With festival cancelled, Windham-Campbell Prizes find new ways to celebrate

This year’s Windham-Campbell Prize celebrations begins Sept. 16 with a webcast lecture by Samuel R. Delany, with a special issue of The Yale Review to follow.
The 2020 recipients of Yale’s Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes

The 2020 recipients of Yale’s Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes. Top row, left to right: Anne Boyer (nonfiction), Julia Cho (drama), Aleshea Harris (drama), and Bhanu Kapil (poetry). Bottom row: Jonah Mixon-Webster (poetry), Yiyun Li (fiction), Namwali Serpell (fiction), and Maria Tumarkin (nonfiction).

In a typical year, the 2020 recipients of Yale’s Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes would visit campus this month for a three-day festival to share their work and celebrate the written word with the local community. 

With this year’s festival cancelled due to the pandemic, the prize’s organizers have found a new way to honor the eight recipients and their craft. The celebration will instead combine an original lecture by a legendary writer with a special edition of one of the country’s most prestigious literary journals.

Renowned science fiction author and literary critic Samuel R. Delany will deliver a keynote address as was originally planned. His lecture, based on the theme “Why I Write,” will be presented online on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 5 p.m. ET — the same date and time he would have presented the talk in person during the prize’s annual awards ceremony. 

Later in the fall, readers will have the chance to engage with the prize recipients’ writing and perspectives in the pages of The Yale Review. The nation’s oldest literary journal is partnering with the Windham-Campbell Prizes on a special issue devoted to the recipients, featuring stories, essays, poems, and interviews commissioned by the journal on topics ranging from wildness in nonfiction to Black nonchalance to what it means to be a Korean American artist today. It will be released soon after Thanksgiving and made available for free to anyone who requests a physical or digital copy. 

While we’re deeply disappointed that we can’t gather in person this year, we’re excited to provide people a compelling alternative,” said Michael Kelleher, director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes. “The festival is always a fun and inspiring occasion, and — with the help of Samuel Delany and The Yale Review — we’ll capture that joyous spirit while celebrating eight truly gifted writers.”  

This year’s prize recipients, announced in March, are: in fiction, Yiyun Lee (United States/China) and Namwali Serpell (Zambia); in nonfiction, Maria Tumarkin (Australia) and Anne Boyer (United States); in poetry, Bhanu Kapil (United Kingdom/India) and Jonah Mixon-Webster (United States); and in drama, Julia Cho (United States) and Aleshea Harris (United States).

Over the course of a career spanning nearly six decades, Delany has pushed the boundaries of science fiction and questioned prevailing ideas about sexuality, intimacy, memory, and perception. He has won four Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards — the most prestigious prizes in science fiction and fantasy. His lecture will be the basis of the fourth installment of the prize’s “Why I Write” series, published by Yale University Press. The series’ third book, “For Now,” by last year’s keynote speaker, Eileen Myles, publishes on Sept. 22.

While grateful for the opportunity to present Delany’s lecture, Kelleher said he didn’t want to convert the entire festival — which comprises a range of readings, discussions, and talks by the prize recipients — into a virtual event. 

What makes literary festivals special is how the camaraderie that develops between writers and readers stirs people’s imaginations,” he said. “We hope that by providing people a physical book, we’ll spark their imaginations and connect them with this year’s prize recipients in a way that an online experience would fail to do.”

The collaboration is also an opportunity to connect readers with The Yale Review — a magazine that publishes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, and is currently being reimagined and re-launched for the digital age under new editor Meghan O’Rourke.

It was easy to say yes to this collaboration,” said O’Rourke, who joined the Review in July 2019. “The Windham-Campbell Prizes have the distinction of celebrating truly bold, indelible, rule-breaking writers. What excited us was the chance to collaborate with writers whom we had been courting for our pages — individuals who epitomize the Review’s own goal of publishing work that powerfully and imaginatively engages with key literary and social issues of our time.” 

Delany’s lecture will be broadcast live on the Windham-Campbell Prizes website. To request a physical copy of the special edition, email windhamcampbellprizes@gmail.com with your name and address. The digital version will be available in late November on the prize’s website.

U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo will deliver the keynote at next year’s festival. 

The Windham-Campbell Prizes were established in 2013 by novelist and memoirist Donald Windham in memory of his partner of 40 years, Sandy M. Campbell, to call attention to literary achievement and provide writers working in English with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns. Recipients receive $165,000. The prizes are administered by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell Papers.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,