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Author Fatimah Asghar is the first winner of the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction

<em>When We Were Sisters </em>by Fatimah Asghar
One World / Random House
When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar

Fatimah Asghar is the first recipient of the Carol Shields prize for fiction for their debut novel When We Were Sisters. The award was announced Thursday evening at Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn.

They will receive $150,000 as well as a writing residency at Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Asghar's When We Were Sisters is a coming-of-age novel that follows three orphaned Muslim-American siblings left to raise one another in the aftermath of their parents' death. The prize jury wrote that Asghar "weaves narrative threads as exacting and spare as luminous poems," and their novel is "head-turning in its experimentations."

When We Were Sisters reflects some of Ashgar's own experiences both as a queer South Asian Muslim and a person whose parents died when they were young. In October, they told NPR's Scott Simon that being on the margins of society and vulnerable from such a young age was a window into "a certain kind of cruelty that I think most people don't have a reference point for."

Ashgar said that the stories they read about orphans while growing up never really rang true — that they'd always think "this doesn't feel accurate."

Of the book, they said: "These characters, they go through things that are so heartbreaking and so cruel yet they still insist on loving as much as they possibly can, even when they are mean to each other. That, to me, is what it means to be alive."

Asghar is the author of the poetry collection If They Come for Us, as well as a filmmaker, educator, and performer. They are the writer and co-producer of the Emmy-nominated web series, Brown Girls, which highlights friendships between women of color.

The shortlist for the prize included Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades, What We Fed to the Manticore by Talia Lakshmi Kolluri, The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr, and Elsewhere by Alexis Schaitkin. Each of these authors will receive $12,500 as finalists for the prize.

Susan Swan, Don Oravec and Janice Zawerbny, who co-founded the award, noted that the five shortlisted novels "made up one of the strongest literary prize shortlists we've seen in recent years."

The prize, created to honor fiction by women and non-binary writers in Canada and the United States, was named for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields, who died of breast cancer in 2003. The Carol Shields Foundation provides scholarships, mentoring programs, and workshops to promote the production of literary works.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tilda Wilson