By Bunmi Ishola
Transcript Staff Writer
After recently having the honor of hosting other great dignitaries, such as the President of Liberia, the University of Oklahoma welcomed Nicaraguan/Salvadoran writer Claribel Alegría, who was awarded the 2006 Neustadt International Prize for Literature Friday evening.
Alegría was selected by an international jury as the laureate of the prize, which is sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today, the university’s literary and cultural magazine.
The Neustadt Prize is awarded every two years and is the only international literary award from the United States in which poets, playwrights and novelists are given equal consideration.
Robert Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today and Neustadt professor, said the Neustadt Prize for Literature is “second only to the Nobel in importance.”
Alegría was born in Estelí, Nicaragua, but from early childhood lived in the Santa Ana region of western El Salvador, therefore claiming both countries.
She is the 19th recipient of the Neustadt Prize, which began in 1970, and the third woman to win the award. Alegría’s poetry and fiction have gained her wide recognition for her work on “historical testimony” in Latin America. Her collection of poetry “Sobrevivo” received Cuba’s Casa de las Américas Prize and “Saudade/Sorrow” won the Independent Publisher Book Award for Poetry in 2000. She was honored by the Nicaraguan Academy of Language for her contribution to Central American culture and acknowledged by the Nicaraguan Writers Center for her valuable contribution to Nicaraguan Literature.
“Claribel Alegría is one of the most courageous and revered Latin American writers of the past 50 years,” said Con Davis-Undiano. “We are all so in love with her. We probably shouldn’t have favorites, but I think she may be our favorite [laureate].”
A two-day symposium in her honor was held all day Thursday and Friday, which included Alegría giving a public talk and reading of her work Friday morning.
Funding for the prize has been endorsed from the Neustadt family of Ardmore and Dallas. As symbols of her award, Alegría was presented with a check for $50,000, an award certificate and a sliver eagle’s feather.
Walter Neustadt Jr., whose mother was the initial donor for the award, said while some consider the pen mightier than the sword, the feather is given as a symbol “to bring back the pen as the means of communicating … so that the pen and the sword work together, not in divergence,” but rather in the quest for international peace and harmony.
Fellow Nicaraguan poet and Neustadt jury member Daisy Zamora said she nominated Alegría because “through her work, she verbalizes unresolved contradictions that plague Latin American societies, especially in Central America.”
Zamora said Alegría “unfailingly spoke up for liberty and justice” in all her writing, “becoming the voice for the voiceless and dispossessed” and representing the struggle for liberation in Latin America. “I believe Claribel Alegría dares to speak the essential truth of the continent,” Zamora said.
Just as her name, Claribel, means “clarity” in Spanish, Alegría’s work is “absolute clarity … her words shine by themselves, alone and splendid in a perfect balance of lucidity and beauty,” Zamora said.
Alegría said she was moved by receiving this “important and unexpected prize.”
“In all modesty, I confess that I never dreamed of receiving it,” she said.
While she has written over 50 books, both novels and poetry, Alegría said poetry has been and continues to be her passion. She recounted her journey of finding herself as a poet — from reciting famous Nicaraguan poetry before she could read to her father giving her a felt-tip pen saying, “this is your instrument, use it as a sword.”
All poets contribute to changing their world. “The poem celebrates humankind, the universe and the creator of the universe,” she said.
While there is immense beauty to envision through poetry, Alegría said there are also many things that are impossible to ignore such as AIDS, poverty and racism that poetry can speak out about. This is what she seeks to do with her poetry, making them “testimonial” to all aspects of the world. From the moment her father gave her her instrument, it has been her sword to fight.
The night ended with Alegría reading a poem which epitomized her goal as a writer. “Ojo de Cuervo” (The Crow’s Eye), followed the vision of the bird as it saw the horrors of poverty, expendable children, Hiroshima, and the Rwanda genocide amidst the hope and love in the world. Alegría read in Spanish with David Draper Clark, editor in chief of World Literature Today, translating.
The magazine will devote a special section of its May 2007 issue to Alegría, in keeping with the tradition of the eighteen other Neustadt laureates who have been honored this way.
By Bunmi Ishola
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