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Eight authors share $1m prize as writers face coronavirus uncertainty | Books


The day before British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil learned she had won a Windham Campbell prize, she had been wondering about how to balance writing, teaching and caring for her elderly mother. The next day, she received an email from the prize’s director, Michael Kelleher, informing her that she had been awarded $165,000 (£141,000).

“Sitting in bed, wondering about the future, I’d said, aloud, ‘Help’,” said the 51-year-old, who had never won a poetry prize before. “The moment Michael told me I’d won, I felt as if what I’d called out had been received. And I am not a religious person.”

One of the richest literary awards, the Windham Campbell prizes split $1.32m between eight writers around the world. They were set up by lifelong partners Donald Windham and Sandy M Campbell, to highlight literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns.

This year, the eight winners, chosen by an anonymous panel of judges, include Kapil, the author of six poetry collections, who was praised for her exploration of “crucial questions of trauma, healing and immigration”. Meanwhile, Chinese-born author Yiyun Li’s writing was praised by judges for its “formal beauty, imaginative daring, and intense interest in both the small flames of ordinary lives and the sweeping fires of political and social change”. The other winners include debut Zambian novelist Namwali Serpell, whose novel The Old Drift was published last year, poet Jonah Mixon-Webster, whose writing has tackled the public health crisis in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and Anne Boyer, the author of a “searingly honest” memoir about her cancer diagnosis, The Undying.





Yiyun Li’s writing was praised for its ‘formal beauty and imaginative daring’.



Yiyun Li’s writing was praised for its ‘formal beauty and imaginative daring’. Photograph: Denise Applewhite/Princeton University

“This is such an exciting group of prize recipients – so many utterly original voices from so many different places,” said Kelleher. “To read the work of these eight writers – seven of them women – is simply overwhelming.”

Serpell discovered she’d won while on campus at Berkeley, University of California, in the middle of a meeting. “I opened my laptop to search for something and found an email with the subject line, ‘URGENT: Windham Campbell prize’. By the time I could click on it and read that there was great news awaiting me on the other end of a phone, I had only five minutes before my next class,” she said.

“I’m so honoured to receive this prize – and with Yiyun Li, a writer I greatly admire. I am treating it as a kind of advance on my next novel, one that doesn’t come from a publishing house and therefore grants me the freedom to write it exactly as I wish.”

Since the authors, who also include playwrights Julia Cho and Aleshea Harris and Australian writer Maria Tumarkin, were informed of their wins, coronavirus has caused the world to shut down. Kapil said that all authors were facing financial precariousness. “As the travel restrictions accrue, this prize makes something possible that would not, perhaps, have been possible otherwise. At the moment, my productivity as a writer is not very high up in my mind, but rather questions of survival and mutual aid.”

What kind of writing is possible in a time of crisis? “That is a question that people have been answering with their bodies all over the world for a very long time,” Kapil said. “But here we are. Let’s see what unfolds. What is a page for? What is a sentence for? Right now, I don’t know.”

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