Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists announced |

Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists announced

Authors Lesley Nneka Arimah, Zinzi Clemmons, Mohsin Hamid, Samrat Upadhyay and Jesmyn Ward will vie for inaugural award

Aspen Words literary prize.
Courtesy image

Aspen Words has 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.

First announced by NPR Books, 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 alum 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 jury consists of 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 $35,000 winner will be announced live 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 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.

The jury issued the following citations for the finalists:


“What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of stories 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. Whether describing a post-apocalyptic future, a battle of the spirits or tension between a mother and daughter, her writing is poignant and rich, full of staggering images and stunning twists. But even her bleakest portraits of pain are marked by a nourishing belief in the virtue of perseverance and the power of hope.


“What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons

In “What We Lose,” Zinzi Clemmons has crafted a profound and formally daring novel about a young woman reconciling herself to the death of her South African-born mother. Clemmons 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.


“Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid

“Exit West,” Mohsin Hamid’s magical realist novel about refugees, is a work of deep humanity. His sentences are exquisite, capable of jaw-dropping surprise, elegant emotional exploration and bone-chilling horror within a few clauses. And by 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.


“Mad Country” by Samrat Upadhyay

The stories in “Mad Country” bring news: of Nepalese in Nepal, of immigrants in Middle America, of the confused and heartbroken. These are stories without the least sentimentality and a great deal of humor. In each story there is a direct engagement with history and the political without the least trace of the didactic. Surely this must be recognized as something magical.


“Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward

Writing at the height of her powers, in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Jesmyn Ward brings us a brutally honest family history — a stark genealogy of those linked in life and after death by the roots and branches of racism. Ward’s writing is at turns lyrical and elegiac, intricate and plainly said, yet always deeply affecting. This revelatory work illuminates the historical ties that bind us all.

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