Think of it as the smallest, most prestigious fiction writers group in America: Every year, the National Book Foundation announces the winners of its 5 Under 35 award. Writers can’t be nominated; they don’t even know if they’re being considered until the call comes. Each of them is chosen by a former National Book Award winner or finalist.
This year’s 5 Under 35 honorees, all born after Nov. 30, 1982, are a testament to the remarkable talent in the United States. With a rich variety of styles, these young writers demonstrate the breadth of contemporary novels and short stories. In accordance with NBF rules, each of them has published just one book, but those books — the beginnings of great careers — make it easy to be optimistic about the ambition, the artistry and the continued survival of American fiction.
I spoke with each of them by phone about their lives and work.
Hannah Lillith Assadi, chosen by Claire Vaye Watkins
Assadi, 32, was born in New York, grew up in Scottsdale, Ariz., and then moved back to New York to attend Columbia University. Her novel, “Sonora” (Soho, 2017), is about two young women, Ahlam and Laura, who leave the Phoenix area and go to New York.
The first time I read Faulkner, when I was a junior in high school, I read “The Sound and the Fury.” His sense of poetry imbued with the heaviness of history, that was the first time that I ever was just really knocked down on a prose level. [In “Sonora”] I was looking at characters who inherited this sense of persistent exile. I wanted Ahlam to be the daughter of her parents coming to a new place and seeking out the desert in such an opposite location — always looking for the past in the present, much like her parents do. So in this city, she finds these deserted places that can evoke the desert, even if so entirely oppositely. The Gowanus Canal, which is very polluted and in a very industrial zone, is a reflection of this canal that weaves through the desert in her childhood. I knew these two landscapes intimately.
Akwaeke Emezi, chosen by Carmen Maria Machado
As a child in Nigeria, Emezi started writing stories to get the wonderful stationery the teacher kept supplying. Now 31, Emezi is a full-time video artist and writer in Brooklyn. The autobiographical novel “Freshwater” (Grove, 2018) tells the harrowing tale of a Nigerian girl who contains several separate selves, identities who assert themselves even more powerfully when she moves to America and is raped.
Sometimes I get asked, “Why did you write in this format?” And I say: “I didn’t make it up. That’s just what happens inside my head.” The conversations between the selves are literal journal entries from about 10 years ago. I kept running into people who had been living in these kinds of alternate realities, and they weren’t talking to anyone about it because mainly there were just two options: Either you’re mentally ill, or you’re — in religious terms — possessed by a demon. Most of them were suicidal or had been suicidal at some points from the effects of that isolation. And I realized that my book was going to be an outlet or just be someone else speaking up and saying: “Hey, my brain works like this. I don’t consider it a mental illness. I consider it real.”
Lydia Kiesling, chosen by Samantha Hunt
At 34, Kiesling, the editor of the Millions, is the oldest of this year’s 5 Under 35 authors. “I really squeaked in under the wire,” she says. Her novel, “The Golden State” (MCD, 2018), is about a woman in San Francisco whose Turkish husband is having trouble returning to the United States. Desperate for respite, she flees with her 16-month-old daughter to an old mobile home in the desert.
My mother is from the very far northeastern corner of California, and I grew up visiting there. The past few times I’ve gone, I’ve been struck by the feeling of melancholy I have about it. It just seems like a changed place. And then I started learning about the State of Jefferson effort, which is an effort to create a 51st state out of Northern California and Southern Oregon. I don’t have a sense that it’s destined to be successful, but some of the concerns mirror the rhetoric that we have on the national stage about government interference and liberty. And I had friends who had had their own immigration challenges, and I’d heard all of the kinds of horror stories that have been going on for a very long time and that certainly predate the current trend of horrible violence in our immigration system. That’s just the time we live in.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, chosen by Colson Whitehead
As a teenager, Adjei-Brenyah spun stories with his friends “to fill the time.” Now 27, he’s a professor at Syracuse University whose work is praised by masters of the form like George Saunders. His story collection, “Friday Black” (Mariner, forthcoming in October), offers surreal tales and dystopian satire about American consumerism and race.
I worked [in shopping malls] for a long time. It’s harsh because there’s an aspect of — if you’re on the sales force, especially — projecting this sincerity, projecting this interest when you would rather be doing anything else and also not being paid well for that work. There’s also at certain points maybe the fear that this is what the rest of my life will look like. But you do find little moments of joy inside it when you can. Sometimes — as I tried to talk about in the story, in retail you do feel like you’re really helping someone. I remember people would come in, and they’d want certain kinds of clothes with no color and no tags, and I’d be able to get the right ones for them. And they could maybe get those clothes to somebody in prison because there are a lot of very strict codes about what you can wear when you’re incarcerated. So, it was dispiriting, but you make the best of it, and it gave me a lot, obviously, of things to write about.
Moriel Rothman-Zecher, chosen by Bill Clegg
Born in Jerusalem but raised mostly in Ohio, Rothman-Zecher, 29, spent the last part of high school back in Israel and felt excited about one day enlisting in the Israeli army. Over the next few years, though, his attitude changed, and he eventually refused to serve. That experience inspired the plot of “Sadness Is a White Bird” (Atria, 2018), about the friendship between twin Palestinians and a young Israeli soldier named Jonathan.
I wrote the first draft in a few months, and it wasn’t a very good draft, but it was something for my agent and me to work back and forth for almost an entire year, and that included a lot of de-polemicizing. There were times when my brother, who’s my best friend and one of my closest readers, or my wife, Kayla, would be reading a draft and they would say to me: “Look, you know this part, Jonathan speaking here, it doesn’t sound like Jonathan. It sounds like Moriel has inserted a political monologue into Jonathan’s mouth.” And I would say, “Thank you!” So the process of revising was a lot of extracting those political monologues and those op-eds squished into dialogue because that’s not what novels are supposed to be. Fiction is not supposed to be an op-ed disguised as a fictional story. For me, fiction is the anti op-ed.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.