Awards: The Aspen Words Literary Prize Names Its 2022 Shortlist

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One debut is among the five shortlisted titles for the US$35,000 Aspen Words Literary Awards, focused on issue-driven fiction.

An Aspen-wintry shot of the Aspen Words Literary Prize 2022 shortlist titles. Image: Aspen Institute

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

A Winner Is To Be Named April 21
The Aspen Words Literary Prize 16-title longlist for 2022 was announced in November—our coverage is here—and we have today (February 25) the five-book shortlist from this Aspen Institute program directed by author Adrienne Brodeur, who is Aspen Words’ executive director.

The shortlist of novels includes one debut (Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal and Nev), and the jury this year comprises Angie Cruz, Danielle Evans, Ann Friedman, Kiese Laymon, and Pádraig Ó Tuama.

As Publishing Perspectives readers know, the Aspen Words award is distinguished for its emphasis on “an influential work of fiction that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”

Works that are considered for this award include “novels or short-story collections that address questions of violence, inequality, gender, the environment, immigration, religion, racism or other social issues” In addition to its specialization in serious, culturally relevant material, its purse—at US$35,000 for the winner—makes it one of the richest such awards in the American book community.

Adrienne Brodeur

In a prepared statement for today’s announcement, Brodeur is quoted, saying, “The five finalists were chosen from an incredibly impressive longlist of 16 titles.

“Several of these works speak to concerns in the current zeitgeist, while others remind us of disasters from the recent past that define our present and demand renewed attention.”

The winner of this year’s program is to be announced on April 21 in a return for the event to New York City’s Morgan Library and Museum. Once again, the event will feature a conversation with the finalists moderated by Mary Louise Kelly, the co-host (with Ari Shapiro) of All Things Considered on NPR, National Public Radio. Kelly is also a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of two novels from Simon and Schuster’s Gallery Books, The Bullet (2015) and Anonymous Sources (2014)

Aspen Words Literary Prize 2022 Shortlist

The five 2022 shortlisted Aspen Words Literary Prize authors are, from left, Alyan Hala; Kirstin Valdes Quade (image: Holly Andres); Dawnie Walton (image: Rayon Richards); Myriam JA Chancy; and Omar El Akkad

Author Title Publisher, Imprint
Hala Alyan The Arsonists’ City HMH Books
Dawnie Walton The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
Simon & Schuster/37 Ink
Kirstin Valdez Quade The Five Wounds WW Norton
Myriam JA Chancy What Storm, What Thunder Tin House
Omar El Akkad What Strange Paradise Alfred A. Knopf

Brief statements of rationale from the jury are here:

  • “The Arsonists’ City is the sharply drawn and compelling story of one family and the years of tenderness and betrayal that tether them to one another, but it also tells a sweeping story about the afterlife of violence, displacement, and upheaval. Alyan Hala expertly balances her portrait of the way early dreams and parts of the self can vanish in adulthood with an exploration of how quickly home or a sense of normalcy can vanish or shift for an entire population, how easily a person, a city, or a way of life can become at once familiar and unrecognizable.”
  • “As innovative in form as it is soulful in delivery, The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is a dazzling exploration of the spectacular and eerie complications of the way race, gender, and punk rock necessarily collide. What can these collisions produce? The book is a tutorial in the possibilities and terrifying limitations of an interracial duo who seem to move in two very different directions upon their breakup. Dawnie Walton blurs the lines between revelation and realization in a book that witnesses, and really undulates under, the weight of professional and personal secrets, while picking away at the very real desire for American progress with few substantial models for reciprocal American reckoning.”
  • “The Five Wounds is a gorgeous and openhearted novel full of vivid characters whose lives tell an illuminating story about addiction, self-improvement schemes, and what happens when the purveyors of social services are more invested in their own validation than in what they might promise the people who need them most. At the heart of this book is Angel, a pregnant teenager repeatedly asked to accept the unacceptable and settle for less. Kirstin Valdez Quade gives her the grace of the hard-won knowledge that she deserves to ask for more.”
  • “Myriam Chancy’s poignant and haunting novel, What Storm What Thunder, is a searing portrait of the earthquake of 7.0-magnitude that shook the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, on January 12, 2010, leaving more than a quarter million people dead. Through the chorus of 10 unforgettable characters, the novel relentlessly and movingly retells the story of the earthquake, urging us to remember and rethink disaster. The devastation and catastrophic loss in Haiti could happen to any of us as we face [the] climate emergency—regardless of where we live, this book is testimony to how our lives are entwined and how community is essential for our collective survival.”
  • “The world was shocked by the 2015 photo of a Syrian child lying dead on a beach after a boat carrying him and other migrants shipwrecked. Seven years later, the shipwrecks, drownings, and migrant crisis continue. Omar El Akkad’s alternately dream-like and photo-realistic novel, What Strange Paradise, imagines a similar journey of a Syrian boy and an ark of fellow refugees. In spare, unsparing prose, El Akkad limns the callousness and kindness of his characters, lifting them off the front page and bringing them fully to life and forcing us to respond.”

This is Publishing Perspectives’ 39th publishing awards and/or book awards report in the 40 publication days since our 2022 operations began on January 3.


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.

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 is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 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 was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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