Because the COVID-19 pandemic rendered this year’s in-person Windham-Campbell Festival impossible, organizers are exploring new ways to celebrate the prize winners.
Every September for the past seven years, eight writers from around the world have convened on Yale’s campus for the Windham-Campbell Festival — a three-day literary festival celebrating recipients of the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes. The Windham-Campbell prizes, annually administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, honor two winners each in four categories: poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction.
This year’s honorees include poets Bhanu Kapil and Jonah Mixon-Webster, playwrights Aleshea Harris and Julia Cho, fiction writers Yiyun Li and Namwali Serpell and nonfiction writers Maria Tumarkin and Anne Boyer. The winners –– who were announced this March via livestream –– each receive a grant of $165,000.
“The purpose of this prize from the very beginning has been to give writers time to write,” said Michael Kelleher, director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes. “The hope is that they are able to produce work that’s really engaged with its artistic concerns, rather than all of these other worldly concerns that tend to dominate the publishing world.”
This summer, it became clear that the usual in-person gathering would not occur. According to Kelleher, he believed that Zoom meetings would be unable to recreate the sense of community key to a successful literary festival.
Instead, this year’s prize winners will be commemorated in a special issue of The Yale Review, a Yale-based literary journal that recently celebrated its 200th anniversary. The issue, edited by Meghan O’Rourke ’97, will be released in November and will feature new content from the writers, such as essays and transcribed conversations. According to Kelleher, the journal format allows people to “engage with writers in the way you usually engage with them –– through their written words on the page.”
O’Rourke said that, while a communal experience of literature cannot be replicated on Zoom, there are new possibilities offered when one creates the experience in a new medium. She described the special issue as a “love letter from the prizes to the world,” able to transcend great distances and create the intimacy critical to a literary experience. The issue will be distributed for free.
“To me, the closest possible thing to being in a room together is being in the space of a book together — as reader, as writer,” O’Rourke said.
In a typical year, the festival features discussions between individual prize winners, with Yale professors and other writers, often engaging the resources of the Beinecke and Yale’s art galleries. The journal will feature recorded and transcribed versions of these conversations. For example, playwright Julia Cho will host a roundtable of Asian American writers.
English professor Margaret Spillane said that she is “thrilled” to see Julia Cho on the list. According to Spillane, Cho’s “artistic preoccupations range across a variety of compelling issues, from the Korean diaspora to food as a communication tool to the teaching profession … she also looks unflinchingly into the face of our dangerous national situation.”
According to O’Rourke, the Review seeks to celebrate the writers in an “editorially authentic” way.” She noted that the “truly original” nature of the prize winners’ works helped the collaboration come together seamlessly.
“The Windham-Campbell Prizes celebrate the kind of original, far-reaching, genre-breaking international voices that the Review, in its new incarnation, wants to bring into its pages,” O’Rourke said.
In the only online component of this year’s celebration, science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany delivered the annual “Why I Write” keynote address on Sept. 16 at 5 p.m., the same time the in-person lecture would have occurred. Keynote speakers are jointly selected each year by the Windham-Campbell Prizes committee and Yale University Press.
Kelleher said he still hopes to bring this year’s eight prize winners to campus in 2022, when the festival celebrates its 10-year anniversary.
Next year’s keynote speaker will be Joy Harjo, the current United States Poet Laureate and the first Native American to hold the post.