Today, Aspen Words—a program in the Aspen Institute—announced the finalists for the 2021 Aspen Literary Awards, which recognizes and honors a work of fiction that addresses a pressing contemporary issue. The Award comes with a $35,000 purse, and previous winners include Christy Lefteri, Tayari Jones, and Moshin Hamid.
The shortlisted titles, which include three novels and two short story collections, explore a wide range of contemporary sociopolitical issues, from the dispossession of Indigenous lands to the struggles of being Black and queer in America.
This year’s finalists, who were selected from an esteemed panel of judges, are Susan Abulhawa, Rumaan Alam, Louise Erdrich, Danielle Evans and the late Randall Kenan, who died in 2020.
“The five finalists were selected from an extremely strong longlist of 15 titles,” said Aspen Words Executive Director Adrienne Brodeur. “These books demonstrate the power of fiction to transform the way we see the world around us. 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 winner will be announced at a virtual awards ceremony on Wednesday, April 21. The event will also feature a conversation with the finalists, moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of “All Things Considered,” NPR’s award-winning evening news magazine.
Below, you’ll find statements from the panel of judges on the shortlisted titles.
Congrats to all!
2021 Aspen Literary Awards Shortlist
Susan Abulhawa, Against the Loveless World
This utterly compelling novel of love, passion and politics is also a story of personal and revolutionary awakening. 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. Formed through the calamitous experiences of invasion, war, occupation and sexual exploitation, Nahr becomes a political prisoner who is yet free in her own mind. An agent of history and a full-fledged subject of her own existence, Nahr stands at the center of Abulhawa’s ambitious epic. –Viet Thanh Nguyen
Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind
Leave the World Behind is a truly rare piece of work—a completely original, utterly mysterious, gripping page turner. From cover to cover, Rumaan Alam manages to conjure almost unbearable tension on multiple levels, from the intimate to the existential, and do it with power, humor and profound insight into human behavior. 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. –Daniel Shaw
Louise Erdrich, The Night Watchman
Louise Erdrich’s novel The Night Watchman is a magisterial summation of her influential work while at the same time setting a new foundation for the future. A historical novel that is also a story of love, a familial chronicle, a book about Indigenous community and anti-tribal animus, it opens worlds incessantly. 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. –Luis Alberto Urrea
Danielle Evans, The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories
The weight of history—especially that which has been hidden, ignored or whitewashed—lies at the core of this brilliant collection of stories. From the slow unraveling of a wedding weekend, to what emerges in the social media aftermath of a college student’s wearing of a Confederate flag bikini, to the titular story built around the ingenious concept of a government agency for correcting historical inaccuracies—these six short stories and a novella dig deep around race, class, gender and family history. The collection unsettles, provokes and stays with a reader the way all great stories do. –Sarah Lapido Manyika
Randall Kenan, If I Had Two Wings: Stories
(W.W. Norton & Company)
In If I Had Two Wings, Randall Kenan creates a sensual world that is delicate and durable enough to contain and honor the mysteries of the lives of its vast range of characters, living and dead. These 10 linked, deeply atmospheric stories take readers on a journey through the mundane and the miraculous, in which the boundary between the sacred and profane is never certain. Largely set in fictional Tims Creek, North Carolina, 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. –Emily Bernard