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Yiyun Li and Aleshea Harris are among this year’s Windham-Campbell Prize winners.

Kerri Arsenault

March 19, 2020, 3:00pm

This year’s female-dominated Windham-Campbell Prize recipients illustrate the richness of literature’s diversity and depth among authors whose work explores urgent topics across identity, culture, power, and class.

In poetry, British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil is known for exploring questions of trauma, healing and immigration; Jonah Mixon-Webster, whose work addresses the public health crisis in his hometown of Flint, Michigan through the intersection of body, race, religion, sexuality, and class, also won.

Drama prizes were awarded to Julia Cho, who wrote The Aubergine, a play about food, regret, and love, and Aleshea Harris, whose works, including the award-winning Is God, address the wounds of misogyny and racism.

Prizes for fiction went to Chinese-born author Yiyun Li, who wrote The Vagrants (2010) about post-Mao China and life amid totalitarianism, and Zambian author Namwali Serpell, who explored themes of identity and belonging in her first novel, The Old Drift (2019).

In nonfiction, awards went to Australian writer Maria Tumarkin, whose works address the lives of ordinary people with extraordinarily painful pasts, and whose book Axiomatic (2019) was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Anne Boyer, whose book The Undying examines her experience of cancer in the broader context of science, art, literature, mortality, language, compassion, and rage.

The Windham-Campbell Prizes celebrate writers at every stage of their careers. Each winner receives an unrestricted grant of $165,000. Authors cannot apply for the award but must be nominated and considered by judges who remain anonymous before and after the prize announcement.

The Prizes are the brainchild of lifelong partners Donald Windham and Sandy M. Campbell, who were couple were deeply involved in literary circles, voracious readers, and writers of various works, including novels, plays and short stories. For years they had discussed the idea of creating an award to highlight literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independently of financial concerns. When Campbell passed away unexpectedly in 1988, Windham committed to making this shared dream a reality. The first prizes were announced in 2013.

In September 2020, Yale University and the Beinecke Library will host a week-long festival of events to honor the winners.

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