Five authors have gathered at the gilded Morgan Library in New York. There, seated side by side at center stage, they will learn which of them is walking away with the second annual Aspen Words Literary Prize.
The award, which the nonprofit literary organization doles out in partnership with NPR, offers $35,000 for an exemplary work that deploys fiction to grapple with difficult social issues. But before the winner’s name is called, NPR’s Renee Montagne is chatting with the whole crop of finalists: Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, David Chariandy, Jennifer Clement, Tayari Jones and Tommy Orange.
You can watch their discussion live by clicking right here or just streaming the video below.
“They were all amazing books,” says Samrat Upadhyay, a finalist for last year’s prize and the head of this year’s panel of judges. “They did two things for us: They were well-crafted books, and they also talked about social issues in a nuanced and subtle way that was quite persuasive.”
In Jones’ An American Marriage, for instance, a young African-American couple struggles to maintain love and loyalty even as the husband is locked away for a crime he didn’t commit. Hanging over this love story are the pervasive effects of mass incarceration and racial discrimination.
“Injustice in the criminal justice system — it’s just in the air. Like hurricanes if you live on the East Coast or earthquakes if you live out West,” Jones told Karen Grigsby Bates last year. “It’s just something that is.”
Adjei-Brenyah, too, sought to wrestle with issues of race in his dystopia-crammed collection Friday Black — but that’s not all. “In these twelve stories,” critic Lily Meyer wrote for NPR, “Adjei-Brenyah turns over ideas about racism, about classism and capitalism, about the apocalypse, and, most of all, about the corrosive power of belief.”
Orange’s debut novel, There There, centers on the under-represented lives of Native Americans who reside in cities — people, in Orange’s words, who know “the sound of the freeway better than [they] do rivers.” And both Clement’s Gun Love and Chariandy’s Brother bring a spotlight to bear on characters long elbowed to the margins of American society — characters confined by their class and race and wondering whether transcending those limitations is even possible.
Check back here later this evening, when the winner will be announced. But in the meantime, check out the conversation above between all the remaining contenders.