Pulitzer prizewinning Margo Jefferson, playwright Winsome Pinnock and acclaimed novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga are among this year’s recipients of the $165,000 (£120,000) Windham-Campbell prizes.
The award, which is one of the world’s richest, is now in its 10th year. For the past decade it has celebrated eight writers each year for their achievements in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama. The large grants given to winners are intended “to support their writing and allow them to focus on their work independent of financial concerns”.
PEN Pinter prizewinning Dangarembga’s debut novel Nervous Conditions was the first book to be published in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe. In September 2020 the writer-cum-activist’s novel This Mournable Body was longlisted for the Booker prize in the same week she was arrested during peaceful anti-corruption protests in Harare – she remains on remand. When she found out that the judges – who remain anonymous throughout the process – had chosen her for the Windham-Campbell prize, Dangarembga admitted she had been waiting for this news all of her life, “not always believing but constantly hoping”.
She said: “I desperately needed this award, as a writer working on the African continent. Few countries support creativity or the arts in a meaningful manner. Zimbabwe is amongst those that do so least.”
“Now I will at last be able to slow down and breathe and contemplate my universe, allowing me to do the work I want to do in the way I want to do it,” she added. “So basically the award is life giving.”
Jefferson agreed that it feels “blissful” to have been chosen by the prize. The former New York Times staff writer has published two books so far, a 2006 biography of Michael Jackson and a 2015 memoir, Negroland, with a second memoir due out next month. Her books by Ella skilfully explore how we understand gender, race and mental illness, with Negroland called “captivating” by Guardian reviewer Colin Grant.
“’I’m in the Gobi Desert’ – that’s what friends and I say when we’re struggling through a piece of writing,” Jefferson said. “It’s how Edith Wharton described being in the middle of a novel.”
The Windham-Campbell prize helps writers to get through such “deserts”, she explained, because it “honours the work you’ve done”, but also supports “the work you plan and hope to do. Maybe your plan is clear. Maybe you’re still in a dream space with half-formed thoughts and images. The prize says: trust your life as a writer.”
British writer Pinnock, the first black woman to have a play staged at the National Theatre, wins her prize for an outstanding contribution to global theatre. The prize has described her plays by her, which include Leave Taking and Rockets and Blue Lights, as being “committed to taking formal risks and to asking difficult questions about the role of art in shaping cultures and institutions”. Like Dangarembga, Pinnock expressed excitement for the “freedom” that the prize money will afford her, allowing her to “experiment” and “work on projects in a non-pressured way”.
Joining Pinnock on the list of winners is fellow playwright Sharon Bridgforth, who describes her work, a kind of blend of poetry and drama, as “performance literature”. The eight-strong lineup is completed by Zimbabwean novelist Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, Nigerian writer and photographer Emmanuel Iduma and poets Wong May and Zaffar Kunial.
Michael Kelleher, director of the Windham-Campbell prizes, said he was proud to mark the 10th anniversary of the award with what he thinks is “the most exciting list of recipients yet”.
He added: “Led by a trailblazing group of global women’s voices, these writers’ ambitious, skilful and moving work bridges the distance between the history of nations and a deeply personal sense of self.”
The writer Donald Windham and his partner, the actor Sandy M Campbell, came up with the idea for an award that would highlight literary achievement and financially support writers to focus on their work. When Campbell died unexpectedly in 1988, his estate was left to Windham, under the agreement that the money would be combined with Windham’s to set up the prizes. Yale took on the administration after Windham’s death in 2010, and the first winners of the prizes were announced in 2013. Previous recipients include Yiyun Li, Tessa Hadley and Edmund de Waal.