Haitian author Danticat awarded Neustadt Prize

Kathy Neustadt announces the winner of the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature during a reception at the Neustadt Festival Thursday at Fred Jones Jr Museum of Art.

NORMAN — The most coveted prize in literature, the Nobel, will be awarded next month in Stockholm, Sweden.

But the second most coveted prize was awarded last night in the middle of Norman. Specifically, the 2018 Neustadt International Prize for Literature was awarded in the Fred Jones Jr. Art Museum at the University of Oklahoma.

Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian author perhaps known best for her 2004 novel “The Dewmaker,” was awarded the Neustadt by a jury of eight writers. Kathy Neustadt, whose family partnered with the publication World Literature Today to start the award in the 1970s, made the announcement.

“It’s more well known in Europe, but we’re working on that,” Neustadt said.

It echoed the words of Robert Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today literary magazine and a Pulitzer Prize candidate for his book “Mestizos Come Home!” There were plenty of people inside the Sandy Bell Gallery downstairs in the Fred Jones gallery, but knowledge of the prize statewide remains at levels lower than desired.

“Maybe the people in Oklahoma haven’t processed that this really is a capital of world literature because of the Neustadt prizes,” Undiano said. “We made history yesterday, and we’ll make it today and tomorrow in literature.”

The Neustadt Prize is a centerpiece of the Neustadt Festival, which began Nov. 8 and runs through today. Throughout days of readings and book signings, this year’s focus was on poet Marilyn Nelson, the winner of the festival’s 2017 NSK Prize for Children’s Literature.

“I feel being a writer is a life of being alone at a desk and wondering whether what you’re doing is going to be read by anyone’s eyes other than your own,” Nelson said at Thursday’s ceremony. “This is such a wonderful validation.”

The Neustadt and NSK prizes are awarded every other year. Danticat will be the headlining author at next year's festival.

Undiano said the Nobel Academy that determines the prize for literature will monitor the Neustadt’s for direction.

“There’s a very strong overlap,” he said.

And while the prize’s $50,000 pales in comparison to the Nobel’s millions, there are characteristics to the Neustadt that make it stand out, Undiano said.

“It’s famous for its integrity,” he said. “We sequester the jury off for a day. They need to have knowledge of literature, and a good knowledge of world literature. And they need to have patience. They don’t have the time to do this, but they made the time to do this. They do it because they care.”

This year’s Neustadt jury was: Russian author Alisa Ganieva, American author Major Jackson, Bosnian-Swedish novelist Adnan Mahmutovic, writer, poet and sociolinguist Dipika Mukherjee, novelist Achy Obejas, Somalian writer Ladan Osman, poet and professor Sasha Pimentel, British novelist and literature fellow Zia Haider Rahman, and Ethiopian poet Mahtem Shiferraw.

In addition to literature, culture is a focus of the Neustadt Festival. Undiano said the aim is to incorporate various cultures and backgrounds into the events as possible.

“We have writers in from all parts of the Earth,” he said. “Someone who attends is going to understand a lot about the culture of the writer. This is all really fun. The writer is always at the center of it, but we talk a lot about their culture.”

The overall goal from the festival and having the awards ceremonies is to encourage the art of writing, poetry and novels. It’s about having access to the best in the world to inspire.

“We try to make it fun, because writing is fun,” Undiano said. “If people can’t find a way to it, it doesn’t work. That’s why we do this. It really gets more people involved.”

Still to come from the Neustadt Festival is Nelson’s keynote address at noon on Friday in the Rupel J. Jones Fine Arts Center. There will also be a dance performance, “The Power of Words,” in the same venue at 11 a.m., just before Nelson speaks.

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