It may sound hard to believe, but one of the most notable literary events in the nation recently took place at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. I attended this conference, at which nine authors from around the world met as the jury to select next year’s winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Oklahoma, not often considered a hub of cultural activity, proved it could offer one of the greatest literary, and life, experiences I have found anywhere.
First, some background to the conference: World Literature Today, an illustrious international journal published by the University of Oklahoma, awards the biennial Neustadt International Prize for Literature, which is considered second in prestige to the Nobel Prize.
The WLT web site notes, “It is the first international literary award of this scope to originate in the United States and is one of the very few international prizes for which poets, novelists, and playwrights are equally eligible.” In the past 38 years, 26 Neustadt laureates, candidates and jurors have gone on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
A MacArthur Genius grant, a New York Times Best Book of the Year, Caméra d’Or at Cannes, and a New York Magazine Best Book of the Year — these are just some of the accolades that have been accumulated by the nine authors with whom I was able to talk at the conference. This year’s jury was comprised of: Sefi Atta (Nigeria), Horacio Castellanos Moya (El Salvador), Aleksandar Hemon (Bosnia), Etgar Keret (Israel), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (USA), Mai Mang (China), Claire Messud (Canada), Pireeni Sundaralingam (Sri Lanka), and Niloufar Talebi (Iran).
In addition to their electoral duties of nominating and voting on the 2010 Neustadt laureate, the authors also participated in public lectures and private dinners over the course of the three-day Neustadt Conference. As a student in the Neustadt class, I spent hours talking with them, and actually got to know them, not only as great artists, but also as interesting and fun people.
It is hard to capture in words the vibrancy of the event, the way the authors came alive in interactions with each other and the students, and when presenting their work in readings and performances. For my class, I had read representative books of all of the authors, but getting to meet the creators of these stunning works of art allowed me to experience them in new ways.
The first event was a banquet at which I and my parents sat at a table with Claire Messud and Sefi Atta, two of the Neustadt jurors. I was eager to sit next to Claire Messud, as I loved The Emperor’s Children and had chosen her as the author whom I would interview for my class assignment. But at the same time, I was nervous that she, as the author of one of the NY Times' 10 Best Books of the Year and wife of renowned literary critic James Wood, would be intimidating or standoffish. I need not have worried! Ms. Messud turned out to be one of the kindest, most enthusiastic people I have met in a while, and by the end of the conference, I felt I could call her a friend. In fact, I flatter myself that we share a similar personality, and over the three days, we talked for hours.
The other events of the conference lived up to the wonder and excitement I felt at the opening banquet. On Thursday evening, two jurors performed poetry readings accompanied by live music, and we saw a screening of juror and short story writer Etgar Keret’s film, Jellyfish, which won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. Friday, all nine of the jurors presented readings from their works, both published and unpublished. I even engaged in an hour long conversation with Horacio Castellanos Moya, who is one of the highest regarded Salvadorian novelists today, in the hallway of the student union. We then had lunch with only the students of the Neustadt class and the 10 authors, an opportunity to really converse in an informal environment with the three authors at my table. Finally, the event closed with a book signing and one last chance to visit about writing, or really whatever topic floated into our heads and out in the ether.
The moral of this experience: you can often find educational, or even life-changing, events in the most unlikely places (did I mention Oklahoma?), if you are just willing to look. I hope you all are able to explore your worlds, wherever you may call home, and find something equally memorable.
And if you are interested in expanding your cultural knowledge by learning more about World Literature Today and the Neustadt Prize, the web address is wlt.ou.edu.