Awakening Moral Imagination

April 11, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered the following remarks at the announcement ceremony for the winner of the 2019 Aspen Words Literary Prize held at the Morgan Library in New York City on April 11, 2019. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Welcome to the second annual announcement of the winner of the Aspen Words Literary Prize. I’m Dan Porterfield, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute. I’m honored to share the stage with Adrienne Brodeur, the Executive Director of Aspen Words, whose vision and hard work, with her team, have made possible this evening and this award. Thank you, Adrienne.

We’re thrilled to celebrate the best in contemporary literature: authors who invite us to engage questions of justice, freedom, fairness, equity, and inclusion—values we cherish and protect not for one time, but for all time.

Congratulations and thank you to our finalists for joining us this evening.  Thank you to all of our judges, our partners, National Public Radio, and a special thank you to Renee Montagne, special host and correspondent for NPR News and tonight’s moderator.

The Aspen Words Literary Prize recognizes fiction of enduring literary excellence that has the power to broaden minds and build empathy around critical human, social, and global issues.

This prize reflects the values of our organization, founded seven decades ago in the aftermath or genocide and world war, and dedicated to the proposition that humanistic inquiry and discussion are the beating heart of a free, just, and equitable society. Today, the Aspen Instiutute hosts more than 60 programs working to foster dialogue, empower youth, elevate emerging voices, protect the environment, preserve open societies, create good jobs, and so much more. We’re an optimistic organization, believing that each of us can make a difference and all of us should try. We use many methods to make a difference—from research to leadership development to practical problem-solving to circulating ideas.

Not surprisingly, the Aspen Institute is quite the home for writers. One of our Board members is Madeleine Albright, most recently the author of the historical meditation, Fascism: A Warning. Another is the incandescent Anna Deveare Smith, whose most recent work, Notes from the Field, makes the poverty to prison pipeline undeniably human. And soon, you will all have the opportunity to read Adrienne Brodeur’s much-anticipated memoir, Wild Game.

All this work—and certainly The Aspen Words Literary Prize—is really about awakening moral imagination. That’s what we do and it’s what we celebrate today and it’s what we need so desperately in our country. It’s moral imagination that allows us to know to our core that each human has equal dignity and that no one is more human than anyone else. And it’s moral imagination that sparks us to become more active agents of community—participants and not spectators in the fitfull art form known as democracy.

Tonight, we congratulate the 177 authors whose works were nominated, sixteen of which made the longlist, although many more could have—and, of course, our five exceptional finalists. They are:

  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black
  • David Chariandy, author of Brother
  • Jennifer Clement, author of Gun Love
  • Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
  • Tommy Orange, author of There There

Beautifully written, their novels bring light and heat, making meaning from pain, and remind us to drop our veils and just look at one another with open eyes and minds.

To our authors, thank you for the long days and nights thinking and sketching, writing and revising, thrashing away, journeying with both your imagined characters and your envisioned readers in the hope of making a work of art that will do justice to them both.

You have indeed awakened moral imagination, and we are most grateful.