Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET
Five works of fiction entered Tuesday night with the chance to win the inaugural Aspen Words Literary Prize. As stories of immigrants and refugees, past hardships and hopes for the future, these novels and short story collections contain multitudes — but they also share something important, in the minds of Aspen judges: They shine a piercing light on some of the messiest, most difficult social issues of our day.
But just one work won the prize: Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid.
“Exit West is a novel about migration and how the world is changing — and could change — and how we are all migrants, and how we can find an optimistic future together,” Hamid said in his recorded acceptance speech at a ceremony Tuesday in New York City. “I’m really grateful to be honored by this prize in particular, which is a prize that looks to books to have an impact on the world.”
The first thing that stunned head judge Phil Klay about the novel, which is centered on the turbulent lives of refugees, “was just the exquisite sentences,” he said.
“He uses those sentences to build up this incredible portrait of two lovers in a war zone,” Klay added. “He forces us to ask how we would react, and what kind of potential there is for reactionary violence within our own societies. And he also hints at possibilities for doing better. And I think that that is something vital right now.”
Along with the prize, Hamid is bringing home a hefty $35,000 purse.
The jury selected its winner from the crop of finalists announced last month, which also included: Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky; Samrat Upadhyay’s collection Mad Country; Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing; and Zinzi Clemmons’ collection What We Lose.
The ceremony at the Morgan Library also featured a wide-ranging conversation between NPR’s Michel Martin and Arimah, Clemmons and Upadhyay, who reflected on their origins — and their responsibilities — as writers.
“I read a lot growing up,” said Arimah, who grew up partly in Nigeria.
And she wasn’t kidding: She recalled heading to the library with her sister when they were young, with their father’s duffel bags in hand. Then, they would each check out the maximum number of books allowed — which in this case was 50(!) — and read all of them, before trading their piles with each other.
Years later, she says the vast array of styles she’d read wriggled into her own debut fiction collection.
“So I wrote a story that’s realism and the next one was science-fiction and the next one was fantasy,” she said. “I wanted to pay homage to that very curious young girl who found everything fascinating and still does.”
And that really does mean it is important to be “writing for me,” she said, “and not to educate and not to inform” — meaning she finds African writers are often expected smooth over complexity or craft easily valorized characters, in the interest of being the “voice of” their countries and cultures to the West.
“I didn’t want anything to do with that,” she said. “I wanted to write people — people who are often unpleasant and wrong, and who are still worthy of literature.”
Which may be surprising, given the mission statement of the prize. Founded by Aspen Words, a nonprofit literary center established by the Aspen Institute, the award aims to boost writers who grapple with “the messiness of reality and human experience,” as Klay told NPR when the shortlist was unveiled.
“These are the books that we think are most vital for understanding who we are as a people, as a country, as a world right now,” said Klay, a National Book Award-winning fiction writer himself.
“When people read them, they’re going to want to talk about them. They’re going to feel equipped to talk about certain issues in any way,” he added. “The reason we picked these books is because they offer fresh ways of thinking.”
But to Upadhyay, who lived in Nepal until 21, and Clemmons, whose South African mother and American father raised her in Philadelphia, the desire to reflect and change the world wasn’t what drove them to write. Above all, they said, they simply want to tell a story that draws their readers in — and all the rest will follow.
If his writing expands readers’ perspectives, as this prize has recognized him and his fellow finalists for doing, “it’s icing on the cake,” said Upadhyay, who now teaches at Indiana University.
“But it’s not what I’m thinking about when I’m in the process of writing,” he added. “I just want to tell a good story, and I want to create characters who are compelling, who are contradictory, and who are struggling with something tangible in life.”
“The thing that I like about writing,” Clemmons said, “is that you are everything. It doesn’t have to be filtered through something else. It’s all you.”