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2021 Neustadt Festival remains virtual, looks for in-person in 2022

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neustadt lit festival 2021

A banner for the 2021 Neustadt Literature Festival from the event's registration page.

The 2021 Neustadt Literature Festival, OU’s annual literature and culture conference, will be held virtually Oct. 25 through Oct. 27. 

The festival first began in 1970 with the establishment of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1969, according to the Neustadt Prizes website. A second award, the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s and Adult Literature, was established in 2003. Robert Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today and Neustadt professor, said the prizes are esteemed internationally. 

“The prize program is pretty cool,” Davis-Undiano said. “It's famous all over the world. The New York Times says that the Neustadt International Prize for Literature is probably the most prestigious prize in the world after the Nobel Prize for Literature, so it's a really big deal.”

This year, the festival will celebrate indigenous young adult literature and the winner of the 2021 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s and Adult Literature, Cynthia Leitich Smith. She is a New York Times and Publishers Weekly best-selling author and is best known for her "Tantalize" series and "Feral" trilogy, according to the Neustadt Prizes website.  

“She is an amazing writer and she's exciting,” Davis-Undiano said. “She is one of the best writers I've read in a long time, and I'm so proud that the jury that voted for her felt that way.”

Smith’s first publication, Jingle Dancer, now widely considered a modern classic, was a contemporary children’s book, and since then, she has dabbled in creative nonfiction, short stories, young adult fiction and speculative fiction, according to her website

Smith is also a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation and works to get other indigenous writers like herself published. She is the author-curator of the Heartdrum imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, created to uplift native voices from across America, according to its website

“She does so much good in the world … promoting the work of indigenous writers,” Davis-Undiano said. “It's incredible. She's a hardworking visionary lady … and very generous with her time.”  

Like last year, the festival is virtual due to COVID-19. 

“It was a very difficult decision to go online because people are disappointed,” Davis-Undiano said. “They want to be at the University of Oklahoma … and they're excited about being with each other … A huge area of interaction disappears online, but it's what we had to do.” 

However, Davis-Undiano said he is planning for an in-person festival next year. He said the banquet held at the end of the festival is typically a favorite event. 

“People do not leave early,” Davis-Undiano said. “They love seeing all the writers and the jury, and they love seeing the winner … They really miss it.” 

Davis-Undiano said the festival is special because it actually makes a difference in the world. 

“Young adult literature was very white,” Davis-Undiano said. “It was written by white authors about white young people … Because of the influence of the NSK choosing so many writers of color, that has changed a lot. It really makes the world a better place in a lot of ways.” 

The virtual festival will end with a closing session on Oct. 27. A full itinerary is available on the Neustadt Prizes website

Registration for the festival is still open and free, also available online.

“The world of indigenous writing is not one tribal people, but it's a very rich world of many tribal nations,” Davis-Undiano. “There is brilliant literature being written by different tribal nations … and it is a part of the multicultural society we're blessed with. I hope that this Neustadt Literature Festival can be a reminder of how rich that multicultural democracy is.”

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