Aspen Words Unveils Finalists for Its Inaugural $35,000 Literary Prize

March 5, 2018

Three novels and two short story collections make up the shortlist

Contact: Caroline Tory
Program Manager | Aspen Words
970-925-3122 ext. 3# |

Aspen, CO, March 5, 2018 – Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute, today announced the shortlist for the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP), a $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction with social impact.

“What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah
“What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons
“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid
“Mad Country” by Samrat Upadhyay
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

The shortlist, announced in collaboration with media partner NPR Books, includes three novels and two short story collections. Two of the finalists, Arimah and Clemmons, are debut authors, while Hamid, Upadhyay and Ward have all published multiple books to critical acclaim. The finalists were selected by a five-member jury including Stephen Carter, Jessica Fullerton, Phil Klay, Alondra Nelson and Akhil Sharma.

“We were looking for works that engaged social issues variously and deeply, but equally important, works that were beautifully rendered and illuminated the world anew,” said Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council. “The most challenging part of the process was weighing different books that had a lot to say and a lot to offer, but worked in very different styles and genres,” said head judge Phil Klay, who won the 2014 National Book Award for his short story collection “Redeployment.”

The $35,000 winner will be announced live at an awards ceremony in New York City at The Morgan Library on April 10. The finalists will participate in a conversation moderated by Michel Martin, weekend host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Linda Holmes, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” will emcee the ceremony. Limited tickets are available at

Jury Citations

“What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah
Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of stories marks the debut of a truly remarkable talent.  The tales she spins, set mostly in her native Nigeria and in the United States, are told with rare and stunning beauty.  Whether describing a post-apocalyptic future, a battle of the spirits or tension between a mother and daughter, her writing is poignant and rich, full of staggering images and stunning twists.  But even her bleakest portraits of pain are marked by a nourishing belief in the virtue of perseverance and the power of hope.

“What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons

In “What We Lose,” Zinzi Clemmons has crafted a profound and formally daring novel about a young woman reconciling herself to the death of her South African-born mother. Clemmons writes with deep intelligence and tremendous emotional force about loss, about identity, about family and about the subtle ways social structures intrude upon the space we try to carve out for ourselves and for those we love.

“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid
“Exit West,” Mohsin Hamid’s magical realist novel about refugees, is a work of deep humanity. His sentences are exquisite, capable of jaw-dropping surprise, elegant emotional exploration and bone-chilling horror within a few clauses. And by bringing the contemporary refugee crisis into countries that have mostly ignored the suffering beyond their borders, he forces us to ask ourselves how we are reacting to the crisis and what potential we have to do better. In a world with 50 million displaced people, this is a novel that affects us all.

“Mad Country” by Samrat Upadhyay
The stories in “Mad Country” bring news: of Nepalese in Nepal, of immigrants in Middle America, of the confused and heartbroken. These are stories without the least sentimentality and a great deal of humor. There is in each story a direct engagement with history and the political without the least trace of the didactic. Surely this must be recognized as something magical.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward
Writing at the height of her powers, in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Jesmyn Ward brings us a brutally-honest family history—a stark genealogy of those linked in life and after death, by the roots and branches of racism. Ward’s writing is at turns lyrical and elegiac, intricate and plainly said, yet always deeply affecting. This revelatory work illuminates the historical ties that bind us all.

About the Aspen Words Literary Prize
Endowed in perpetuity by an anonymous donor, the $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize will be 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 will be conferred for books published in English in the United States in 2017. Eligible works include novels or short story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, race or other social issues. In addition to a cash award, the winner of the AWLP will receive a unique trophy designed by sculptor Michael Lorsung of the Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, Colorado.

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 an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, CO; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit | | #AspenLitPrize

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