Michael Kelleher is the director of the Windham Campbell Prize, an annual prize awarded in recognition of a writer’s “extraordinary body of work.”
Since its inception, the award, which comes with a $165,000 cash prize, has made good on its mission to embrace the diversity of the global literary community. In 2015, all three winners in the fiction category were African writers—Teju Cole, Helon Habila, and Ivan Vladislavic. [read here if you missed it.]
Kelleher was at the 2016 Ake Art and Books Festival. We had a chance to chat with him about all the fascinating details that go into curating such a prestigious prize.
How many prizes does the Windham/Campbell Prize give out each year and in what categories?
We give about 8 a year. The categories have been fiction, non-fiction, and drama. For this year, we have added a new category, poetry. Previously the prize money was $150,000, now it is $165,000 as the number of awards have been reduced to 8, 2 in each category. We insist that the award be not a lifetime achievement award, but be for active writers
What is the selection process for the Windham Campbell Prize?
It is a yearlong selection process. No one knows they are nominated, no one knows the judges, and there is no shortlist. The only people who know they were nominated are those who have won the prize.
Why the Anonymity?
We feel that it accomplishes a number of things. Firstly, none of the judges have to be concerned with how their choices will affect their reputation or career. This allows for them to talk freely about the works. Secondly, this keeps outside influences down such that publishers, agents, and authors cannot lobby for the prize. Ultimately, the result of these decisions is we focus on the work and the impact the prize will make.
In most prize committees, people come to the table with a favorite person. Then they feel if I don’t get my person, you don’t get your person, so who is the least hated person and that’s who the prize goes to. Often times when you see the prize winner, you feel like hmm, I wasn’t expecting that person but okay.
How does one get nominated to be considered for a Windham Campbell Prize?
As soon we announce the prizes March 1st, I start seeking nominations by March 2nd. I invite about 25- 30 nominations in each category each year. I keep a database of potential nominators: writers, book critics, academics, former prize winners, anyone who has a demonstrated knowledge of that particular category in that particular region of the world. Then, we invite them to nominate. I have to find 16 new nominators each year so my job entails traveling around to find out what is happening in different literary scenes in the world.
At the initial stage, we ask, can you write a 2-page letter for a writer who is promising with a minimum of one published book or a body of work? Why does this person deserve to win and what impact will it have on their career? What book would you suggest that the judges all read from this writer?
The letters come in the end of May. For 2 months, my assistant puts together 25 page dossier on each nominated writer, interviews, and reviews of the work. We try to give the judges as much information as they would need. In the beginning of August, we ship books and dossiers to the first group of judges. There are 4 panels, 3 people from each of the categories. They read for 3 months then they come to Yale in late October, early November. Each group spends a day having conversations and whittle the list from 30 to 4.
Who decides on the final list of winners then?
We invite a different group, a selection committee of 9, get dossiers on each of the 4 nominated writers and send it out to this committee. They read for 3 months before meeting at Yale in February to select the prize winners.
This selection committee is more uniformed in structure. There are 2 life time members who are the co-executors of the estate; Eugene Kokot and Jeffery Peabody. They are on the panel to make sure that this is what Donald Windham wanted. There are always 2 Yale Faculty members, one tenured and another distinguished faculty member. The other 5 committee members including the Chair of the committee come from outside of Yale. Yale faculty are not allowed to make nominations.
How do you maintain diversity among prize winners?
In the beginning of the year, I map out the world for geographical diversity. I look at who won the prize last year and what region they were from? For instance, Helon Habila, Teju Cole, Ivan Vladislavić from South Africa were awarded the prize for fiction in the same year. So, for the next year, we looked into other regions for the fiction category. We are hoping to expand to HongKong and Singapore in future.
Has your visit to Ake and the African Literary scene helped you to know where these writers come from?
Certainly. I am learning of writers and works I have never heard about before. I am meeting different groups of writers: Those who are on the international stage; ready for their close up on the stage; or have not yet gotten to that level yet. We have given 23 prizes in fiction and non-fiction, 6 of those have been to African writers, so this region is promising. Being here deepens my understanding of everything of writers and the literary scene.
Can we get any scoop on this year’s list and are there any Africans on the list?
We are down to 16 writers. You might like to think that, but I can’t possibly comment
What has been your favorite Nigerian meal so far?
Eba and Egusi was nice and smooth with the different spices. I also liked the Ofada rice.
This your first time on the continent and in Nigeria. How has the experience been so far?
It’s been intense. On my first day, I was on the Ake Quest. I climbed Olumo Rock and went to see the King of Egbaland. I did the full Dobale before the king we sat down and talked for a few minutes. That was great. Visiting the Abeokuta Girls Grammar School with Panashe Chigumadzi and Yewande Omotoso was a highlight of my trip. We introduced ourselves and came up with a writing exercise of a group poem. I asked them to close their eyes and write a sentence about the most beautiful tree they have ever seen. After which, they went to Panashe who composed their sentences in a ledger. At the end, I read their sentences back to them as a single poem. It was really sweet and we had a lot of fun. There has been such a good feeling here. Everyone is friendly, welcoming, and engaging.
Post image by Nmadiuto Uche. Click HERE for more of Nmadiuto Uche’s coverage of the 2016 Ake Art and Books Festival.
Facebook link image via Ake Art and Books Festival