On Thursday, winners of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes shared the books they are reading, what inspired them to become writers and the people who influence their writing at a New Haven Free Public Library panel.

“These treasure boxes that were books became something and reading is the key that opens them,” essayist Rebecca Solnit said.

Windham-Campbell Prize Director Michael Kelleher led a public panel titled “On Becoming a Better Reader,” which drew roughly 100 community members. The authors discussed the significance of books in their early adolescent lives. Playwright Young Jean Lee talked about her upbringing in a small rural town in an evangelical family. Facing challenges related to bullying and racism, she read books as a means to escape her daily life. In the same vein, Solnit turned to literature to distract herself from the household violence she witnessed.

While nonfiction author Raghu Karnad said he grew up in a household “exploding with books,” novelist David Chariandy had a very different experience. At the event, he noted that he grew up in a household with very few books, as did his parents. He stressed that he valued any opportunity to read a book, because they did not come very often.

“I never took reading for granted,” said Chariandy. “I had to overcome the hurdle of the right to read.”

Kelleher asked the panel about the major differences between fiction and nonfiction works. Solnit commented that fiction is often viewed as the pinnacle of literature and that she had to overcome the stigma that painted nonfiction writing as inferior.

Solnit told the audience that she now thinks of fiction writing versus nonfiction writing in the same way she thinks of white versus nonwhite: The prefix “non” is simply meant to exclude certain groups of people. Chariandy responded to Solnit, emphasizing the value of one’s perspective.

“To discover a truth that was hidden from anyone else and bring that truth to life in story was mesmerizing,” said Chariandy on fiction writing.

Yalies in the audience praised the speakers. Attendee Uma Dwivedi ’22 said that she views the fiction and nonfiction as two sides of a coin — both are mediums to express one’s ideas.

In an interview with the News, Sophie McCall — Chariandy’s wife — said she appreciated the public panel and was particularly interested in a question about introducing children of various backgrounds to reading. On Thursday’s panel, Chariandy said that he has always noticed a lack of representation of people of color in children’s books, which is why he incorporates different perspectives into his writing. Solnit added on to his point by citing a Washington Post article that talks about how young boys are shamed out of reading books with female protagonists.

“It’s about the lack of complex, main character representation,” said McCall, referring to the representation of underrepresented communities in literature. “[There should be more complexity] of lives, traits, likes and dislikes.”

This event was part of the Windham-Campbell Festival at Yale, which started on Sept. 18 and will continue through Sept. 20 this year.

Waruguru Kibuga | waruguru.kibuga@yale.edu

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu

Christian Robles was a public editor, city desk editor, and education & youth services beat reporter. He graduated from Yale in 2023 with a degree in Political Science and as an education studies scholar.