OPAL & NEV, MATRIX, COMPANY OF MEN win prestigious fiction prizes

Dawnie Walton’s The Final Revival of Opal & Nev has been named the winner of the Aspen Words Literary Prize from among a stellar shortlist that also included Hala Alyan’s The Arsonists’ City (HMH), Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds (Norton), Myriam J.A. Chancy’s What Storm, What Thunder (Tin House), and Omar El Akkad’s What Strange Paradise (Knopf). The Aspen Institute created the $35,000 prize to honor a work of fiction “that illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture.”

Walton’s novel features an unusual oral history format that suits the story of a journalist researching the 1970s career of Afro-punk singer-songwriter Opal Jewel and her musical partner from the UK, their controversial and long-reverberating breakup, and their eventual (and very complicated) reunion.

The judges lauded Final Revival for its innovative form and “soulful delivery,” calling it “a dazzling exploration of the spectacular and eerie complications of the way race, gender and punk rock necessarily collide.”

One the same day (April 21), Lauren Groff won the 2022 Joyce Carol Oates Prize for her 2021 novel Matrix, a story set in a 12th century French nunnery. The JCO Prize, awarded by the New Literary Project, honors a mid-career author “who has earned a distinguished reputation and the widespread praise of readers and reviewers. Groff received $50,000 and will do a weeklong residency at UC Berkeley in October 2022.

“Lauren Groff is an audacious writer of tremendous range and depth,” Oates said. “Wherever her imagination leads, she writes with subtlety and force.”

The other finalists were Christopher Beha for The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House), Percival Everett for The Trees (Graywolf Press), Katie Kitamura for Intimacies (Riverhead Books), and Jason Mott for Hell of a Book (Dutton). Previous winners include Anthony Marra, Laila Lalami, Daniel Mason, and Danielle Evans.

At the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes on April 22 (held in conjunction with the LAT Festival of Books at USC on April 23-24), Veronique Tadjo took home the fiction prize for In the Company of Men, about the Ebola epidemic that devastated West Africa. The judges described the book as “gripping and prescient” and “unlike anything we’ve ever read.”  

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