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A virtual celebration of books that matter with the Aspen Words Literary Prize

IF YOU WATCH

Virtual Aspen Words Literary Prize proceedings will be broadcast for free at aspenwords.org.

One-on-one video interviews with the finalist authors, in conversation with prize judgesAlexander Chee, Amy Garmer and Esmeralda Santiago will go online beginning at 7:30 a.m.

A video conversation with Aspen Institute President Dan Porterfield and Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur about the role of literature during this time of social distancing and global pandemic will go up at 2 p.m.

The winner reveal and acceptance speech will be broadcast at 4 p.m.

Content will also roll out on the Aspen Words social channels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Rather than in the august halls of the Morgan Library in Manhattan, the Aspen Words Literary Prize will announce its winner Thursday afternoon in the only public space where anyone does just about anything these days: online video conference.

While literary events have been canceled around the world in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic and other major prizes and award ceremonies have postponed, the mission-driven Aspen Words honor — which gives $35,000 to the author of a work of fiction “that illuminates vital contemporary issues” — is going online with a daylong celebration, culminating with the announcement of its winner.

Aspen Words is broadcasting free virtual events beginning at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, including interviews with the five finalists: “Opioid, Indiana” author Brian Allen Carr, “Patsy” author Nicole Dennis-Benn, “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” author Christy Lefteri, “Lost Children Archive” author Valeria Luiselli and “Lot” author Bryan Washington.

They’ll be interviewed by prize judges Alexander Chee, Amy Garmer and Esmeralda Santiago, followed by a conversation between Aspen Institute President Dan Porterfield and Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur about the role of literature during the pandemic.

Those video segments replace the planned finalists’ panel that was to be led by NPR’s Mary-Louise Kelly at the Morgan on Thursday.

So viewers will hear from all the finalists, there will be an announcement of the winner and an acceptance speech, but all will be connected across state and international borders to a potential global audience.

“It has been a real jigsaw puzzle figuring out all those pieces,” Brodeur said in a phone interview.

The Words team wanted to deliver the same level of conversation and honor each of the books as they would have with an in-person celebration, she said.

The Words staff and board made the decision to go virtual in mid-March as the outbreak hit Aspen, worsened around the U.S. and forced public health bans on large gatherings. It was announced March 30.

“This seemed like the more viable solution for us,” Brodeur explained. “And we saw the potential for it.”

While the annual prize celebration at the Morgan Library in New York can draw an audience of about 250 in person for the ceremony to rub elbows with the finalists and attracted a small online viewership last year, in this all-virtual moment it could touch readers from around the world, Brodeur noted.

“As a virtual event, it has the potential to have a far broader reach than a traditional celebration,” she added. “Virtually we can amplify the reach of these five books, create discussions around their themes and build empathy around those. The goals of the prize remain the same: to draw attention to these books and the issues they explore.”

Those social issues, rather than being overshadowed during the public health crisis, have all been thrust harshly into the limelight by COVID-19 — immigration, economic inequality, the refugee crisis, substance abuse and American racism among them.

Endowed for Aspen Words by an anonymous donor, the award is in its third year. The previous winners were Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage” last year and Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” in 2018.

After Thursday’s events, Aspen Words is moving forward with the spring and summer programming around the prize in Aspen, including a talk by the winner, a “community read” and valleywide discussion groups hosted by the Pitkin County Library, and free copies for local readers. This year, some or all of the events may be virtual depending on how social-distancing guidelines evolve in the coming months.

The virtual events Thursday also offer the publishing world a moment to celebrate as it reels from the economic fallout from coronavirus. Major events from BookExpo and the Pulitzer Prize announcement have been canceled, online retailers have paused book sales, new releases (the paperback of Brodeur’s memoir “Wild Game” among them) have been postponed and bookstores are shuttered or doing phone-and-pickup service like Aspen’s Explore Booksellers. So the daylong festivities are a welcome opportunity to toast writers and their ideas.

While making the prize virtual, Aspen Words also canceled its annual Summer Words literary conference and festival, which hosts workshops with authors in Aspen in June. It is going virtual, as well. Aspen Words has not yet released details about Summer Words public events, which normally include daily author panels and talks as well as the nonprofit’s annual fundraising benefit.

While disrupting the world at large and the world of letters, Brodeur noted the public health crisis also has underscored why literature matters.

“Literature can be calming and reassuring and helps people put things in perspective,” she said. “It can remind us of resilience in the past. I know I’m reading more than I ever have.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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