AJC Bookshelf: Xhenet Aliu’s ‘Brass’ wins 2020 Townsend Prize for fiction

Xhenet Aliu won the 2020 Townsend Prize for her debut novel “Brass.”

Xhenet Aliu won the 2020 Townsend Prize for her debut novel “Brass.”

How does the daughter of an Albanian father and a Lithuanian-American mother who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and now lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, win Georgia’s most prestigious literary prize for fiction?

Easy. While living in Georgia, she writes the better part of a captivating novel about a daughter’s complicated relationship with her mother and her quest to learn more about her father.

Or not so easy. Xhenet Aliu, who won the Townsend Prize last week, spent 10 years writing her debut novel "Brass." Many times, she gave up and swore off writing for good. But every time she came back to it.

“It was rewritten from scratch at least four times,” said Aliu. “In between rewrites were edits and revisions. That was me learning how to write a novel. There were a lot of growing pains.”

The novel is told in alternating chapters by 18-year-old Elsie in 1996 and her 17-year-old daughter Luljeta in 2013. Both women are keenly perceptive about the world around them but dispirited by their lack of options in their hard-luck town. Both are desperate to get out of Waterbury, Connecticut. Elsie’s escape is thwarted by her pregnancy, but Luljeta succeeds when she discovers that the father she never met — and who she thought had returned to Albania — actually lives in Texas.

The backdrop to “Brass” is Waterbury, a blue-collar town where European immigrants came to work in brass factories until they got shut down, leaving behind dead-end jobs for those who stayed. It is a life Aliu knows well because she grew up there. It wasn’t until she left that she realized her hometown was worthy of portrayal in literature.

“I wanted to write about people who can see enormous wealth right down the highway but who struggle to make their own rent payments,” she said.

One of the things “Brass” does so well is illustrate how difficult it is for the working poor to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. It is a situation with which Aliu is intimately familiar.

“When you’re struggling to put food on your table every night and make your rent payment that is due tomorrow, it’s hard to strategize and plan for long term. When it came time to think about what am I going to do for a living, college wasn’t the thing that was encouraged because that was a long-term gamble,” said Aliu.

“My parents wanted the best for me, but they couldn’t necessarily foresee that what was best for me was pursuing a four-year degree and then a graduate degree after that. Because they were thinking, ‘How are you going to pay your rent next week? Whereas, if you go find a job right now, you can afford to eat.’ It’s really hard to feel like you have choices when you can only think short term.”

“Brass” began as Aliu’s MFA thesis at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, but the book changed dramatically over the course of a decade.

“I don’t think there’s a single sentence that survived that first draft,” she said.

The author moved to Athens in 2012 when her husband got a job teaching English and creative writing at Piedmont College in Demorest. At the time, she was in library school at the University of Alabama, and she worked in the library systems at the University of Georgia and Piedmont College. All the while, she worked on “Brass.”

“I came into my own as a writer in Georgia,” she said. But her love of Southern literature predates her move below the Mason-Dixon line.

“I was really attracted to the voice-driven stuff coming out of the South and Grit Lit. It was the thing I was emulating at first,” she said.

"Brass" was published in 2018 and garnered rave reviews in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times. The following year, Aliu got an assistant professorship teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and she put Georgia in her rearview mirror.

“I still miss Athens,” she said.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 Townsend Prize was announced via Zoom on May 28. It is awarded biennially by the Chattahoochee Review and the Georgia Center for the Book.

“From the very first sentence, ‘Brass’ has a narrative voice full of energy and wit and desire that, I suspect, would pull in any judge or reader,” said Anna Schachner, director of the Townsend Awards, when asked to comment on Aliu’s win. “Its complex characters — who are as real as your relatives — tell a heavy but necessary story about the immigrant experience, but the mother-daughter parallel narratives are the heart of a book that is both edgy and universal.”

Aliu has two new projects in the works. One, like her first book “Domesticated Wild Things,” is a short story collection. The other, which she’s been working on during the pandemic, is a novel about Albanian-American fraternal twins, one of whom joins the Kosovo Liberation Army to combat ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Here’s hoping it doesn’t take her 10 years to finish it. I don’t want to wait that long to read it.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com