USA: Louise Erdrich Wins the $35,000 Aspen Words Literary Prize

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In its fourth year, the issue-driven Aspen Words Literary Prize goes to fiction based in the Native American struggle for tribal self-determination.

Louise Erdrich. Image: Aspen Words Literary Prize

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Erdrich: ‘This Most Difficult Year’
In its digital program this evening (April 21), the Aspen Words Literary Prize has named Louise Erdrich its fourth annual winner for her book, The Night Watchman (Harper, March 2020).

This awards program’s US$35,000 purse goes to Erdrich, who is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa, a federally recognized tribe in the United States, in Canada part of a first nation of Indigenous peoples known as the Anishinaabe. That name is alternately translated as the “good humans” and the “spontaneous beings,” the essential concept being that the Anishinaabe are tribes that come from very close to the Great Spirit.

Erdrich based her fictional The Night Watchman on the life of her grandfather and on the dispossession of Native Americans in the 1950s.

“I’d like to accept this award on behalf of my grandfather,” Erdrich said tonight. “He was one of the dwindling number of first speakers of Ojibwe [the language], in addition to all his activism and his work on this legislation called ‘termination,'” which in the 1950s had sought to end Washington’s recognition of tribal sovereignty.  By 1983, Ronald Reagan would issue a US Native American policy explicitly repudiating “termination” and supporting tribal self-determination.

“This particular award will also go to assist in the revitalization of the Ojibwe language.”

Erdrich’s comments also mentioned the mission of the Aspen Words award program for its seriousness, especially in the year of the still ongoing coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the Aspen Words Literary Prize is issue-driven, it looks for work in such high-value contemporary contexts as, per organizers, “violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, racism or other social issues.”

“I also want to say,” Erdrich said tonight, “that I’m really grateful that a light has been shined on literature and writers in this most difficult year. I worry that we might actually forget this year because it’s been so difficult. 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.”

Speaking as she was on the night after the April 20 clean sweep of murder convictions for the white policeman Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis who will next be sentenced in the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, Erdrich said, “I want to acknowledge those who rose up and demanded and are still demanding justice and accountability from our institutions and the people who are there to protect us.”

A Year of Presentations Online

Image: Aspen Words Literary Prize

Erdrich’s win was announced in a one-hour program hosted by Aspen Words executive director Adrienne Brodeur and featuring a conversation with four of the five finalists and All Things Considered co-host Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, the prize program’s media partner. Kelly’s handling of an interview with the shortlisted authors was as good-natured and as personable as her work is on public radio, and somewhat unusual in that the writers referenced each other’s nominated material.

The fifth shortlisted writer, Randall Kenan, died in 2020.

The programming created to present the award, as in so many of the past year’s digital efforts to replace live events around publishing activities, was certainly earnestly produced.

One of the challenges of these online evocations is how easily the encomiums become precious, the music becomes melodramatic, and the effort to create “occasion” becomes cloying. The smaller screens of the world don’t easily handle the lavish descriptive commentary of jurors reading their own rationales. References, for example, to Erdrich’s “magisterial summation” as “a wise and transformative masterwork” tend to lie heavily on YouTube.

By contrast, a comment from shortlisted author Rumann Alam to Mary Louise Kelly about unexplained phenomena in fiction probably holds an apt “less is more” tip to those trying to produce ceremonial moments online: “I like an art that’s a bit like a pebble in your shoe.”

Here’s the awards program streamed by organizers this evening:

This Year’s Aspen Words Full Shortlist and Jurors
Author Title Publisher, Imprint
Susan Abulhawa Against the Loveless World Simon & Schuster / Atria Books
Rumann Alam Leave the World Behind HarperCollins / Ecco
Louise Erdrich The Night Watchman HarperCollins
Danielle Evans The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories Penguin Random House / Riverhead
Randall Kenan If I Had Two Wings: Stories WW Norton
The previous three wins in the Aspen Words Literary Prize’s short life went to:
  • Mohsin Hamid in 2018 for Exit West, about migration and refugees
  • Tayari Jones in 2019 prize for An American Marriage, about racism and unjust incarceration
  • Christy Lefteri in 2020 prize for The Beekeeper of Aleppo, about Syrian refugees
As you’ll remember, the jurors for this year’s award cycle are Emily Bernard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw and Luis Alberto Urrea.

The jurors for the 2021 Aspen Words Literary Prize are, from left, Emily Benard, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Daniel Shaw, and Luis Alberto Urrea


More from Publishing Perspectives on international awards programs is here. More from us on the Aspen Words Literary Prize is here, more on the American book business is here.

And more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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