The Windham-Campbell Prizes: Profiles

Design by Cleo Maloney

Read the accompanying history of the festival here.

Henry James once told Edith Wharton to “be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces you to a backyard in New York.” Former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey used that quote to title the keynote address she gave last Monday night to a mostly full (and quite elderly) YUAG Lecture Hall. Speaking on “Why I Write,” Trethewey laid out her native pastures, both literal and metaphorical. Between the time her grandmother moved into a shotgun house in Gulfport, Mississippi, and the time she was born there, roads were built up until the house found itself at the crossroads of Highway 49 (as made famous in a Big Joe Williams blues song)  and Jefferson Street (named after one of the US’s most racist presidents). Black and white, culture and barbarity: Trethewey’s native pastures contain some of our country’s biggest contradictions.

As a child, Trethewey “believed in the sanctity of books [as] a higher plane of human existence where the best thoughts of human existence were recorded.” But when she was eight, she found the 1966 World Book, the encyclopedia that made her fall in love with books years before she could read, and looked up the definition for race. Trethewey felt betrayed: the book told her that a Caucasoid could be distinguished from a Negroid by the relative lengths of one’s leg bones. That didn’t make sense to Trethewey, who was a mixed-race child, born to parents that had to travel from Mississippi to Ohio to marry because interracial marriage was outlawed in Mississippi. Nevertheless, she found her grandmother’s tape measure and started measuring her leg.

Eventually, Trethewey left native pastures behind when her mother married a Vietnam veteran and they moved to Atlanta. Her stepfather routinely beat her and her mother, and a year after their divorce, her stepfather stalked and murdered her mother. She was 19. “In the weeks after [her mother’s] death,” Trethewey said, “I turned to poetry, the only language that could express my grief…to create the narrative of my life so it won’t be determined for me.”


Alesha Harris believes that writing a play is like “giving an offering to people” or like something you can “upload into other people.” She hopes to offer communities healing through her idea of “Theater as Ritual.” She spoke last Tuesday about that idea under a large tent on Cross Campus with 2013 prizewinner Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose Choir Boy played at the Yale Repertory Theatre last spring. “In order to be ritual,” she said, “there needs to be intention on the part of the conjurers to bring something into being” deeper than the experience of simply attending a show. During the talk, she and McCraney discussed her 2016 performance piece What to Send Up When it Goes Down. Harris began that piece almost ten years earlier, in combination with the community she was living in at the time, to attempt to compartmentalize anti-Black violence in the formalized language of theater. What to Send Up is part show, part group therapy, with the script walking the audience through exercises about the loss of a person to anti-Black violence. Harris believes it is necessary. “My work is bombastic, very heavy,” she said. “I don’t shy away from violence, but the way I find a center is to step back” and consider that violence through theater.


Tsitsi Dangarembga feels called to write about Zimbabwe. Since 1987, she has written four books: an essay collection and a trilogy centered around Tambudzai, who starts as a teenager in late colonial Zimbabwe and lives through modern Zimbabwean history over the course of three novels. She discussed that trilogy in a conversation last Tuesday with Courtney Martin, the Paul Mellon Director at the Yale Center for British Art. Dangarembga said that she never intended to write a trilogy, but that she kept wanting to go back to Tambudzai to talk about Zimbabwe. She felt motivated to write the second book, she said, when she saw German news coverage of land redistribution in Zimbabwe show a small act of violence to mention there were some violent reactions to the land distribution. A few hours later, when the German news said the violence had increased, they used the same clip. A few days later, the news said there was all but total war, and used the same clip for at least the third time.That was the moment when, having lived in Germany for ten years since she went to film school in Berlin, she decided to return to Zimbabwe. It was the third time she returned to the country: she went to England as a toddler and for university, but every time she felt the need to witness life in Zimbabwe for herself – and transmit it to other people. Her first novel, Nervous Conditions, which was the first English-language novel published by a Black Zimbabwean woman, told a common story about a girl’s efforts to go to school when her family couldn’t pay for it. Forty years later, Dangarembga said that people have started to forget those stories and claim that the colonial government wasn’t so bad after all. “In fifty or one hundred years, this will be history,” she said about the subjects of her writing. “So this [novel] will be a record of that.”

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