Mohsin Hamid’s ‘Exit West’ wins inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize
NEW YORK CITY — Mohsin Hamid’s novel “Exit West” was honored Tuesday night with the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize in a ceremony at the Morgan Library.
The $35,000 prize from the locally based literary nonprofit Aspen Words aims to recognize a work of fiction, published in English, that addresses contemporary social issues.
“‘Exit West’ is a novel about migration and how our world is changing and could change, how we are all migrants and how we might find an optimistic future together,” the Pakistani novelist said in a video-recorded acceptance speech. “I am very grateful to be honored with this prize in particular, which is a prize that looks to books to have an impact on the world.”
As the first prize honoree, Hamid will speak at the Summer Words Literary Festival in Aspen this June.
“Exit West,” a magical realist novel about refugees, won among five finalists. The additional finalists were “What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky” by Lesley Nneka Arimah, “What We Lose” by Zinzi Clemmons, “Mad Country” by Samrat Upadhyay and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.
The $35,000 attached to the prize ranks it among the more lucrative American publishing awards for fiction, and has made a splash in the publishing world. The prize was endowed by an anonymous donor to Aspen Words in 2016 and is to be given annually in perpetuity.
Tuesday’s awards ceremony was preceded by a panel discussion moderated by NPR’s Michel Martin with finalists Arimah, Clemmons and Upadhyay.
“This award seeks to honor and encourage writing that expands perspectives, builds compassion, and you are here because of work that changes, expands and confronts with new ideas,” Martin told the finalists.
The new prize is a watershed moment for the literary nonprofit founded 42 years ago as the Aspen Writers’ Conference by poet Kurt Brown during Aspen’s counterculture heyday. In its early years, the scrappy organization hosted seminars in aspen groves and housed visiting writers on spare couches. Tuesday, it was the toast of the publishing world in Manhattan.
The prize also signals a dovetailing of the missions of Aspen Words and the Aspen Institute, with which the literary organization merged in 2009. The Institute’s incoming President and CEO Dan Porterfield, in his first public duties as president-elect of the policy organization, gave brief remarks at the ceremony.
“It’s wonderful to be gathered together in community in the name of literature, creativity, culture, inclusion, justice and humanity,” Porterfield told the audience, later describing the nominees’ work as “the opposite of the click-based, slogan-driven, fake news-heavy culture with which true writers and intellectuals compete these days.”
The prize is unique among literary awards for its issues-driven criteria. As Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur put it in September 2016 when the nonprofit announced it was launching the prize: “We’re creating a conversation that’s slightly different from other prizes. It’s not just, ‘What’s excellent?’ It’s ‘What’s excellent that’s also purposeful?’”
A five-member jury selected the finalists, culled from a long list of 20 books and 144 total nominees. The jurors were Yale University professor and Aspen Institute trustee Stephen Carter, Aspen-based librarian and philanthropist Jessica Fullerton, “Redeployment” author and Marine Corps veteran Phil Klay, “The Social Life of DNA” author and president of the Social Science Research Council Alondra Nelson, and “Family Life” author Akhil Sharma.
“Mohsin Hamid’s sentences are exquisite, capable of jaw-dropping surprise, elegant emotional exploration, and bone-chilling horror within a few clauses,” the prize jury wrote in its citation. “And by bringing the contemporary refugee crisis into countries that have mostly ignored the suffering beyond their borders, he forces us to ask ourselves how we are reacting to the crisis, and what potential we have to do better. In a world with 50 million displaced people, this is a novel that affects us all.”
Aspen Words managing director Jamie Kravitz said she hopes the Aspen community and the core local constituency of Aspen Words supporters have discovered new writers and new books through the prize, and will continue to in years to come.
“It’s an extension of what we do all the time in curating reading lists for the community,” she said. “Everything from the long list to the short list to the winner, what we’re saying is, ‘Hey, of all the things you can read and watch, focus on this for a second.’”
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