Announcing the 2023 Shortlist for the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction
The $25,000 prize, in its second year, celebrates book-length works of imaginative fiction
Today, the Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust announces the shortlist for the second annual Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. The recipient of the $25,000 prize will be chosen by authors William Alexander, Alexander Chee, Karen Joy Fowler, Tochi Onyebuchi, and Shruti Swamy from nine nominees selected by the Trust. Last year Khadija Abdalla Bajaber’s The House of Rust was awarded the prize in a ceremony on October 21st, 2022, Ursula K. Le Guin’s birthday.
The Prize was created to continue Le Guin’s legacy as an author who defied genre, interrogated capitalism, celebrated hope and possibility in her writing, and who encouraged artists to find intellectual and artistic freedom in their work. Theo Downes-Le Guin, the author’s son and literary executor, founded the Prize to honor his mother’s work, to shine a light on newer authors, and to offer money that will provide at least a measure of independence to writers of imaginative fiction.
Here is the shortlist for the 2023 Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction, followed by a brief interview with Theo Downes-Le Guin. Leah Schnelbach spoke with him about finding this year’s panel, finding hope in literature, and the challenges of carrying the Prize into its second year.
Wolfish by Christiane M. Andrews
In Andrews’ second novel for young readers, a shepherd’s daughter, a wolf, an apprentice oracle, and a king are drawn together by transformation and prophecy. Inspired by the story of Romulus and Remus, Wolfish is a story deeply interested in place, in the way nature can be an agent of change, and in people can connect with each other and animals—or fail to.
Arboreality by Rebecca Campbell
In looping, linked stories that travel through generations, Campbell explores the effects of climate change on one slice of British Columbia: what might happen as the planet changes, and how regular people might remake their homes by growing together and reconsidering other, gentler ways to live in a drastically reshaped world.
Spear by Nicola Griffith
Griffith’s fresh, queer rewriting of the Percival myth is the story of a young woman who grows up deeply in touch with her homeland, and whose skills take her to the court of Artos—not to simply triumph in battle, but to find herself, and an unexpected home.
Ten Planets by Yuri Herrera, translated by Lisa Dillman
Herrera’s sly stories, elegantly translated by Lisa Dillman, are subtle and brief: a gut bacteria attains consciousness; a detective studies his clients’ noses. Surreal yet familiar, his tales offer new angles on humanity and connection.
The Spear Cuts Through Water by Simon Jimenez
Jimenez’ structurally inventive second novel is the story of a kingdom being destroyed and—hopefully—rebuilt in a less cruel and violent form. Both epic and intimate in scope, it’s a tale told in many voices, from those of its central characters to some who appear for only a page, or a line, but still influence the world and the many stories it contains.
Brother Alive by Zain Khalid
Three adopted brothers reckon with the past of their parents and the man who adopted them in Khalid’s debut novel, which stretches across decades in a sharp critique of patriarchy, blind faith, capitalism, and more. Through it all runs the specter of Brother, an invisible fourth sibling whose presence is inextricable from the trauma that shaped the boys’ lives.
Meet Us by the Roaring Sea by Akil Kumarasamy
After her mother dies, a young woman in near-future Queens begins translating a manuscript about a group of medical students facing drought and violence. Kumarasamy alternates the translator’s life—with AI, self-driving cars, carbon credits, art, and unexpected friendships—with the manuscript, weaving together a reflective story about survival, memory, and self.
Geometries of Belonging by R.B. Lemberg
Set in the author’s vividly imagined Birdverse, these poems and stories travel through different parts of its cultures and customs, from the creation of art to the scholarly leanings of goats to the different forms love and romance can take. Whether told in letters or narrative verse, Lemberg’s stories explore power, gender, art, and acceptance.
Drinking from Graveyard Wells by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
In her first story collection, Ndlovu melds folklore, myth, realism, and SFF elements into a cohesive whole, telling stories that cast new light on longstanding issues, from gentrification to assimilation, stolen ideas to stolen memories. Complex histories inform her fantastical futures (and present), as her characters struggle to be seen, and to be free.
Leah Schnelbach: This is the second year of the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize for Fiction. What did you learn from your inaugural year that you’ve carried forward into this round of submissions?
Theo Downes Le Guin: The first year was a remarkably smooth and joyous experience, for a new program. We were happy with the diversity of nominators and nominated books in year one, but subsequently we made small changes to encourage the broadest possible range of nominations, for example by reaching out to booksellers to encourage more reader nominations. We also increased the size of the group that reviews nominated books, again with a view to ensuring a range of interests and backgrounds as we narrow down to the shortlist.
LS: How do you choose people to invite onto each panel? What are you looking for in a reader/judge?
