Aspen Words Literary Prize goes to Jamil Jan Kochai for ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak’ |

Aspen Words Literary Prize goes to Jamil Jan Kochai for ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak’

Aspen Words 2023 Literary Prize Finalists.
Aspen Words/Courtesy photo

Jamil Jan Kochai was named winner of the $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize Wednesday evening in New York City for “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,” a powerful short-story collection “about Afghans, Afghan-Americans, and the surreal, violent aftershocks of state violence.”

He began the book in 2016 as the American war in Afghanistan was approaching its 15th year. He had seen and heard the devastating effects of the war on family members in Afghanistan and felt compelled to write about it. 

“My entire life, I’d grown up with my family’s stories about this small village in Logar, Afghanistan. Many of these stories were joyous and beautiful, but just as often they were immensely violent …. There was almost no written record of the occurrence of these historical massacres, especially in English,” Kochai said.

“It was incredibly disconcerting to think that the memory of these atrocities might be lost to time, and I (wanted) to make my own small effort to make sure these stories were preserved in some manner,” he said.

The five-member jury, which changes annually, was made up of scholars, notable authors, and others with literary expertise. Judges are selected and recruited by the Aspen Words staff in consultation with past Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists and winners, as well as members of the Aspen Words and Aspen Institute communities.

The jury reads the longlisted titles and determines the five finalists as well as the winner. The longlist is determined by the selection committee.

What’s at stake?

The Aspen Words Literary Prize is a awarded annually to an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. 


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Angie Cruz: “How Not To Drown in a Glass of Water”

“In ‘How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water,’ Angie Cruz constructs an intimate portrait of life in the gears of the capitalist machine. Structurally inventive and flawless in register, this novel serves as a subtle meditation on what it means to survive in America when America is both home and the furthest thing from home. The result is a story of exquisite authenticity, an indictment of the myriad impossible hoops through which those not born into privilege are made, ceaselessly, to jump.” — 2023 Literary Prize Jury

Angie Cruz / Photo courtesy of Aspen Words
Aspen Words/Courtesy photo

She is the author of the novels “Soledad,” “Let It Rain Coffee,” and “Dominicana,” which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and a Good Morning America Book Club pick and most recently, “How Not To Drown in a Glass of Water.” 

She is founder and editor in chief of Aster(ix), a literary and arts journal, and is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Oscar Hokeah: “Calling For a Blanket Dance”

“At once heartbreaking and hopeful, ‘Calling for a Blanket Dance’ is one of those rare debuts that feels like the author’s 10th book. Written with absolute control and confidence, this is a generational saga that spans multiple characters and viewpoints, yet remains focused on the aftershocks of trauma, the way damage echoes across time and place. Oscar Hokeah writes beautifully about pain and belonging and the power of family, told through many interpretations of and interactions with its central character, the unforgettable Ever Geimausaddle.” — 2023 Literary Prize Jury

Oscar Hokeah / Photo courtesy of Aspen Words
Aspen Words/Courtesy photo

Hokeah is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma from his mother’s side and has Latino heritage through his father. He holds an MA in English with a concentration in Native American literature from the University of Oklahoma, as well as a BFA in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), with a minor in Indigenous Liberal Studies.

He is a recipient of the Truman Capote Scholarship Award through IAIA and is also a winner of the Native Writer Award through the Taos Summer Writers Conference. His first novel, “Calling For a Blanket Dance,” is the winner of the PEN America/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and is a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize/Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.

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Jamil Jan Kochai: “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories”

“Jamil Jan Kochai has written a stylistically audacious collection about Afghans, Afghan Americans, and the surreal, violent aftershocks of state violence. In 12 masterful stories, Kochai manages both an indictment and de-centering of the West’s decades-long campaign of violence through which countless Afghans have suffered. There is no clean-cut prescriptivism here. These stories of lives lost and regained in the shadow of the war on terror years are as impossible to categorize as they are wondrous to read.” — 2023 Literary Prize Jury

Jamil Jan Kochai / Courtesy of Aspen Words
Aspen Words/Courtesy photo

He is the author of “99 Nights in Logar,” a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. His short story collection, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,” was published in July 2022.

He was born in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, and his family is from Logar, Afghanistan. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Short Stories. His essays have been published at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.

He was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was awarded the Henfield Prize for Fiction. Currently, he is a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.

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Manuel Muñoz:”The Consequences”

“As tender as they are unflinching, the stories in Manuel Muñoz’s brilliant collection offer a deeply human and quietly nuanced portrait of life in California’s Central Valley, where immigrant farmworkers do the often brutal work of keeping the United States fed. It’s difficult to overstate the depth of the characters that populate these stories — the fine shades of their desires and obligations, the things they want to do and the things they must.” — 2023 Literary Prize Jury

Manuel Muñoz / Courtesy of Aspen Woods
Aspen Words/Courtesy photo

Muñoz is the author of two previous collections and a novel. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers Award, three O. Henry Awards, and has appeared in Best American Short Stories. A native of Dinuba, California, he lives in Tucson, Arizona.

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Sarah Thankam Mathews: “All This Could Be Different”

“Set against the backdrop of the great recession, ‘All This Could Be Different’ is an honest, haunting and quite often hilarious novel. In beautifully constructed sentences, Sarah Thankam Mathews bares open the workings of a life during those precarious, brittle years during which the entire façade of modern life threatened to crumble. The result is a book about queer love, found families and the struggle to find meaning and place in a world where both seem so often just out of reach.” — 2023 Literary Prize Jury

Sarah Thankam Mathews / Courtesy of Aspen Words
Aspen Words/Courtesy photo

Mathews grew up between Oman and India, immigrating to the United States at 17. Her work has been published in Best American Short Stories and she is a recipient of fellowships from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2020, she founded the mutual aid group Bed-Stuy Strong. “All This Could Be Different” is her first novel.