This week, the eight recipients of the second annual Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize are converging at Yale for a festival celebrating their literary work and careers.
The festival began late Monday afternoon with a keynote address by novelist Zadie Smith and a prize ceremony, which awarded $150,000 to each of the honored authors. Throughout the week, the prizewinners will engage in a variety of events, such as Master’s Teas, panels and conversations with faculty, all of which are free and open to the public.
At the prize ceremony, University President Peter Salovey spoke in front of a crowd of about 200 to thank the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library for serving as “custodian for the prizes” and Prize Program Director Michael Kelleher for overseeing the festival. Salovey then offered some general remarks about the prizewinners — a diverse group of writers selected by jurors from within Yale and outside the University — and praised their various works and dedication to their craft.
“Yale strives in all that we do to recognize and inspire and nurture excellence in every field,” Salovey said. “Each of you in your own ways embodies this ideal.”
Salovey proceeded to distribute the prizes to each recipient by genre: Pankaj Mishra and John Vaillant were honored for nonfiction; Nadeem Aslam, Jim Crace and Aminatta Forna for fiction; and Kia Corthron, Sam Holcroft and Noëlle Janaczewska for drama.
Kelleher said the planning of the festival began in earnest after the prizewinners were announced in March. He added that the festival’s events are chosen in accordance with the honored authors’ literary works and intellectual interests. As an example, he cited a Tuesday-night screening of “The Lost Libraries of Timbuktu,” a BBC documentary narrated by prizewinner Forna, a Scottish-born Sierra Leone writer who focuses on war and civil violence.
“In planning this festival, no matter who wins the prize, what kind of writing they do, or where they’re from, there is someone here who can talk about their work or what they’re interested in,” Kelleher said.
From Tuesday to Thursday, each of the prizewinners will engage in conversations with Yale faculty members about their writings and will also participate in Master’s Teas hosted by residential colleges. In addition, the playwrights amongst the prizewinners will give public master classes, which will include staged readings of their works and discussion.
The “highlight” of Tuesday night, according to Kelleher, is “Literary Speed Dating,” an event organized at Beinecke Library by Yale undergraduates during which attendees will be sorted into groups to have 10-minute conversations with each prizewinner as they move from table to table.
There will be three panels on Wednesday — “Crafting Nonfiction Narratives,” “Art of the Novel” and “Writing the Environment” — featuring the prizewinners and faculty members.
On Thursday, the Beinecke will showcase pictures of Haida Gwaii with prizewinner Vaillant, whose novel, “The Golden Spruce,” featured the setting of the British Columbia archipelago. Playwright and prizewinner Corthron will also discuss her work with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95 through the Endeavors Series.
Each of the prizewinners will read from their work during the festival’s closing ceremony on Thursday. “Last year’s event was one of the best readings I’ve ever seen,” Kelleher said.
For the first time, the festival will host an event in New York City on Friday evening, featuring Forna, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Lorraine Adams and Caine Prize for African Writing winner E. C. Osondu in conversation.
Students present at the Monday’s prize ceremony had largely positive responses to the event.
“What interested me as I was reading the program was the [opportunity to live] as a writer without any distractions, and the amount of prize money is pretty amazing,” Leigh Vila ’17 said. “Being a writer myself, I always try to find time to write and it’s so difficult, so it’s pretty cool and amazing this even exists,” she said.
Caroline Sydney ’16, a staff columnist for the News, said she was interested that time was used as a theme throughout the prize ceremony. She said while University administrators said the purpose of the prizes is to give these writers time to dedicate to their craft, the prizes also give Yale students the opportunity to spend time with these authors.
The Windham-Campbell prizes totaled $1.35 million to nine writers last year.