Aspen Institute Announces the Five Finalists for the 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize

February 17, 2021

Three novels and two short story collections are in the running for the $35,000 award

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

Aspen, CO, February 17, 2021 – Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute, today announced the finalists for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP), a $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction that illuminates vital contemporary issues.

The 2021 shortlist:

  • Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa (Atria Books)
  • Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (Ecco)
  • The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Harper)
  • The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories by Danielle Evans (Riverhead Books)
  • If I Had Two Wings: Stories by Randall Kenan (W.W. Norton & Company)

The shortlist, announced in collaboration with media partner NPR Books, includes three novels and two short story collections. The finalists—Susan Abulhawa, Rumaan Alam, Louise Erdrich, Danielle Evans and Randall Kenan, who passed away in 2020—have all published previous books to critical acclaim. The finalists were selected by a five-member jury including Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw and Luis Alberto Urrea.

The shortlisted titles address a broad range of important contemporary social issues, from the dissolution of Indigenous lands to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the intersectionality of being Black and queer, as well as racism in America.

“The five finalists were selected from an extremely strong longlist of 15 titles,” said Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur. “These books demonstrate the power of fiction to transform the way we see the world around us. They deal with serious topics, but among these novels and story collections are also stunning love stories and characters who will make you laugh out loud.”

The $35,000 winner will be announced at a virtual awards ceremony on Wednesday, April 21. The event will feature a conversation with the finalists, moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of “All Things Considered,” NPR’s award-winning evening newsmagazine. Kelly is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of two novels.


Against the Loveless World by Susan Abulhawa
This utterly compelling novel of love, passion and politics is also a story of personal and revolutionary awakening. Susan Abulhawa weaves a thrilling account of Nahr and her life—from young girl to independent woman—into the larger tapestry of Palestinian dispossession and resistance. Formed through the calamitous experiences of invasion, war, occupation and sexual exploitation, Nahr becomes a political prisoner who is yet free in her own mind. An agent of history and a full-fledged subject of her own existence, Nahr stands at the center of Abulhawa’s ambitious epic.
(Viet Thanh Nguyen)

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Leave the World Behind is a truly rare piece of work–a completely original, utterly mysterious, gripping page turner. From cover to cover, Rumaan Alam manages to conjure almost unbearable tension on multiple levels, from the intimate to the existential, and do it with power, humor and profound insight into human behavior. The story is precisely of the moment in how it tackles race, class and the fragility of our planet, yet is absolutely timeless. And terrifying. Good luck putting it down.
(Daniel Shaw)

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich’s novel The Night Watchman is a magisterial summation of her influential work while at the same time setting a new foundation for the future. A historical novel that is also a story of love, a familial chronicle, a book about Indigenous community and anti-tribal animus, it opens worlds incessantly. It can move from comedic visions of eccentric boxers to terrifying stories of the disappearances of Native women, hints of ghost stories and a prophetic explosion of violence inside the nation’s capital city. It is a wise and transformative masterwork.
(Luis Alberto Urrea)

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans
The weight of history—especially that which has been hidden, ignored or whitewashed—lies at the core of this brilliant collection of stories. From the slow unraveling of a wedding weekend, to what emerges in the social media aftermath of a college student’s wearing of a Confederate flag bikini, to the titular story built around the ingenious concept of a government agency for correcting historical inaccuracies—these six short stories and a novella dig deep around race, class, gender and family history. The collection unsettles, provokes and stays with a reader the way all great stories do.
(Sarah Ladipo Manyika)

If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan
In If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan creates a sensual world that is delicate and durable enough to contain and honor the mysteries of the lives of its vast range of characters, living and dead. These 10 linked, deeply atmospheric stories take readers on a journey through the mundane and the miraculous, in which the boundary between the sacred and profane is never certain. Largely set in fictional Tims Creek, North Carolina, these stories attend lovingly to the rich complexity of Black and queer identity in the author’s signature shining, subtle prose. We were greatly saddened by Randall Kenan’s premature passing, and this final published work stands as a fitting and enduring legacy.
(Emily Bernard)

About the Aspen Words Literary Prize

The $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize is awarded annually to an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. Open to authors of any nationality, the award is one of the largest literary prizes in the United States, and one of the few focused exclusively on fiction with a social impact. The inaugural award was presented to Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for Exit West, his novel about migration and refugees. Tayari Jones won the 2019 prize for An American Marriage, her novel about racism and unjust incarceration, and Christy Lefteri received the 2020 prize for her novel The Beekeeper of Aleppo, about Syrian refugees. Eligible works include novels or short story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, racism or other social issues.

The winner will be revealed at a virtual awards celebration on April 21, 2021. | | #AspenLitPrize

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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. For 70 years, the Institute has driven change through dialogue, leadership, and action to help solve the most critical challenges facing communities at home and around the world. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Institute has offices in Aspen, Colorado, and New York City, and an international network of partners. For more information, visit


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