We are pleased to announce that debut novels by Chia-Chia Lin, Julia Phillips, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Ocean Vuong, Joe Wilkins, Lauren Wilkinson, and De’Shawn Charles Winslow are shortlisted for the 2019 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize! The finalists read from their books and celebrated their achievement with the wider literary community at the First Novel Fête on December 9, 2019, held at the Center’s downtown Brooklyn location. The following evening, we presented the award to the winner, De’Shawn Charles Winslow, at the Center’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner in New York City. Judges this year were Maaza Mengiste, Claire Messud, Tommy Orange, Emma Straub, and Monique Truong.
The First Novel Prize, launched in 2006, was created as part of our literary nonprofit’s central mission to promote the art of storytelling and help further the careers of new writers. This annual prize carries a $10,000 cash award. Each of the other shortlisted authors receive a $1,000 award. Learn more about the First Novel Prize.
The 2019 winner, In West Mills is listed first. The remaining finalists are listed alphabetically by author.
In West Mills
By De'Shawn Charles Winslow
Published by Bloomsbury
Winner of The Center for Fiction’s 2019 First Novel Prize
This rich and arresting debut follows the struggles of the self-possessed Knot and her relationship with Otis Lee, a compulsory fixer who is resolved to saving his loved ones from themselves. Knot loves men, alcohol, and books, and as their relationship develops, Otis Lee finds it increasingly difficult to figure out his familial troubles. Lovers of Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction and nonfiction work will enjoy Winslow’s distinct voice.
By Chia-Chia Lin
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
A profound debut novel, The Unpassing is the story of a Taiwanese immigrant family struggling to survive on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Amidst their daily challenges, the youngest daughter Ruby falls fatally ill. Soon after, the family’s father is sued over an improperly installed water well and the chaos that ensues unearths what really happened to Ruby. Steeped in raw emotion, anguish and suspense, Chia-Chia Lin illustrates an immigrant reality that dismisses the myth of the American dream.2 .
By Julia Phillips
Published by Knopf
Two young sisters go missing on a remote Russian Peninsula in which the volcanoes, tundra, reindeers, and herders come vividly alive. The event has far-reaching effects upon the villagers in this atmospheric fiction that is a page-turning debut. A National Book Award and our own First Novel Award finalist, and one of the New York Times Top Ten Books of the Year.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain
By Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Published by Riverhead Books
Sudbanthad writes in rich, astonishing, sublimely detailed prose while also managing to convey a sweeping, faceted sense of time. This tenderhearted wonder of a novel moves between characters and epochs—as though through osmosis—and offers a textured portrait of the city of Bangkok. An intersubjective gem.4 .
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
By Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press
“Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence—but rather, that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.” This debut novel deserves all the hype and Vuong deserves all the awards. Gift this book with a box of tissues.
Fall Back Down When I Die
By Joe Wilkins
Published by Little, Brown and Company
A gripping story set in a fractured and misunderstood community, Fall Back Down When I Die is a haunting and unforgettable tale of sacrificial love. Wilkins’ debut novel demonstrates a sense of place and character that rivals even the most seasoned novelists. Perfect for readers who love the smell and dirt of the outdoors.6 .
By Lauren Wilkinson
Published by Random House
We couldn’t put this novel down. American Spy has it all—it’s a finely wrought and brilliantly imagined political thriller, cold war historical fiction, family portrait, and love story all at once. Marie Mitchell is the only woman of color working as an intelligence officer in her NYC field office, a veritable boys-club, and when the CIA offers her an assignment in Burkina Faso in which she’s to romantically ensnare and derail the efforts of communist revolutionary Thomas Sankara, she accepts. What follows is sheer wondrous writing filled with captivating, tender characterizations. We’re so excited to see what Wilkinson does next.