Aspen Words Literary Prize nominees on fiction and social impact
As novelist Tayari Jones accepted the 2019 Aspen Words Literary Prize on April 11, the “An American Marriage” author praised the award’s mission of honoring fiction that illuminates political and social issues.
“We’re told not to,” she told the audience at the Morgan Library in New York and live-streaming at the library in Aspen. “We’re told that’s not what real art does. An award like this, I think it encourages all of us to keep following the strength of our convictions.”
In a panel discussion before Jones was named the winner, she and her four fellow nominees discussed how and why their work addresses the issues of the day.
Tommy Orange, nominated for his novel “There There” about “urban Indians” in Oakland, California, said the art has to come before all else.
“I believe in a Trojan Horse model for art,” he said. “To let it in with beauty or whatever is compelling about the art, and then have the message contained.”
The surreal and often disturbing stories in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection “Friday Black” take today’s America and push it to its extreme logical endpoint, cleverly and devastatingly making readers think deeper about issues of racism and what he described as “sinister consumerism.” His subjects found him, he said, because the country is in crisis on many fronts and he could not write about anything else.
“If the house is on fire, I’m not going to write about what’s in the fridge,” Adjei-Brenyah said to laughter from the audience. “The things that I write about are the things that I have to write about.”
Jennifer Clement, in “Gun Love,” paints a searing picture of American gun culture and poverty. She noted that we don’t often think of contemporary novels as shaping history, but that when history is written it’s often the fiction of an era that’s credited for defining the times.
“It has actually created social change,” she said. “Many times when we look back, we don’t remember any of the journalism of the time but we do remember the novels.”
Her novel is undergirded by deep research into the American weapons industry — moderator Renee Montagne learned that there are two bullets on Earth for every human, for instance — but Clement said her subjects must come from an emotional connection.
“Mostly I write about the things that won’t let go of me — there are things in the world that hurt on a certain level,” Clement said.
But “Brother” author David Chariandy, whose nominated book centers on the immigrant population in the Scarborough neighborhood of Toronto, said he can’t see a distinction between political art and non-political.
“It’s impossible to be attentive to language, to tell a story, to craft a story that comes from a specific perspective and represents a specific consciousness without being political and without being socially aware,” he said. “Or you are not being a good writer.”
For Tayari Jones, who will speak in Aspen at the Summer Words literary festival June 18, coming out of an activist family tradition was going to shape her perspective no matter what she did.
“We were reared with an idea that you could be whatever you wanted to be, as long as whatever you did with your life you did it in the service of justice,” she said.
So she never considered writing about anything other than topics like the broken criminal justice system, which is the engine of her winning novel about a young African-American couple split apart by a wrongful conviction and incarceration.
“I never considered whether or not I would engage political issues,” she said. “I understood that to be my life’s work. But when I was a young writer I would be thinking about how to make sure that my political views and my social critique made it into the writing. I came to realize later that that’s my worldview — that anything I write is going to be infused with that worldview. I was able to relax a little bit. And, instead of make a point, to tell the truth, because the point is in the truth.”
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