Yale University on March 22 announced the eight recipients of the 2021 Windham-Campbell Prizes. The writers, whose work explores matters both personal and political, were honored for their literary achievement or promise. Each will receive $165,000 to support their work.
The prize recipients are: in nonfiction, Vivian Gornick (United States) and Kate Briggs (United Kingdom/Netherlands); in fiction, Dionne Brand (Canada/Trinidad & Tobago) and Renee Gladman (United States); in poetry, Canisia Lubrin (St. Lucia/Canada) and Natalie Scenters-Zapico (United States); and in drama, Nathan Alan Davis (United States) and Michael R. Jackson (United States).
“Through original and intensely moving work that challenges what we think we know about genre and style, these extraordinary writers cast a forensic eye on the issues that make us human: our identity, our history, our cultural and political experiences,” said Michael Kelleher, director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes. “We are incredibly proud to recognize and celebrate such exceptional literary talent.”
The awards, among the world’s most generous literary prizes, are conferred annually to eight authors writing in English anywhere in the world. Prize recipients are nominated confidentially and judged anonymously in four categories: nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and drama. They don’t know they are being considered for the prize until Kelleher contacts them about the judges’ decision. (Watch a video of this year’s recipients reacting to the news.)
Writers can receive the prize during any stage of their careers. Nonfiction recipient Vivian Gornick, 85, is a revered essayist, memoirist, and literary critic. Her 1987 memoir, “Fierce Attachments,” about her Bronx childhood and relationship with her mother, was hailed in The New York Times for its “uncommon brilliance.”
Kate Briggs is a writer and translator whose 2017 debut, “The Little Art,” explores the nature and stakes of literary translation.
“I am astonished by this news — I don’t expect to ever stop feeling astonished. Or endlessly, endlessly grateful,” said Briggs, the first translator to receive the prize. “It is the most unexpected gift of freedom and permission. For it to come at this stage in my writing and translating life, when I feel like I am (still) only just beginning, is extraordinary.”
Poetry recipient Natalie Scenters-Zapico, whose work draws on her experiences growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border, says she was incredulous when Kelleher gave her the good news.
“I nearly broke down in tears on the video call,” she said. “I kept waiting for the moment they would look at their files and realize they had contacted the wrong person. I can only continue to work to pay this honor forward to my literary and border communities.”
Michael R. Jackson, a playwright, composer, and lyricist, is the first prize recipient to work in musical theatre. His musical, “A Strange Loop,” won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Renee Gladman, who is best known for her critically acclaimed Ravickian quartet — which includes the novels which encompasses the novels “The Event Factory” (2010), “The Ravickians” (2011), “Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge” (2013), and “Houses of Ravicka” (2017) — became a one-person dance party upon learning that she had received a prize for fiction.
“First, I blinked, then I sat and stared for a very long time,” Gladman said. “Where was my body? I needed to engage it in an ecstatic dance. I found it. I danced. With music, everywhere in the house.”
Typically, the eight recipients would gather on Yale’s campus in the fall to receive their prizes and participate in a literary festival with the local community. Due to the pandemic, this year’s festival will consist of online events with the recipients and a keynote address by U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo. Readers will have the chance to engage with the prize recipients’ writing and perspectives in a special edition of The Yale Review.
Biographies of the recipients are available on the the Windham-Campbell Prizes website.
Administered by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the prize program is the brainchild of lifelong partners Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell, who were deeply involved in literary circles, collected books avidly, and read voraciously. They penned various works, such as novels, plays, and short stories. For years, the couple had discussed creating an award to highlight literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns. When Campbell died unexpectedly in 1988, Windham took on the responsibility for making this shared dream a reality. The first prizes were announced in 2013.