Rebecca Solnit, Young Jean Lee among winners of $165,000 Windham-Campbell literary awards

Author Rebecca Solnit poses at her home in San Francisco.
Author Rebecca Solnit poses at her home in San Francisco.
(David Butow / For The Times)

Eight writers, including California residents Rebecca Solnit and Young Jean Lee, were named winners of the annual Windham-Campbell Prizes, some of the richest and most prestigious literary awards in the world.

The announcement was made Wednesday in London, at an event hosted by Damian Barr, the British columnist and memoirist.

Like the six other writers, Solnit and Lee will each be awarded a cash prize of $165,000, an unusually high amount for an American literary prize. (By contrast, the Pulitzer Prize comes with a cash payment of $15,000, while National Book Award winners each get $10,000.)

Other winners of this year’s awards, administered by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University, were fiction authors Danielle McLaughlin and David Chariandy; nonfiction writer Raghu Karnad; poets Ishion Hutchinson and Kwame Dawes; and playwright Patricia Cornelius.


Solnit, a journalist and essayist, was praised by the judges (who remain anonymous) for her essays that “range through subject matters that include politics, history, literature, art, and feminism in a manner at once provocative, erudite, and intensely engaging.”

Solnit’s books include “The Faraway Nearby,” “Men Explain Things to Me” and, most recently, “Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays).” That book made the longlist for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.

Solnit credited her victory to “two things that have blessed and enriched my life: the love and generosity of gay men and the resources of libraries and archives.”

“I was actually in Bogotá, Colombia, doing another kind of research for a book when I heard from the prize director out of the blue, and after the sheer amazement settled, I felt so grateful to have this encouragement and support to do what I’ve wanted to do all my life: just write books,” she said.

Playwright, director and Stanford University professor Lee was cited for exploring “diverse theatrical styles, forms, and subjects with a dramaturgy that constantly takes risks and pushes the boundaries of what is possible.”

Lee’s plays include “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” “The Sinophile” and “Untitled Feminist Show.” She has previously won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award.

Lee said she “couldn’t stop crying” when she found out she won the award.

“It was so moving to me to imagine someone out there taking the time to write me a nomination letter, and all of the anonymous people who looked at my work and decided that I should get such a gigantic amount of support,” she said. “This prize will make such a difference for me.”

The Windham-Campbell Prizes were first awarded in 2013. They are endowed by the estate of the late novelist Donald Windham, in memory of Sandy Campbell, Windham’s longtime life partner.

Writers to have won the award in previous years include James Salter, Jim Crace, Tessa Hadley, Olivia Laing and Suzan-Lori Parks.

The prizes are unusual in that the names of the judges aren’t revealed to the public, and because writers are unaware that they’re in contention for the awards — they only learn they’ve been nominated when they receive the phone call telling them they’ve won.

Also unusual this year was the location of the ceremony, which awards director Michael Kelleher explained in a news release.

“Even though we are based at Yale, this is an international prize, and we want to celebrate this in the heart of one of the great multicultural cities of the world,” Kelleher said.