Christy Lefteri’s ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ wins Aspen Words Literary Prize
IF YOU WATCH…
Video recordings of Thursday’s author talks and the Aspen Words Literary Prize ceremony are available at aspenwords.org.
Christy Lefteri’s “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” won the third annual Aspen Words Literary Prize on Thursday in a virtual ceremony and celebration.
The prize proceedings, scheduled to take place at the Morgan Library in Manhattan, moved online due to public health restrictions from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Lefteri, whose novel was inspired by her work in refugee camps, spoke in her acceptance speech of literature as an engine for hope and empathy in both the refugee crisis and the ongoing public health crisis.
“Literature fills the distance,” she said from home in London. “It is a bridge. It connects people everywhere. We can reach people across oceans and borders and time. And though we cannot physically extend a hand through the pages of a book, we can express that we understand. It deepens our empathy.”
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The novel about Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Great Britain deals with the personal struggles and trauma of an artist and a beekeeper caught in the ongoing global refugee crisis.
Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur and associate director Carline Tory informed Lefteri she’d won via Zoom, surprising the author with the news after telling her they would be discussing nominee logistics.
“I wasn’t expecting that in the slightest,” Lefteri said upon hearing the news. “I feel completely gob-smacked.”
Also a among the finalists for the prize were “Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr, “Patsy” by Nicole Dennis-Benn, “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli and “Lot” by Bryan Washington.
The mission of the prize is to recognize a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.
All of five finalists took part in video discussions about their work and its role in society on during a day-long online prize celebration on Thursday, streamed at aspenwords.org where the content remains free for viewing.
“It was the idea that we could be anyone anywhere suffering in this way,” Lefteri said of her inspiration for the novel in her interview with author and prize judge Esmeralda Santiago posted Thursday morning. “That somehow our pain could be interchangeable, that somehow the pain that I feel could be the pain that you feel or that my future child feels. This is the thing that connects us, the love that we feel for each other.”
Lefteri follows past winners Tayari Jones, last year for “An American Marriage,” and the inaugural winner Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for “Exit West.” Lefteri is expected to take part in a virtual conversation about the book during the summer-long community read of “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” this summer, as the traditional venue for the winner’s public talk – the Aspen Summer Words literary conference and festival – has canceled its in-person events.
The $35,000 attached to the prize ranks it among the more lucrative American publishing awards for fiction. It was endowed by an anonymous donor to Aspen Words and is to be given annually in perpetuity. The prize trophy itself, made from corian and walnut in the shape of a book, was designed and made at Anderson Ranch by sculptor Michael Lorsung.
The prize finalists and winner were selected by a five-member jury comprised of “The Queen of the Night” author Alexander Chee, poet Saaed Jones, memoirist Esmeralda Santiago, the Aspen Institute’s Amy Garmer and Aspenite Helen Obermeyer.
The jury’s citation for “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” reads: “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.”
Lefteri is also the author of the novel “A Watermelon, a Fish and a Bible.” The child of Cypriot refugees, Lefteri grew up in London where she now lectures at Brunel University.
“The Beekeeper of Aleppo” was born out of her time working as a volunteer at a UNICEF-supported refugee center for women and children in Athens in 2016 and 2017. Lefteri detailed the life-altering experience in her Zoom interview with Santiago Thursday.
As part of the virtual proceedings, Brodeur interviewed Aspen Institute president Dan Porterfield about the role of literature in the ongoing pandemic.
Porterfield, echoing the call for empathy that run throughout the day’s author talks,
predicted that novels and stories will be the way future generations learn about the coronavirus pandemic, and draw lessons from it, in the same way readers today understand the Great Depression through the work of John Steinbeck.
“We don’t have a Steinbeck today, but we will,” he said. “Those voices that emerge form this horrible time will give sightlines on what we experienced, to people decades and generations from now who read about it in the history books.”
WINNER CHRISTY LEFTERI INTERVIEWED BY ESMERALDA SANTIAGO
ASPEN WORDS LITERARY PRIZE 2020 FINALISTS
Brian Alan Carr, “Opiod, Indiana”
Nicole Dennis-Benn, “Patsy”
Valeria Luiselli, “Lost Children Archive”
Bryan Washington, “Lot”
‘Literature in the Age of Social Distancing’ with Adrienne Brodeur and Aspen Institute president Dan Porterfield
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