Aspen Institute Announces Five Finalists for the Aspen Words Literary Prize

February 19, 2020

Four novels and one short story collection make up the shortlist for the $35,000 award

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


Aspen, CO, February 19, 2020
– Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute, today announced the shortlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize (AWLP), a $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction that illuminates vital contemporary issues.

The 2020 shortlist:

Opioid, Indiana by Brian Allen Carr (Soho Press)
Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn (Liveright)
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (Ballantine Books)
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (Knopf)
Lot by Bryan Washington (Riverhead Books)

The shortlist, announced in collaboration with media partner NPR Books, includes four novels and one short story collection. One of the finalists, Bryan Washington, is a debut author, while Brian Allen Carr, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Christy Lefteri and Valeria Luiselli have all published previous books to critical acclaim. The finalists were selected by a five-member jury including Alexander Chee, Amy Garmer, Saeed Jones, Helen Obermeyer and Esmeralda Santiago.

The shortlisted titles address some of the most urgent social issues in America and the world today, such as drug addiction, homophobia, immigration and income inequality. “Fiction has a way of mirroring real life. Whether from an exciting newcomer or experienced and celebrated authors, the issues raised in these books add to our understanding of contemporary life,” said head judge Esmeralda Santiago. “Most surprising for me as a reader was the humor in the midst of serious situations affecting the lives of a catalogue of always engaging, well-drawn and diverse characters trying to be their best selves.”

The $35,000 winner will be announced live at an awards ceremony in New York City at The Morgan Library on Thursday, April 16. The finalists will participate in a conversation 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. Tickets are available at aspenwords.org.

Jury Citations

Opioid, Indiana by Brian Allen Carr
The timing of Brian Allen Carr’s exquisite novel, Opioid, Indiana, is not a surprise. What is surprising is the redemption we feel in reading it. Opioid, Indiana, a fictitious town, is struggling for relevance and is decimated by addiction. We observe the activity of the residents through the acute observations of Riggle, a discarded, uneducated teen. Over the course of one week, we find the town and our protagonist are familiar, funny and lovable lost souls. Carr’s novel raises our empathy for all the young adults living on the street and gives us hope that they, like Riggle, will somehow transcend and survive.
[Helen Obermeyer]

Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Patsy is a novel about an undocumented immigrant’s yearning to build a new life in the United States while connected by family and culture to Jamaica. Beneath the surface, it is a deeply affecting reflection on motherhood and the price women pay to define their own choices, desires and purpose in life. Dennis-Benn’s exquisite dialogue makes you want to read out loud, hearing its rhythm and tone, and her vividly drawn settings make it easy to enter Patsy’s world. Patsy is a novel as determined, honest and necessary as its protagonist.
[Amy Garmer]

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
With the first sentence, “I am afraid of my wife’s eyes,” we enter a world too visible for the protagonists who can’t, nevertheless, turn away. How do human beings process the horror around them, the senseless violence, the loss of what we hold dearest? Is it possible to ever feel safe, to love, to appreciate beauty? Christy Lefteri asks these questions of her characters, and ultimately, of us. We see wars on our screens and cross paths with the survivors in new lives in our neighborhoods, but we don’t see them. Lefteri brings us closer so we can, without fear.
[Esmeralda Santiago]

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli is informed, to powerful effect, by the author’s ongoing commitment to meditating on the seemingly infinite predicaments America’s immigration and refugee policy has brought to the fore. What I found so special about this book, though, was the unexpected route and experimental form the author uses to work through what all of this means for children and the very concept of “family.”
[Saeed Jones]

Lot by Bryan Washington
Few writers have done for their city what Washington has done for Houston, which is to say, to articulate how a new generation of citizens are living, loving and struggling there with both the legacies of their shared past and the new possibilities of the present. But in writing an interconnected short story collection about it, he has also mapped how climate change, income inequality, homophobia, anti-blackness and anti-immigrant fervor are shaping our present, in what becomes a 21st century picaresque, by the end— almost, even, an oracle.
[Alexander Chee]

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 April 2018 for Exit West, his novel about migration and refugees. Tayari Jones received the 2019 award for An American Marriage, her novel about wrongful incarceration. Eligible works include novels or short story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, race or other social issues.

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More information about the Aspen Words Literary Prize and the finalists is available at: http://www.aspenwords.org/programs/literary-prize/finalists

Download book jackets and author headshots:
https://www.dropbox.com/sh/jd3prn014mgg7me/AACnkC59eSJmerBRV2NRu11ja?dl=0

Aspen Words Literary Prize logo:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/jsk0svn4z6vh8nu/AW%20LP%20and%20AI%20logos%20stacked%20HIRES.jpg?dl=0

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 www.aspenwords.org/.

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 www.aspeninstitute.org.

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