Finalists announced for 2022 Aspen Words Literary Prize
Short list includes debut novel from Dawnie Walton
The five finalists for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, announced Friday, include works of fiction tackling the refugee crisis, the aftermath of a massive Haiti earthquake and contemporary stories about addiction, race, gender and timeless family themes.
The literary nonprofit Aspen Words has awarded its $35,000 prize annually since 2018, honoring novels and story collections that tackle vital social issues. This year’s finalists are: “The Arsonists’ City” by Hala Alyan; “The Final Revival of Opal and Nev” by Dawnie Walton; “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade; “What Storm, What Thunder” by Myriam J.A. Chancy; and “What Strange Paradise” by Omar El Akkad.
“Several of these works speak to concerns in the current zeitgeist, while others remind us of disasters from the recent past that define our present and demand renewed attention,” Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur said in the announcement.
The finalists were selected from a 16-book longlist by this year’s jury of Angie Cruz, Danielle Evans, Ann Friedman and Kiese Laymon.
Their citation called “The Arsonists’ City” “is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to one another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the afterlife of violence, displacement, and upheaval.”
Nominee “The Final Review of Opal and Nev” is Walton’s debut novel. The jury 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 reacted to the nomination on Twitter Friday morning, writing: “What an incredible honor, especially considering the kind of work this prize celebrates.”
Of Valdez’s nominated novel, the jury wrote: “’The Five Wounds’ is a gorgeous and openhearted novel full of vivid characters whose lives tell an illuminating story about addiction, self-improvement schemes, and what happens when the purveyors of social services are more invested in their own validation than in what they might promise the people who need them most.”
Chancy’s “What Storm, What Thunder,” published by the small independent Tin House press, imagines life on the ground in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake there in 2010. “Through the chorus of ten unforgettable characters the novel relentlessly and movingly retells the story of the earthquake, urging us to remember and rethink disaster,” the jury wrote.
El Akkad’s “What Strange Paradise” was also inspired by a recent historical event in the Syrian migrant crisis. “In spare, unsparing prose, El Akkad limns the callousness and kindness of his characters, lifting them off the front page and bringing them fully to life and forcing us to respond,” the jury wrote in its citation.
A winner will be announced at an awards ceremony April 21 at The Morgan Library in New York City, marking the prize’s first live events since 2019. The past two years have moved to Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic. The awards event will feature a conversation with the finalists moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Past winners of the Aspen Words Literary Prize are Louise Erdrich’s “The Nightwatchman” in 2021, Christy Lefteri’s “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” in 2020, Tayari Jones’ “An American Marriage” in 2019 and Mohsin Hamid’s “Exit West” in the inaugural 2018 ceremony.
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