Courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan

Every September since 2013, Yale has hosted the Windham-Campbell Literary Festival, a three-day campus event honoring the eight recipients of the Donald Windham-Sandy Campbell Literature Prizes. The prizes are awarded in the categories of poetry, drama, fiction and nonfiction to writers at various stages in their careers from around the world. 

Funded by the estate of writer Donald Windham and actor and writer Sandy Campbell, the prize comes with a $165,000 award for each of the eight winners. According to Michael Kelleher, the prize’s program director, the prize aims to liberate writers from “worldly concerns” and allow them to focus on producing work of high artistic quality.

The prize’s secretive selection process means that recipients only discover their nomination once they have received the award. Approximately 120 nominating letters are solicited each year from critics, writers, academics and other literary experts, including members with diverse personal and literary backgrounds. 

Recipients have hailed from many different countries, including the United States, Zambia, India, Ireland, Ghana and South Africa. They have written about topics such as the impact of war on civilians, the legacies of colonialism and the injustices of racism. They have cited the chance to meet fellow writers, explore Yale’s campus and enjoy renewed confidence as additional benefits of the award.

Throughout the festival, the honorees participate in various campus events, including college teas, panels and poetry readings. These events have been held in the Whitney Humanities Center, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the New Haven Free Public Library and the Yale University Art Gallery, and are open to the Yale and New Haven communities free of charge. Topics have included “Legal Fictions: On the Intersection of Law and Literature,” “Art in the Age of Trump” and “On Becoming a Better Reader.” According to Kelleher, the festival’s events facilitate students’ literary education beyond the traditional canon.

The festival traditionally opens with a keynote address at Sprague Memorial Hall, followed by an award ceremony hosted by Yale President Peter Salovey. In the past, the address has been given by poet Elizabeth Alexander ’84, poet Eileen Myles, musician and songwriter Patti Smith and novelist Karl Knausgård. The 2020 keynote is set to be delivered by science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. 

Speakers have given creative responses to the theme of the keynote address: “Why I Write.” In 2016, Patti Smith detailed her poetry writing process through reading passages from a work in progress and sharing the people and places that served as inspiration. In 2018, Elizabeth Alexander used the phrase “I write because” as a refrain to express her various motivations for writing.

The winners of the prize are normally announced in an event in London. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the eight winners of the 2020 prizes –– seven of whom are women –– were announced via livestream by Kelleher and host Damian Barrs.

“All around the world, governments are taking action, closing libraries, theaters and schools,” Barrs said in his prerecorded 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.”

The first Windham-Campbell Literary Festival was held in September 2013.

Neha Middela |