Tayari Jones’ ‘An American Marriage’ wins Aspen Words Literary Prize
Tayari Jones’ novel “An American Marriage” won the second annual Aspen Words Literary Prize on Thursday night in a ceremony at the Morgan Library in Manhattan.
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.
“Thank you to Aspen Words for this award — for having this award at all,” Jones said in her acceptance speech. “Because many of us who write and engage the issues of the day, we’re told not to. We’re told that that’s not what real art does. An award like this, I think it encourages all of us to keep following the strength of our conditions.”
The novel, set in Atlanta, is about a young African-American couple split apart by a wrongful conviction and imprisonment. It was previously awarded the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
Also among the finalists for the Aspen Words prize were “Friday Black” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “Brother” by David Chariandy, “Gun Love” by Jennifer Clement and “There There” by Tommy Orange. All five finalists took part in a panel discussion, moderated by NPR’s Renee Montagne, before the winner was announced.
“Books matter, stories matter,” Jones said. “When you’re a writer people are constantly telling you that nobody reads anymore, that everyone just tweets. … Thank you for reminding us that this work is important. It makes a difference.”
The $35,000 attached to the prize ranks it among the more lucrative American publishing awards for fiction. It was endowed by an anonymous donor to Aspen Words and is to be given annually in perpetuity.
As this year’s winner, Jones — a professor of creative writing at Emory University — will speak in Aspen during the Summer Words literary festival June 18 in a public event. Last year’s inaugural winner, “Exit West” author Mohsin Hamid, appeared only for donors at the literary nonprofit’s benefit dinner.
The Pitkin County Library also will host a summer-long community read of “An American Marriage” in the Roaring Fork Valley.
A five-member jury selected the finalists, picking them from 177 nominations and 16 long-listed titles. The jury was comprised of “Bastard Out of Carolina” author Dorothy Allison, Aspen Words advisory board President Suzanne Bober, Aspen Institute Vice President Elliot Gerson, Columbia University professor Fara Jasmine Griffin and “Mad Country” author Samrat Upadhyay.
“’An American Marriage’ is a gripping novel about the dissolution of a marriage,” the jury wrote in its citation. “But beneath the surface of this deeply moving love story is a powerful statement about unjust incarceration and a corrupt criminal justice system that has ravaged generations of African-American families. Writing with poignancy and humor, Jones offers a much-needed meditation on issues of race, class, identity — and shows us how to move forward after a great loss.”
In his introductory remarks at the awards ceremony, Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield said that the nominated books are “really about awakening moral imagination.”
“That’s what we do and that’s what we celebrate today and it is what is so desperately needed in our country and in our world,” he said.