Robbie Short

The international literary community, unable to gather in London as originally planned, tuned into the live-streamed announcement of Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize recipients on March 19. Yale’s Windham Campbell Prizes, one of the world’s most lucrative literary awards, come with a $165,000 award for each of eight winners. 

“All around the world, governments are taking action, closing libraries, theatres and schools,” said host Damian Barrs in his pre-recorded remarks. “People are afraid. Now more than ever, stories have the power to unite us to open hearts and minds, to provide company, to comfort and to console.”

In early March, it became clear to organizers that a large gathering in London  would no longer be feasible. Instead, Windham-Campbell Prizes Director Michael Kelleher, from New Haven, and Barr, from London, stitched together a video announcement honoring the awardees. 

The prizes laud two winners in four categories: poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction. This year’s lineup is dominated by women and writers of color. The honorees include poets Bhanu Kapil and Jonah Mixon-Webster, playwrights Aleshea Harris and Jula Cho, fiction writers Yiyun Li and Namwali Serpell and nonfiction writers Maria Tumarkin and Anne Boyer. 

The Beinecke Library administers the Windham-Campbell prizes, which are endowed through the Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell funds. The lifelong partners were avid writers and readers, and after Campbell’s passing in 1988, Windham founded the Windham-Campbell Prizes and entrusted Yale with their administration.  

According to Kelleher, the purpose of the prizes is to afford promising writers in all stages of their careers “the time and the freedom to write, at least for a while, without the everyday stresses that earning a living creates.” 

English-language writers across the world with at least one published book or professionally produced play can be nominated for the prizes. According to Kelleher, nominations are stipulated to be either for a “body of work” or for “outstanding promise.” That means that the prizes honor writers at varying career positions and degrees of prior recognition. 

“It’s an unbelievably cool list,” Kelleher said. “Interestingly, it’s totally American-dominated this year, but within that, you have much more complicated identities.”

The awardees include celebrated novelist and short story writer Yiyun Li, who — despite only beginning to write in English in her 20s — has three published novels, two short story collections and a memoir to her name.  She was awarded a MacArthur Genius Fellowship and a PEN/Hemingway Award and currently teaches creative writing at Princeton. 

Of the eight, one will return to a familiar campus for the fall’s ceremony and festival. The Zambian writer Namwali Serpell ’01, whose short story “The Sack” won the Caine Prize in 2015, is a Yale graduate. 

Though the  recipients receive formal recognition in one of the four genres, many of this year’s writers seek to push the boundaries of established literary disciplines. Bhanu Kapil, a British-Indian poet, is known for her experimental and genre-fluid poetry. Anne Boyer nixes convention in her memoir “The Undying,” blending cultural criticism in her personal experiences with breast cancer. Jonah Mixon-Webster tackles the water crisis in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, through poetry and sound art.  Aleshea Harris is not only a playwright, but also a performer and screenwriter. 

“In this unsettling moment, this list of remarkable winners reminds us that there are so many new stories just waiting to be told,” said David Kastan, George M. Brodman Professor of English. “If we are ever to understand who we are and who we can be, we need more and better stories, which must be, to adapt a phrase of James Baldwin, more various, more beautiful and possibly more terrible than the stories that we already know.”

The confidential year-long selection process runs through three separate stages. Approximately 120 nominating letters are solicited each year from critics, writers, academics and other literary experts. Dossiers of nominated writers are forwarded to juries, who narrow the pool to a cohort of finalists. A nine-member selection committee — four of whom are from Yale — convene to select the prizes’ recipients. The prizes notoriously do not notify writers of their nomination. Authors first hear of their selection on the phone with Kelleher.

The unrestricted grant comes with virtually no strings attached, save each writer’s expected attendance in a literary festival and awards ceremony held at Yale in September each year. While Kelleher still plans to hold the festival, final confirmation of the festival’s date has been postponed due to the COVID-19 emergency. The announcement also revealed that this year’s keynote speaker, who will deliver the annual “Why I Write” address, will be the prolific science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. 

The Beinecke Library, which administers the prizes, was entrusted not only with the grant funds, but also with the personal correspondences and literary collection of Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell.

 

Emily Tian | emily.tian@yale.edu