Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Night Watchman’ wins Aspen Words Literary Prize
Novelist accepts in virtual ceremony, book will be subject of summer community read
Louise Erdrich’s “The Night Watchman” won the fourth annual Aspen Words Literary Prize on Wednesday night in a virtual awards ceremony.
For the second year in a row, the proceedings were hosted online due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Erdrich is expected to be honored in person at the Aspen Autumn Words writers conference and literary festival (Sept. 26 to Oct. 1) if public health restrictions allow.
Erdrich dedicated the prize to her grandfather, whose life and work for Indigenous rights inspired the novel.
“It really is my grandfather’s book, so I can accept it in that way,” Erdrich said.
The book tells, in part, of the titular watchman’s work as an activist in the 1950s on behalf of his people on the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota and for Indigenous people in the U.S. as he goes to Washington, D.C., to fight legislation that would end federal recognition of tribal lands and peoples.
“He was one of the dwindling number of first speakers of Ojibwe in addition to all of his activism and his work on this legislation called ‘termination,’” Erdrich said her acceptance speech. “So, this particular award will also go to assist in the revitalization of the Ojibwe language.”
Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur and head prize judge Emily Bernard presented the award to Erdrich via Zoom.
“We all agreed, the judges, that it is timeless, it is fresh and it is ancient,” Bernard told Erdrich after the announcement, holding up her sticky-noted copy of “The Night Watchman” and adding: “I started interlining my favorite moments, but I had to stop because I had to read. I will be going back to it because it is a master class. It is a perfect balance of exquisite writing and a compelling iteration of the plight of its people.”
A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Erdrich lives in Minnesota and is the owner of the independent Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. The Aspen Words Literary Prize follows previous accolades for her fiction including winning the 2012 National Book Award for “The Round House” and twice earning the National Book Critics Circle Award for “Love Medicine” (1984) and “LaRose” (2016).
This year’s other finalists were Susan Abulhawa (“Against the Loveless World”), Rumaan Alam (“Leave the World Behind”) Danielle Evans (“The Office of Historical Corrections”) and the late Randall Kenan (“If I Had Two Wings: Stories”).
Before the winner was announced, the hour-long awards program included a remote video discussion, moderated by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, with Erdrich and the three living finalist authors who also gave readings of their work.
Prize judge Luis Alberto Urrea called “The Night Watchman” “a historical novel that is also a story of love, a familial chronicle, a book about Indigenous community and anti-tribal animus,” adding: “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. It is a wise and transformative masterwork.”
A recording of the Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists’ readings, panel discussion and Erdrich’s acceptance speech are free to view online at aspenwords.org
The mission of the $35,000 Aspen Words prize is to recognize a work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. Its social impact-oriented criteria is yet more vital, authors said, after the past year’s historic movement to address structural racism and inequity.
“Our nation has undergone a transformation of consciousness, not only in the wake of the pandemic but also as we confront systemic racism and social injustice,” Brodeur said in her opening remarks. “Literature has helped us to navigate this time, in part by providing escape but also by exposing us to people, situations and perspectives that we might not otherwise encounter.”
Erdrich, too, noted the historic moment her book landed in.
“We might forget this year, because it’s been so difficult,” she said. “But I think we should not. We should remember everything we can about this year: we should remember the people who did their jobs, the people who kept us alive, and the people who worked so hard to keep the world going for other people. This is a time when many people were able to reflect, absorb and pay attention to the world in a different way.”
In its fourth iteration, the prize drew about 200 submissions, which were narrowed to a long list of 15 books announced in November and then to the five finalists in February.
Erdrich follows past winners 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 at the Morgan Library in New York City.
Aspen Words, a program of the Aspen Institute, has moved its annual Summer Words festival from June to late September for 2021 — and rebranded it Autumn Words — in the hopes of hosting an in-person event this year. If it moves forward, Erdrich will be invited to give a public talk there as pre-pandemic winners did.
“We hope that the state of the world will allow us to bring you to Aspen to honor you in-person,” Brodeur told Erdrich after the award announcement. “Fingers crossed.”
Aspen Words also will produce a Roaring Fork Valley-wide community read of “The Night Watchman” this summer, with free copies of the book available and free events and book discussions open to all.