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Neustadt Literary Festival to Feature Panels on Albanian Writer and Playwright Ismail Kadare

Neustadt Literary Festival to Feature Panels on Albanian Writer and Playwright Ismail Kadare

Portrait of Ismail Kadare

Ismail Kadare’s multi-decade legacy will be explored in numerous panels at World Literature Today’s 2020 Neustadt Literary Festival Oct. 19-21, which this year will be held entirely online.

Kadare – the 26th laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature – is an Albanian novelist, poet, essayist and playwright who rose to fame in Albania on the strength of his poetry and first novel, The General of the Dead Army (1963). He has won many international awards and is regarded by some as one of the greatest contemporary European writers, often cited as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He is a champion of international democracy and in 1990 went into political asylum in France. He has written, “I became familiar with literature before I knew freedom, so that it was literature that led me to liberty, not the other way around. Faith in literature and in the creative process brings protection. It generates antibodies that allow you to struggle against state terror.”

World Literature Today Executive Director Robert Con Davis-Undiano notes that Kadare is “one of the world’s great writers and a champion of democracy and free speech.”

Emily D. Johnson, Brian and Sandra O’Brien Presidential Professor, who is teaching the Neustadt seminar on Kadare this year, said she was delighted to have the opportunity to spend the semester studying the work of Ismail Kadare with a group of talented OU students.

“Kadare has been one of Eastern Europe’s more widely admired authors for more than half a century,” said Johnson, who teaches Russian in the Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences. “His work touches on many themes that are very culturally relevant now, including the ways in which totalitarian governments deform both social norms and individual lives, the short- and long-term effects of war and violence on communities, and the role of tradition and resonance of myth in modern life.”

She added, “I hope that students at OU will attend the Neustadt Festival events. This is a great opportunity to learn about one of the most influential and respected novelists in the world. Since the festival is online this year, it will be even easier for students to pop into sessions between classes and to be part of one of the most exciting cultural events that takes place on OU’s campus.”

Kapka Kassabova, a native Bulgarian who writes poetry, fiction and narrative nonfiction in English, nominated Kadare for the Neustadt Prize in 2019.

Highly respected within the literary community for its recognition of excellence, the Neustadt Prize, based at OU, is often referenced as the “American Nobel” for its reputation as a lead-up to the Swedish Academy’s annual selection. Any living author writing from anywhere in the world is eligible for the Neustadt Prize. Winners receive $50,000, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver and a prize certificate. A generous endowment from the Neustadt family of Dallas, Denver and Watertown, Massachusetts, ensures the award’s existence in perpetuity.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Neustadt Prize, which was first awarded by Books Abroad, later named World Literature Today, in 1970.

Davis-Undiano, who serves as chair of the Neustadt Prize jury, has overseen the process of selecting the juries and awarding the prize since his appointment in 1999. As the Neustadt Prize observes its 50th anniversary this year, he attributes the endurance of the prize and its stature in the literary world to the selection process itself.

“The Neustadt Prize has a great reputation for integrity and transparency, primarily because of its eliminative voting,” he says. “It is a very transparent and consensus-building process.”

For five decades, the Neustadt Prize has been seen as a bellwether of the Nobel. As of 2020, 33 laureates, finalists or jurors have been awarded the Nobel Prize after their involvement with the Neustadt Prize, with one exception – Portuguese writer José Saramago was a Nobel recipient before being considered for the Neustadt.

However, Books Abroad editor Ivar Ivask originally conceptualized what came to be known as the Neustadt Prize as a sort of anti-Nobel. Careful to avoid the Stockholm model of a permanent jury, he chose instead to empanel a new group of writers every other year and envisioned a prize “representative of American concern for genuine achievement in world literature,” not Old-World perquisites.

In addition to panels celebrating Kadare’s impressive body of work, attendees of the online 2020 Neustadt Lit Fest can enjoy readings and book giveaways by the nine writers who will serve on the jury to select the next winner of the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature. The 2021 laureate will be announced during the Lit Fest. Dispatches from the Republic of Letters, an anthology compiled by WLT Editor-in-Chief Daniel Simon that celebrates the first 25 laureates of the Neustadt Prize (1970–2018), will launch on opening night.

Interested attendees are invited to sign up for any of the 10 virtual events online at The full schedule for the virtual festival can be found at

For more information about the Neustadt Prize and WLT’s 50th anniversary, visit


By Jerri Culpepper

Article Published:  Wednesday, October 7, 2020