TDLG: We are seeking a balance of writers from different backgrounds, at different points in their careers and with varying levels of recognition. It’s important to me that we have at least one panelist who knew Ursula well. Eventually that will no longer be possible without having repeat panelists, but we still have years of friends, former students and peers to invite. For selectors who didn’t know Ursula well or at all, we’re looking for evidence of a relationship or affinity to her work. We’re not trying to create a partisan panel, but we need selectors who can assess the shortlist against the ideas found in Ursula’s work and against her standards of excellent writing.
LS: As we live in a culture of doomscrolling and terrible news, I love the emphasis you’ve placed on hope in the nominees’ work. Could you talk a bit about finding hope in Le Guin’s work, how you defined it for the books that were nominated last year, and how it’s reflected in this year’s finalists?
TDLG: Hope is never far below the surface in Ursula’s work, though certainly she is willing to take readers through periods of despondency, hard times, even violence. Ursula didn’t speak of hope and imagination interchangeably, but I believe they overlap heavily in her work, in that we can’t effect change or make our way through hard times without both. As for identifying hope in the nominated books, I have to cop out by paraphrasing Justice Potter Stewart: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. The hope expressed in these books runs the gamut from very specific, almost blueprint-like to highly conceptual or emotional, from buried and to on the surface, but it’s always there.
LS: You’ve mentioned the time put into hashing out eligibility for submissions, particularly the difficulties of defining “Imaginative Fiction”. Has that become any easier in the second year?
TDLG: We received relatively few nominations that didn’t meet the eligibility requirements, so I thank the nominators for that. And as nebulous a term as “imaginative fiction” is, I feel that nominators get what we’re after. We received a wide range from “classic” science fiction to realism with an element that might or might not be fantasy to all readers. I am delighted to see so many nominations that don’t give a whit for genre adherence. Some of these books pose some definitional challenges for us, but it is fascinating and healthy to repeatedly ask myself questions like, how much realism is too much? Because this reverses the question asked for decades whenever a fantasy element creeps into so-called literary fiction, that is, how much departure from realism is too much for a book to be taken seriously? Which in itself is a seriously silly question.
LS: Do you have a favorite work of imaginative fiction in your own reading pantheon?
TDLG: It is tricky, in my job as executor, to figure out when to draw attention to my mother’s work vs. other contemporary writers’ work, let alone pick favorites, so I tend to avoid this question. I’ll just say that I’ve been rereading Kipling. I read him differently now than I did decades ago, in the context of anti-colonialism. But talk about imaginative fiction coupled with craft! Part of his stories always exist in a dream state. And he is so generous of human frailties, aware of our non-dominant place in the natural world.
LS: In your announcement interview last year, you talked about thinking through ways to keep Ursula Le Guin’s writing in the public consciousness, especially for younger readers, and how that played into your work to keep a focus on women’s genre writing in general. I’m wondering if the process of working on the Prize for these last few years has presented any new strategies for that, or held any surprises in how that work is received by the reading public?
TDLG: Maybe the biggest surprise is how little I have to do. More than ever, I see my job as simply ensuring visibility of Ursula’s work from a variety of angles, so that readers of all ages, but especially younger readers, can find it easily. When people find their way to an Ursula book or poem that is right for them, it tends to lead to more of her work, and also to related work by other writers. I think she would be especially gratified by that last fact, that discovering her writing leads to discovery of other writers—often young, living writers—with shared interests and ideas.
LS: Were there moments that stood out for you during your first year of hosting the Prize?
TDLG: Two moments. First, I was nervous we wouldn’t be able to convene a panel that fit my expectations for the prize. Every writer I approached to serve on the selection panel said yes with alacrity. These are busy, accomplished people, who often have to say no, even to things they’d like to do.
Second, when we convened the panel to select the winning book. I was an observer, joining the video conference just in case any questions of interpretation or eligibility arose. All I had to do was watch this group of five formidably intelligent, literate, kind people talk about books and praise my mother for a few hours. I’d like to do that every week.
LS: Last year’s award ceremony featured a fabulous reading hosted by actor Anthony Rapp. What are your plans for this year’s ceremony?
TDLG: We’re sticking with the virtual ceremony for accessibility reasons, and also because we try to run this program very lean, putting as much funding into artist’s pockets as possible. As for the presenter, Anthony Rapp will be a tough act to follow, but we’ll do our best. Stay tuned.
LS: Finally, how can people best support the Ursula K. Le Guin Prize as it moves into its third year?
TDLG: Nominating books and encouraging others—especially fellow readers who aren’t in the industry—to nominate, spreading the word about the shortlist and the award recipient, and above all, reading the books!