Aspen Words Announces 5 Finalists For 2021's Literary Prize

Feb 17, 2021
Originally published on February 18, 2021 1:12 pm

Three novels and two story collections — selected from a longlist of 15 — remain in contention for this year's Aspen Words Literary Prize.

The $35,000 prize honors fiction that "illuminates vital contemporary issues," and this year's finalists span the globe, covering everything from Native American land ownership questions to the intersections of Blackness and queerness to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"These books demonstrate the power of fiction to transform the way we see the world around us," says Adrienne Brodeur, executive director of Aspen Words, the nonprofit literary organization that hands out the prize in partnership with NPR. "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."

Harper Perennial

The finalists were selected by a five-member jury of writers: Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, past nominee Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw and Luis Alberto Urrea.

The winner will be announced at a virtual ceremony on April 21 that will also feature a conversation among the finalists, moderated by NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich

Citation by Luis Alberto Urrea

Atria Books

"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 capitol. It is a wise and transformative masterwork."

Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa

Citation by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Riverhead Books

"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."

The Office of Historical Corrections, by Danielle Evans

Citation by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Ecco

"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."

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

W.W. Norton & Co.

Citation by Daniel Shaw

"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."

If I Had Two Wings, by the late Randall Kenan

Citation by Emily Bernard

"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."

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