[The JRB Daily] 2020 Windham–Campbell Prizes winners announced, including Zambian writer Namwali Serpell

Header image: Top row, left to right: Anne Boyer (non-fiction), Julia Cho (drama), Aleshea Harris (drama), and Bhanu Kapil (poetry); bottom row: Jonah Mixon-Webster (poetry), Yiyun Li (fiction), Namwali Serpell (fiction), and Maria Tumarkin (non-fiction).

The winners of the 2020 Windham–Campbell Prizes have been announced, including Zambian author Namwali Serpell.

Women writers dominated the prize this year, making up seven out of the eight winners.

The award honours English language writers from anywhere in the world for their literary achievement or promise. Each winner will receive $165,000 (about R2.8 million) to support their work.

This year’s prize recipients are: in fiction, Yiyun Lee (United States/China) and Namwali Serpell (Zambia); in non-fiction, Maria Tumarkin (Australia) and Anne Boyer (United States); in poetry, Bhanu Kapil (United Kingdom/India) and Jonah Mixon-Webster (United States); and in drama, Julia Cho (United States) and Aleshea Harris (United States).

Serpell’s award citation states:

Namwali Serpell reimagines the transmission of modern history through the commingled lives of her Zambian characters, writing unerringly sure prose and re-enchanting the contemporary novel in the process.

‘I’m absolutely thrilled to receive this award and honoured to join the company of these esteemed writers,’ Serpell said. ‘The Windham–Campbell Prize has proven unique in celebrating writing from Africa based solely on its literary achievement; it’s deeply gratifying to be taken seriously as an artist.’

The recipients were announced online from London by writer and playwright Damian Barr and Michael Kelleher, director of the Windham–Campbell Prizes.

‘This is such an exciting group of prize recipients—so many utterly original voices from so many different places,’ Kelleher said. ‘Their work digs deeply into everything from the poisoned water crisis in present-day Flint, Michigan to the vicissitudes of the surveillance state in an Afro-futurist Zambia. To read the work of these eight writers—seven of them women—is simply overwhelming.’

The Windham–Campbell Prizes are among the world’s most valuable literary awards, with $1.32 million given every year to eight authors writing in English. The awards honour writers at every stage of their careers.

Previous African winners include Jonny Steinberg (2013, non-fiction), Zoë Wicomb (2013, fiction), Aminatta Forna (2014, fiction), Teju Cole, Helon Habila and Ivan Vladislavić (all 2015, fiction), Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (2018, fiction) and Kwame Dawes (2019, poetry).

This year’s awards will be conferred in September during the annual international literary festival at Yale University, where the prize is based.

The prize was established in 2011, with the first prizes presented in 2013. It is administered by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and endowed from the combined estates of writer Donald Windham and actor Sandy M Campbell, lifelong partners who were deeply involved in literary circles, and wished to establish an award ‘to highlight literary achievement and provide writers with the opportunity to focus on their work independent of financial concerns’.

Prize recipients are nominated confidentially and judged anonymously. Winners are not aware they are being considered for the prize until they receive a phone call from Kelleher.

Since the prize’s inception, sixty-seven writers from seventeen countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe and North America have won the prize.

Watch the prize announcement here:

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