Five finalists announced for Aspen Words Literary Prize |

Five finalists announced for Aspen Words Literary Prize

"Sing, Unburied, Sing" by Jesmyn Ward
Courtesy photo |


“What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah

“What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons

“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

“Mad Country” by Samrat Upadhyay

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

Winner to be announced April 10. More info at

The literary nonprofit Aspen Words on Monday announced five finalists for its inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize. The $35,000 award will go to a work of fiction with social impact.

The finalists are: “What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah; “What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons; “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid; “Mad Country” by Samrat Upadhyay; and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.

The short list includes three novels and two story collections. Two of the finalists, Arimah and Clemmons, are debut authors. Hamid, Upadhyay and Ward have all published multiple books to critical acclaim.

Arimah also is an alumna of the Aspen Words writer-in-residence program. She spent October 2016 living and writing in Woody Creek.

A five-member jury selected the finalists, culled from a long list of 20 books. The jurors are Yale University professor and Aspen Institute trustee Stephen Carter, librarian and Aspen resident Jessica Fullerton, “Redeployment” author and Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay, “The Social Life of DNA” author and president of the Social Science Research Council Alondra Nelson, and “Family Life” author Akhil Sharma.

“We were looking for works that engaged social issues variously and deeply, but equally important, works that were beautifully rendered and illuminated the world anew,” Nelson said in the announcement.

The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony in New York City at The Morgan Library on April 10. The finalists will participate in a conversation moderated by Michel Martin, weekend host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Linda Holmes, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” will emcee the ceremony.

The winner also will be the featured speaker at the Aspen Summer Words benefit dinner on June 19 at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen.

“The most challenging part of the process was weighing different books that had a lot to say and a lot to offer, but worked in very different styles and genres,” Klay said.

In its citation for Arimah, the jury wrote that her book “marks the debut of a truly remarkable talent. The tales she spins, set mostly in her native Nigeria and in the United States, are told with rare and stunning beauty.“

The jury wrote that Clemons, whose novel follows a woman through the aftermath of her mother’s death, “writes with deep intelligence and tremendous emotional force about loss, about identity, about family and about the subtle ways social structures intrude upon the space we try to carve out for ourselves and for those we love.”

Jurors commended Hamid, and his magical realist refugee tale, for “bringing the contemporary refugee crisis into countries that have mostly ignored the suffering beyond their borders, he forces us to ask ourselves how we are reacting to the crisis and what potential we have to do better. In a world with 50 million displaced people, this is a novel that affects us all.”

Of Upadhyay’s story collection, the jury wrote: “There is in each story a direct engagement with history and the political without the least trace of the didactic. Surely this must be recognized as something magical.”

And the jury dubbed Ward’s novel about a multi-racial family in southern Mississippi, which recently won the National Book Award, “a brutally honest family history — a stark genealogy of those linked in life and after death, by the roots and branches of racism.”

The prize aims to recognize a work of fiction, published in English, that addresses contemporary social issues.

“We’re creating a conversation that’s slightly different from other prizes,” Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur said in September. “It’s not just, ‘What’s excellent?’ It’s ‘What’s excellent that’s also purposeful? What do we need to be thinking about?’”

The $35,000 attached to the prize ranks it among the more lucrative among American publishing awards. It was endowed last year, to be given annually in perpetuity, by an anonymous donor to Aspen Words.

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