Dawnie Walton’s ‘Opal and Nev’ wins Aspen Words prize
Debut author honored at first in-person prize ceremony since 2019
Dawnie Walton’s “The Final Revival of Opal and Nev” won the fifth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize on Thursday evening in an awards ceremony at the Morgan Library in Manhattan.
The New York event marked the award’s first in-person ceremony since 2019 and followed two presentations staged virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In her acceptance speech, Walton reflected on the assertion by singer Nina Simone — who provided inspiration for Walton’s protagonist, Opal — that “an artist’s duty … is to reflect the times.”
“Reflecting the times,” Walton said, “is often a daunting thing to attempt, because the times in which we write often feel dark and dispiriting and, worst of all, immovable — a frustrating cycle between progress and regress.”
The book centers on a fictional interracial rock duo from the early 1970s and the issues of race and gender that emerge from their work on and off stage and as seen in retrospect from near the present day. Walton’s debut novel, “The Final Review of Opal and Nev” garnered wide critical praise upon publication in March 2021 and was named by former President Barack Obama on his best books of the year list.
“I would not be standing here without the community of writers and readers — especially Black writers and readers — who said, ‘Damn a pandemic’ and used every virtual and digital means possible to support this story,” Walton said of releasing the book into the pandemic’s challenging landscape for authors. “I’m looking forward to doing my part to keep our community going.”
Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur presented the award, which honors a work of fiction that tackles vital contemporary social issues. It includes a $35,000 cash prize.
“Literature has always been and will always be a powerful tool for creating empathy because it puts societal issues into context by embedding them into personal stories about individuals and families and communities,” Brodeur said in her opening remarks.
The prize jury, comprised of novelist Angie Cruz, short story writer Danielle Evans, Planet World CEO Ann Friedman and novelist/essayist Kiese Laymon, called it “a dazzling exploration of the spectacular and eerie complications of the way race, gender and punk rock necessarily collide. What can these collisions produce? The book is a tutorial in the possibilities and terrifying limitations of an interracial duo who seem to move in two very different directions upon their breakup.”
Walton, based in Brooklyn, worked as a journalist and magazine editor before she began to write fiction, including tenures at Essence and Entertainment Weekly. She spent about seven years writing what would become “Opal and Nev,” as she put it, “doing that thing where you wake up before the sun rises to get some writing time in before I went to my day job.”
Walton is expected to be honored and to discuss her work in an Aspen event during the Aspen Summer Words conference and literary festival in June.
This year’s other finalists were “The Arsonists’ City” by Hala Alyan; “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade; “What Storm, What Thunder” by Myriam J.A. Chancy; and “What Strange Paradise” by Omar El Akkad.
Before the prize announcement, Alyan, Chancy, Walton and Valdez Quade took part in a panel discussion about their work and the social relevance of fiction moderated by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly.
“Opal and Nev” follows past winners of the Aspen Words Literary Prize Louise Erdrich (“The Nightwatchman”) in 2021, Christy Lefteri (“The Beekeeper of Aleppo”) in 2020, Tayari Jones (“An American Marriage”) in 2019 and Mohsin Hamid (“Exit West”) in the inaugural 2018 ceremony.
A small crowd of Aspenites watched a livestream of the proceedings at the Pitkin County Library, which last hosted an in-person Aspen Words Literary Prize event in 2019. The local party kicked off the library’s annual Community Read of the prize-winning book, which will include book club-style discussions and “beyond the book” events throughout the summer. Aspen Words and the library will begin distributing free Community Read copies of “The Final Review of Opal and Nev” by June 1. Sign up for a copy at pitcolib.org/communityread.