Published October 2021
By Ben Luschen | 6 min read
This story was originally published in 2020.
Ivar Ivask was an editor on the brink of disaster. In 1967, the Estonian poet and University of Oklahoma professor took the helm of Books Abroad, an international literary magazine headquartered on the Norman campus, after previous editor Robert Vlach’s sudden death.
The publication Ivask inherited faced a future of uncertain funding and wavering institutional interest. If he could not drum up support for Books Abroad, Ivask feared the magazine would be cut loose from OU’s support, perhaps disbanded forever.
The solution? How about the sponsorship of a new prize brazen enough to rival the insurmountable eminence of the Nobel Prize for Literature?
It might sound like a fool’s errand to go up against Sweden’s lofty Nobel, but against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, there was a growing sense of frustration within the literary world that the Nobel favored white and European authors. Ivask, borrowing some ideas from Vlach, proposed an honor seeking equal consideration for writers in all parts of the world.
Past winners of the Neustadt Prize include Elizabeth Bishop, Max Frisch, and Assia Djebar. Photo by Jen Rickard Blair
In 1969, Ivask traveled to France to announce the the Books Abroad International Prize for Literature. Today, Books Abroad is known as World Literature Today, and its visionary award now is called the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, named for the family who first sponsored the prize in 1972.
The Neustadt not only has achieved its goal of renewing OU’s commitment to the literary magazine, it has given Norman a worldwide reputation for inclusive and truly representative literature.
“A lot of people who may not know much about Oklahoma will have heard of the Neustadt Prize and say, ‘Oh, that’s World Literature Today; that’s that great prize that’s often considered the American Nobel,’” says Daniel Simon, the publication’s present-day assistant director and editor in chief.
This year marks the award’s golden anniversary, and the magazine plans to welcome its next Neustadt laureate to a list that already includes global literary icons like Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Edwidge Danticat, and more.
This year’s recipient, the award’s twenty-sixth laureate, is Albanian novelist, poet, and essayist Ismail Kadare. Born under his country’s former communist rule, Kadare is known for novels like 1963’s The General of the Dead Army, which challenged Enver Hoxha’s Maoist regime.
Kadare, like all Neustadt laureates, was chosen by a panel of nine diverse and international jurors. Jurors meet in person the year before a new laureate is fêted, discussing and debating the merits of their own nominees until just one name remains.
Despite the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, World Literature Today will not let the fiftieth anniversary pass quietly. The 2020 Neustadt Lit Fest will take place entirely online, streaming on YouTube. Speakers—including this year’s honoree—around the world will participate by giving speeches via Zoom.
Simon also plans to debut Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, an anthology he edited that includes keynote talks or acceptance speeches from all twenty-five laureates to date, with tribute notes from the writers who nominated them.
At the 1972 Neustadt banquet honoring García Márquez, Walter Neustadt Jr. remarked on literature’s unique ability to bring diverse groups and ideas together.
“We recognize that the power of the written word is one answer to a broader understanding between the peoples of the world and thence to a more peaceful and cooperative life together in this ever-narrowing universe,” he said.
Every two years, Simon proudly watches as the scope of the literary universe narrows to Norman. The unique opportunity to witness and learn from the world’s best writers is one of which he never tires. The Neustadt Prize’s legacy is unity.
“Anyone can come and hear a writer and be inspired,” he says.
Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature is available through Amazon and at the publisher’s website, deepvellum.org.