The Cut is thrilled to announce the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” for 2017. The annual prize recognizes five young debut fiction writers whose work “promises to leave an indelible mark on the literary landscape,” and each winner is selected by a writer previously honored by the foundation. For the second time in the award’s 12-year history, all five nominees are female, and three are women of color — a notable accomplishment in a literary landscape where the major prizes continue to be dominated by white men.
“At a moment in which we are having the necessary conversations surrounding the underrepresentation of female voices, it’s a thrill to see this list of tremendous women chosen organically by our selectors,” said Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation. “These writers and their work represent an incredibly bright future for the world of literary fiction.” Here are the honorees:
Honoree: Lesley Nneka Arimah, What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky.
Selected by: Chris Bachelder, 2016 National Book Award finalist for Fiction.
Description: Set in the U.S. and Nigeria (both of which the U.K-born author has at one point called home), What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky provides a fantastical, often dystopian look at the lives of girls and women. Pulling from the worlds of myth, fable, and fantasy, the collection uses surreal premises to explore enduring human themes: a woman makes a baby from human hair, a mother is resurrected from the dead, a futuristic “grief worker” is capable of drawing out other people’s sadness. “Some stories hold readers at a distance; others address them directly; some pull them close into the physical and emotional realms of the characters — and some of the stories do all of these at once,” writes The Guardian. “Overall, the collection offers a rare combination of daring and nuance.”
Honoree: Halle Butler, Jillian.
Selected by: Lydia Millet, 2016 National Book Award Longlist for Fiction.
Description: Labeled the “feel-bad book of the year” by the Chicago Tribune, Butler’s wickedly funny debut novel focuses on two co-workers whose passionate hatred for one another provides a window into their own troubled psyches. Per the Tribune, “the old saw about how what we find annoying in others is often what we most despise about ourselves is on rampant, vulgar display in this sublimely awkward and hilarious book about two women who loathe each other only slightly less than they loathe themselves.”
Honoree: Zinzi Clemmons, What We Lose.
Selected by: Angela Flournoy, 2015 National Book Award finalist for Fiction.
Description: Inspired by the death of Clemmons’s own mother, What We Lose is a “transgressive and moving study of grief” (The Guardian) told from the perspective of a young mixed-race woman named Thandi who finds herself caught between cultures (Clemmons herself was born in the U.S. to an African-American father and a mixed-race South African mother). Set across the United States and South Africa, the book makes use of “intimate vignettes including blog posts, photos, hand-drawn charts, and hip-hop lyrics” in order to capture the lived experience of grief, while also providing commentary on broader issues of race and identity.
Honoree: Leopoldine Core, When Watched.
Selected by: Karan Mahajan, 2016 National Book Award finalist for Fiction.
Description: In a short-story compilation that has earned her comparisons to the likes of Mary Gaitskill and William Burroughs, the New York–based writer and poet focuses her attention on a group of “modern, often millennial drifters … helplessly embedded in the present, wondering about what might be happening outside their own lives but unable to act upon that outer world in any significant way” (New York Times). The result is a book that “captures a precious slice of what it is to be human.”
Honoree: Weike Wang, Chemistry.
Selected by: Sherman Alexie, 2007 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature.
Description: Informed by Wang’s own experiences as a first-generation Chinese-American who once studied chemistry and public health at Harvard, Chemistry centers on an unnamed Chinese-American graduate chemistry student who finds herself mired in self-questioning and indecision when her boyfriend proposes to her. Burdened by the expectations of her overbearing parents and the pressures of her male-dominated field, Chemistry is a “sort of anti-coming-of-age story: Instead of figuring out how to be an adult, the narrator learns to live with uncertainty and indecision” (New York Times).
The fact that all the honorees this year are women (which also happened back in 2013) is significant because female writers have historically been underrepresented when it comes to the literary world’s big prizes. As Quartz reported last year, from 1950 to 2016 only one-quarter of the U.S. National Book Awards for fiction went to female authors, while the Nobel Prize for literature has gone to a woman only 14 times since 1901, and only to one woman of color (Toni Morrison in 1993).
“In the past maybe five or six years, the shift in what I’ve been reading has changed from 80 percent male writers and 20 percent female writers to the opposite of that,” said honoree Halle Butler. “Now I almost exclusively read fiction by women, and it’s not all contemporary. I think there’s a revisiting of a lot of overlooked women writers like Lucia Berlin. It wasn’t anything conscious, so it must be atmospheric and it must be coming from things like this — some kind of sea change.”
“It does feel as though more of us are being given our literary kudos, which is always a good thing,” adds honoree Lesley Nneka Arimah. “I think one of the things awards do is they direct attention to works and so I think it’s important who gets acknowledged, the idea of institutional acceptance, because it means more eyes are on the work.”
Past honorees include acclaimed authors like Brit Bennett, Yaa Gyasi, and Téa Obreht. Weike Wang says that she herself was inspired to pick up Gyasi’s novel Homegoing after Gyasi was selected for the 5 under 35. Wang describes this award as “the cherry on top” of the positive reception the book has found. “It means a lot to be welcomed into the field, which is a community of female writers who I respect and also just writers I respect in general — to be welcomed into a group that I never felt that I belonged in.”
The honorees will each receive a $1,000 prize and be honored at an invitation-only event on November 13, 2017.
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