Aspen Words Literary Prize names five 2020 finalists

Staff report

The shortlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize includes “Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr, “Patsy” by Nicole Dennis-Benn, ”The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Lefteri, “Lost Children Archive“ by Valeria Luiselli and “Lot” by Bryan Washington.

The five books are finalists for Aspen Words’ $35,000 annual award for a work of fiction “that illuminates vital contemporary issues.”

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

One of the 2020 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, culled from a longlist of 16 books, were selected by a five-member jury including Alexander Chee, Amy Garmer, Saeed Jones, Helen Obermeyer and Esmeralda Santiago.

The shortlisted titles address social issues such as drug addiction, homophobia, immigration and income inequality.

“Fiction has a way of mirroring real life,” head judge Esmeralda Santiago said in Wednesday morning’s announcement. “Whether from an exciting newcomer or experienced and celebrated authors, the issues raised in these books add to our understanding of contemporary life. 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 2020 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 NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

The Pitkin County Library in Aspen will simulcast the ceremony live and host a community party for the event. In late spring, Aspen Words, in partnership with library, will distribute free copies of the winning book for a community read program, to feature a valley-wide book club gathering, panel discussions and other activities.

Tickets for the Morgan Library event are available at

The jury’s citation for Carr’s “Opioid, Indiana” reads: “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.”

Of Dennis-Benn’s “Patsy,” the jury wrote, “’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.”

The citation for Lefteri’s “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” says, “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.”

The jury’s note for Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” states it 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.’”

And of Bryan Washington’s “Lot,” they wrote: “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.”


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