A Hidden Literary Treasure in Oklahoma

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The Neustadt Prize for Literature combines prestigious honors with educational opportunities.

Since 1970, the magazine World Literature Today, working under the auspices of the University of Oklahoma, has been the home of a hidden treasure in the South Central United States: The Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The Neustadt Prize recognizes authors around the world for creating valuable works of poetry, prose and drama, nominated by a jury of fellow writers, translators and scholars. It’s considered one of several awards that help determine laureates of even more prestigious accolades — sometimes called “The American Nobel,” the Neustadt boasts 32 prize recipients, finalists and jurors over a 45-year history who have gone on to win Nobel prizes.

The 2016 Neustadt honoree is Dubravka Ugreši?, a novelist and essayist born and raised in the former Yugoslavia. World Literature Today and the University of Oklahoma held a three-day festival October 26-29 to celebrate Ugreši?’s work, with roundtables, receptions, and a dramatic adaptation of the author’s work, culminating in an award ceremony on the closing night.

Ugreši? is the winner of several other major literary prizes in addition to the Neustadt, including the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, and the Jean Amery Essay prize, in addition to being a finalist for the 2009 Man Booker International prize. An outspoken critic of the war which broke out in her homeland of Croatia in 1991, Ugreši? left her home in 1993, after a long period of media harassment and ostracism. Much of Ugreši?’s work since has focused on the experience of exile and displacement — her novel on the subject, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, was the submitted text for the award. She has also written several books of essays, characterized by her trademark ironic wit, on globalization and popular culture.

The Neustadt festival is a unique event in that it includes free events which are open to the public, as well as several educational opportunities for OU students. Events this year included presentations on Ugreši?’s role in shaping contemporary European literature, a round-table discussion about Europe’s refugee crisis, and a dramatic presentation of Ugreši?’s short story Who Am I, adapted and directed by OU drama professor Dr. Judith Pender. For students, exposure to the Neustadt prize’s highlighted authors goes beyond the festival. A seminar offered each year covers the works of all finalists for the prize.

The Neustadt prize is offered in even-numbered years. Its sister prize, the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, highlights outstanding writers of work for young readers, and is offered in odd-numbered years. The 2017 recipient of the NSK Neustadt prize is poet, translator and children’s author Marilyn Nelson, whose works include How I Discovered Poetry, Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World and A Weath for Emmett Till. She will be honored at next year’s festival in Norman.

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