We are pleased to announce the shortlist for the 2021 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. These seven titles were selected from the longlist featuring twenty-seven debut novels with U.S. publication dates between January 1, 2021, and December 31, 2021. Alexander Chee, Susan Choi, Yaa Gyasi, Raven Leilani, and Dinaw Mengestu made up this year’s judging panel.
The First Novel Prize, first awarded in 2006, was created to honor the best debut fiction of the year. The winner receives a $15,000 prize, with each of the other shortlisted authors receiving $1,000.
We congratulate the shortlisted authors, listed alphabetically by last name below.
- The City of Good Death by Priyanka Champaneri (Restless Books)
- Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng (Simon & Schuster)
- The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (HarperCollins / Harper)
- Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (Penguin Random House / Random House)
- No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Penguin Random House / Riverhead Books)
- Brood by Jackie Polzin (Penguin Random House / Doubleday)
- The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade (W. W. Norton & Company)
The seven finalists will introduce actors they have selected to read from their novels and celebrate their achievement with the wider literary community and its supporters at The Center for Fiction’s First Novel Fête on Friday, December 3rd. The winning novel will be announced at The Center’s Annual Awards Benefit and 200th Anniversary Celebration on Tuesday, December 7th.
The City of Good Death
By Priyanka Champaneri
Published by Restless Books
India’s holy city on the banks of the Ganges has many names but holds one ultimate promise for Hindus: it is the place where pilgrims come for a good death, to be released from the cycle of reincarnation by purifying fire. After ten years living contentedly as the manager of a death hostel in the city, Pramesh’s past reemerges in the form of his estranged cousin’s body being pulled from the river, triggering a series of events that forces him to confront his own ideas about death, rebirth, and redemption.
Swimming Back to Trout River
By Linda Rui Feng
Published by Simon & Schuster
Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, Swimming Back to Trout River weaves together the stories of Momo, who’s striving to bring his daughter to America by her twelfth birthday; Junie, who’s determined to stay in the idyllic countryside of China with her grandparents; and Cassia, who’s finally beginning to wrestle with a shocking act of brutality from her past after separating from Momo. This lyrical novel tenderly reveals the hope, compromises, and abiding ingenuity that make up the lives of immigrants..
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Published by HarperCollins / Harper
Ailey Pearl Garfield embodies W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “Double Consciousness” even with her namesakes—the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers. To come to terms with her own identity, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family’s past, uncovering the shocking tales of generations of ancestors—Indigenous, Black, and white—in the deep South, reflecting a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story of America itself.
Build Your House Around My Body
By Violet Kupersmith
Published by Penguin Random House / Random House
Part puzzle, part revenge tale, part ghost story, Build Your House Around My Body spins half a century of Vietnamese history and folklore into the story of two young women who go missing decades apart, linked together by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. Each new character and timeline brings the reader from colonial mansions to ramshackle zoos, from sweaty nightclubs to the jostling seats of motorbikes, from ex-pat flats to sizzling back-alley street carts as they come one step closer to understanding what binds them all..
No One Is Talking About This
By Patricia Lockwood
Published by Penguin Random House / Riverhead Books
In this genre-defying book, a woman who has recently been elevated to prominence for her social media posts is already struggling to grapple with the absurdity of what she terms “the portal” in the face of looming existential threats, when a personal tragedy pierces the fray of her attempts to lose herself ever deeper into the void. As real life and its stakes collide with the antics of the portal, the woman confronts a world that seems to contain both an abundance of proof that there is goodness, empathy, and justice in the universe, and a deluge of evidence to the contrary.
By Jackie Polzin
Published by Penguin Random House / Doubleday
Over the course of a year, a woman valiantly tries to keep a small brood of chickens alive while facing brutal environmental challenges and her own struggles overcoming a heartbreaking miscarriage. This brilliantly insightful meditation on life and longing rewards its readers with the richness of reflection and unrelenting hope..
The Five Wounds
By Kirstin Valdez Quade
Published by W. W. Norton & Company
Amadeo Padilla was hoping for redemption through his portrayal of Jesus in the Good Friday procession of his small town in New Mexico when his fifteen-year-old daughter, Angel, shows up pregnant after fleeing her mother’s house. Five generations of the Padilla family converge during the baby’s first year, bringing to life their struggles to parent children they may not be equipped to save.
About the Shortlisted Authors
Priyanka Champaneri received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts numerous times. She received the 2018 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for The City of Good Death, her first novel.
Photo Credit: Lauren Brennan
Linda Rui Feng
Linda Rui Feng
Born in Shanghai, Linda Rui Feng has lived in San Francisco, New York, and Toronto. She is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities and is currently a professor of Chinese cultural history at the University of Toronto. She has been twice awarded a MacDowell Fellowship for her fiction, and her prose and poetry have appeared in journals such as the Fiddlehead, the Kenyon Review, Santa Monica Review, and Washington Square Review. Swimming Back to Trout River is her first novel.
Photo Credit: Anastasia Brauer
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist. She is the author of five poetry collections, including the 2020 collection The Age of Phillis, which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry and was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and the PEN/Voelcker Award. She was a contributor to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward, and has been published in the Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, and other literary publications. Jeffers was elected into the American Antiquarian Society, whose members include fourteen U.S. presidents, and is Critic at Large for Kenyon Review. She teaches creative writing and literature at University of Oklahoma.
Photo Credit: Sydney Foster
Violet Kupersmith is the author of the short story collection The Frangipani Hotel. She previously taught English with the Fulbright program in the Mekong Delta and was a creative writing fellow at the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Da Lat and Saigon in Vietnam, and currently resides in the United States.
Photo Credit: Adriana De Cervantes
Patricia Lockwood was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana and raised in all the worst cities of the Midwest. She is the author of the novel No One Is Talking About This, a 2021 Booker Prize finalist, and the memoir Priestdaddy, which was named one of the ten best books of 2017 by the New York Times Book Review, and two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, a New York Times Notable Book. Lockwood’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and the London Review of Books, where she is a contributing editor.
Photo Credit: Grep Hoax
Jackie Polzin lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and children. Brood is her first novel.
Photo Credit: Travis Olson
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Kirstin Valdez Quade is the author of Night at the Fiestas, winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. She is the recipient of a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation, the Rome Prize, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. Her latest book is The Five Wounds. Originally from New Mexico, she now lives in New Jersey and teaches at Princeton University.
Photo Credit: Holly Andres