Recapping the 2020 Neustadt Lit Fest
(Photos courtesy of the U.S. Embassy Tirana)
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, World Literature Today presented the 2020 Neustadt Festival 100 percent online. In the lead-up to the festival, U.S. Ambassador Yuri Kim officially presented the award to Kadare at a ceremony in Tirana in late August, attended by members of Kadare’s family; Elva Margariti, the Albanian minister of culture; and Besiana Kadare, Albania’s ambassador to the United Nations. During the festival proper (October 19–21), a dozen Zoom-based events, several hundred attendees, and participants from more than forty-five countries made the festival a truly global event for the first time in its fifty-year history.
Three separate roundtable panels offered festivalgoers insights into the history, culture, and politics of the Balkans; why literary translation matters; and the work of 2020 laureate Ismail Kadare. Opening night featured readings and book giveaways by the 2021 NSK Prize jury and the launch of Dispatches from the Republic of Letters, an anthology celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Neustadt Prize, edited by Daniel Simon. The following night, Kathy Neustadt announced Cynthia Leitich Smith as the tenth laureate of the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, following the jury’s marathon deliberations earlier that day.
On the final day, students from the University of Oklahoma School of Drama presented the world English-language premiere of Kadare’s Stormy Weather on Mount Olympus as a radio-style drama, directed by Susan Shaughnessy and co-translated by Fabrice Conte-Williamson and David Bellos. Afterward, the director, translators, and actors participated in a live talkback event.
The festival culminated with the Neustadt Prize ceremony. Joseph Harroz Jr., president of the University of Oklahoma, offered a welcome; Nancy Barcelo, Susan Neustadt Schwartz, and Kathy Neustadt spoke about the Neustadt tradition; and Kapka Kassabova offered a video tribute from Scotland. Video from the ceremony at the American Embassy was replayed, and David Bellos read the English-language version of Kadare’s prize lecture, “Dead Storms and Literature’s New Horizon.”
In a closing ceremony, Kathy Neustadt and David Shook, members of WLT’s advisory board, engaged in a lively conversation about the significance of the Neustadt tradition with RC Davis-Undiano and Daniel Simon. Shook, who was a student in the Neustadt class at OU that studied the work of 2006 laureate Claribel Alegría, offered some poignant remarks on the culture of the book (see below).
“The book is the best and most refined artifact of memory that mankind has ever created. That’s a beautiful idea. But I think it can be expanded even further because, of course, books don’t just recount our histories. They offer an entry point into the minds and lives of people, both like us and utterly unlike us, in the past, in the present, and even in variously imagined futures. The book, I believe, is our most enduring, most efficient human technology for building empathy, for deepening our understanding of the experience of another.
And in today’s world, I believe that mutual understanding is not just something that will make our culture more compassionate, more fully human, but I believe that in doing so, it’s going to play a key role in our very survival as a species.”
—David Shook, Neustadt Festival Closing Ceremony, October 21, 2020