Finalists announced for Aspen Words Literary Prize

Susan Abulhawa, Rumaan Alam, Louise Erdrich, Danielle Evans and Randall Kenan up for $35,000 award

Staff report

Three novels and two short story collections are in the final running for the 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize, the nonprofit announced Wednesday.

The $35,000 annual award, now in its fourth year, goes to a work of fiction that “illuminates vital contemporary issues.”

The finalists are “Against the Loveless World” by Susan Abulhawa, “Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam, “The Night Watchman” by Louise Erdrich, “The Office of Historical Corrections” by Danielle Evans and “If I Had Two Wings” by the late Randall Kenan.

The shortlisted titles address a broad range of important contemporary social issues, from the dissolution of indigenous lands to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the intersectionality of being Black and queer, as well as racism in America. They were culled from a previously announced long list of 15 titles.

“These books demonstrate the power of fiction to transform the way we see the world around us,” Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur said in an announcement. “They deal with serious topics, but among these novels and story collections are also stunning love stories and characters who will make you laugh out loud.”

The finalists were selected by a five-member jury, including Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw and Luis Alberto Urrea.

“This utterly compelling novel of love, passion and politics is also a story of personal and revolutionary awakening,” Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in the jury’s citation for “Against the Loveless World.” “Susan Abulhawa weaves a thrilling account of Nahr and her life — from young girl to independent woman — into the larger tapestry of Palestinian dispossession and resistance.”

Shaw called “Leave the World Behind” “a completely original, utterly mysterious, gripping page-turner” in its citation, adding: “The story is precisely of the moment in how it tackles race, class and the fragility of our planet, yet is absolutely timeless. And terrifying. Good luck putting it down.”

Of Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman,” Urrea wrote: “It can move from comedic visions of eccentric boxers to terrifying stories of the disappearances of Native women, hints of ghost stories and a prophetic explosion of violence inside the nation’s capital city. It is a wise and transformative masterwork.”

Manyika’s jury citation for “The Office of Historical Corrections,” a novella and story collection, reads, “The weight of history — especially that which has been hidden, ignored or whitewashed — lies at the core of this brilliant collection of stories.”

Kenan, who died in August at age 57, was a featured author at the 2010 Summer Words Writers Conference and Literary Festival. Of his story collection “If I Had Two Wings,” published weeks before his death, juror Emily Bernard wrote “these stories attend lovingly to the rich complexity of Black and queer identity in the author’s signature shining, subtle prose. We were greatly saddened by Randall Kenan’s premature passing, and this final published work stands as a fitting and enduring legacy.”

The $35,000 winner will be announced at a virtual awards ceremony April 21. The event will feature a conversation with the finalists, moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

For local readers, Aspen Words also will partner with the Pitkin County Library for its third annual Community Read featuring the prize-winning book. Past iterations have included free books, author talks and book club-style community discussions.


See more