrea, most recently the author of “The House of Broken Angels,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Endowed in perpetuity by an anonymous donor, the Aspen Words Literary Prize has been awarded to Mohsin Hamid (2018) for his novel “Exit West,” Tayari Jones (2019) for “An American Marriage” and Christy Lefteri (2020) for her novel “The Beekeeper of Aleppo.” The prize is one of the largest purses given by a literary award. The mission of the award is to recognize an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.

“2020 has already brought multiple crises, with a pandemic and further demonstrations of systemic racial injustices in our society. Such incidents, ongoing and interconnected, underscore the need for literature that magnifies society’s essential flaws, takes into account important lessons from the past and creates hope for a better future,” said Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur. “With the Aspen Words Literary Prize, we are looking for fiction that will lead to shifts in consciousness, word by word, sentence by sentence, and story by story. We look forward to celebrating many worthy books from 2020 in this fourth cycle of the prize.” 

2021 Jury

Emily Bernard is a writer and professor. Her first book, “Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten,” was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her most recent book, “Black is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine,” won the 2019 Los Angeles Times – Christopher Isherwood Prize for autobiographical prose. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Emily was recently named a 2020 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the MacDowell Colony, Emily lives in Burlington, Vermont, with her husband and twin daughters. 

Sarah Ladipo Manyika was raised in Nigeria and has lived in Kenya, France, Zimbabwe, and England. Sarah is a novelist, short story writer and essayist and founding books editor for Her debut novel, “In Dependence,” is an international bestseller while her second novel, “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun,” has been translated into six languages. Her nonfiction includes personal essays and intimate profiles of people she meets from Pastor Evan Mawarire to Toni Morrison and Michelle Obama. Sarah serves as Board Director for the women’s writing residency, Hedgebrook.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel “The Sympathizer”is a New York Times best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His other books are “The Refugees, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War” and “Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America.” He is a university professor, the Aerol Arnold Chair of English, and a professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity, and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations. His most recent publication is “Chicken of the Sea,” a children’s book written in collaboration with his six-year-old son, Ellison. 

Daniel Shawis a freelance writer and musician living in Woody Creek, Colorado. He has written for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and, and recently finished a book on Snowmass, CO-based Anderson Ranch Arts Center. He has reviewed music for Daily Variety and the LA Weekly, was a Washington, D.C. bureau chief during the second Clinton administration, was a staff writer for The American Lawyer magazine and served as press secretary for the Navajo Nation. As a blues, rock and country harmonica player, Daniel has played live with numerous acts and recorded albums and commercials. Through their Catto Shaw Foundation, Daniel and his wife Isa Catto host a writers’ residency with Aspen Words. He currently chairs the board of trustees at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and co-chairs the Leadership Council at Conservation International. 

Luis Alberto Urrea is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellow, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction and the best-selling author of 18 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His most recent book is “The House of Broken Angels,” a New York Times Notable Book of the year, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and recently acquired by the Hulu network for a series. His novel “Into the Beautiful North” is a selection of the NEA Big Reads program. He is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. | | #AspenLitPrize

More information about the Aspen Words Literary Prize is available at:

Aspen Words was founded in 1976 as a literary center based in Aspen, CO. A program of the Aspen Institute, its mission is to encourage writers, inspire readers, and connect people through the power of stories. For more information, visit

The Aspen Institute is a global nonprofit organization committed to realizing a free, just, and equitable society. Founded in 1949, the Institute drives change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most important challenges facing the United States and the world. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute has a campus in Aspen, Colorado, and an international network of partners. For more information, visit


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