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'Culture heals': Neustadt Festival adapts amid COVID-19, celebrates 50th anniversary with virtual events

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Neustadt 50th Anniversary Logo

The 2020 Neustadt Literature Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary online from Oct. 19-20.

Since 1970, World Literature Today —  a literary magazine published by OU —  has sponsored the Neustadt Award. It is awarded to distinguished writers, poets and playwrights from around the world. The Neustadt award has also been called the "Oklahoma Nobel” by the New York Times.

The award is given at a festival featuring panels of literature experts and a banquet in honor of the winner. This year, the entire festival will honor Albanian writer Ismail Kadare and is online and open to the world. The festival will start at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 19 and will continue until Oct. 21, with a closing session at 8 p.m.

In planning the Neustadt Festival for 2020, organizers said it was clear the festival had to be moved completely online. Daniel Simon, editor-in-chief and assistant director of World Literature Today, said it was the only real option they had.

“Over the summer, as the pandemic kept getting worse, we realized … close proximity just wasn’t realistic,” Simon said.

Organizers were concerned about excitement for the 50th anniversary dampening due to COVID-19. To ensure the festival would reach its full potential, new ideas were brought to the table and quickly embraced. 

Despite the pandemic threatening to stifle the festival, many new plans brought a chance for its expansion, said Robert Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today and Neustadt Professor in Literature.

“You can’t be an old dog who can’t learn new tricks,” Davis-Undiano said. “Besides, every disease creates its own medicine.”

One new idea this year involved the design of a curriculum for high school students surrounding the winner’s work. Davis-Undiano and the other organizers contacted the Oklahoma Department of Education for help designing, approving and distributing the new curriculum to schools throughout the state.

A planned dinner to honor Kadare was another issue affected by the pandemic. Davis-Undiano was dedicated to keeping its grandeur alive, but concerns for Kadare’s health blocked the organizers from inviting him to the U.S. for a banquet like they normally would.

“We couldn’t in good conscience invite him to travel right now,” Davis-Undiano said.

A solution was found through the U.S. embassy in Tirana, Albania. Through many phone calls and emails, Davis-Undiano was able to convince the U.S. Ambassador to Albania to present the award to Kadare in his hometown and host a banquet in his honor. The entire event was recorded and will be shown during the festival.

One of the most exciting changes, Davis-Undiano and Simon said, was the move to a completely online format. For the first time, the festival was accessible to everyone in the world.

“It’s a silver lining,” Simon said.

Davis-Undiano said the prospect of international accessibility encouraged him to keep the festival true to what the Neustadt family — who provide major funding for the award —  wanted. The late Walter Neustadt, one of the original donors, had a very specific vision for the festival. Davis-Undiano said Neustadt’s main goal was to get students involved, no matter what.

Moving completely online presented challenges. Registering attendees and maintaining the festival required a powerful program with someone to consistently monitor and troubleshoot before and throughout the event, Simon said. After attending an event run by a software called OpenWater, Simon and Davis-Undiano were impressed with the ease the software provided.

“I was blown away by how cool it was,” Davis-Undiano said.

The organizers decided to work with OpenWater and establish a liaison on campus to run the festival and keep the registration process running smoothly. So far, everything has been working well, Simon said.

The festival will feature several panels about the art of translation and the study of Kadare’s work. One of the final sessions of the festival will be a play written by Kadare and performed by the OU School of Drama. The play, “Stormy Weather on Mount Olympus,” will be performed in English for the first time. 

“It is a world-class event happening in Norman, Oklahoma,” Davis-Undiano said.

The university also offers a class about the Neustadt award. This year, like the festival, it is completely online. Professor of Russian Emily Johnson is teaching the seminar this year, focusing on Kadare’s work and the translation that goes into it.

Johnson said the class is adapting well to moving completely online. One unique opportunity has been the chance to invite the guests for the festival to call into the class and discuss their interactions with Kadare’s work before the festival even begins.

“When the festival is in person, it’s hard to monopolize a guest’s attention,” Johnson said. “This way, the students get more information.”

To prepare for the class, Johnson read 15 pieces of Kadare’s work at the beginning of quarantine. Quarantine, however, was not the motivator for her to read so much.

“You don’t need quarantine to read them,” Johnson said. “They read themselves.”

Johnson said the various and unique settings throughout Kadare’s work along with numerous genres and literary styles he’s written drew her in. A piece she suggests for jumping into his work, "Palace of Dreams," is a dystopian novel with an “exaggerated and fantastical storyline.” The main plotline involves the practice of collecting dreams from across the Ottoman empire and using them to predict the future.

The class is recommended for modern language, history, letters and English majors. However, Johnson emphasized the importance of students from all majors taking the class. It adds an extra level of diverse thoughts and backgrounds during discussion Johnson said.

Brenna O’Hara, a biochemistry and English graduate student, is taking the class for the second time this semester.

“It’s one of the most incredible academic opportunities in my undergraduate career,” O’Hara said.

One of O’Hara’s favorite parts of the class is the history and real stories they learn surrounding the author, she said. She learned one story involving the book “Agamemnon’s Daughter,” in which it had to be smuggled out of Albania page-by-page in suitcases due to its criticism of communism and tyrannical governments. 

Christine Tomte, a French and Francophone studies doctoral student, is taking the class for the first time. As a mother and doctoral student, a huge draw of the class for her was the class schedule. They meet over Zoom six times a semester and attend the festival. This allows for more flexibility within her schedule, Tomte said.

Tomte said she was also excited to learn about a country and history she had never experienced before.

“It’s an adventure to embrace the unknown,” Tomte said.

Davis-Undiano expressed great hope for what the festival and the culture surrounding it can bring to the attendees. While the pandemic has separated people physically, the festival offers the chance to come together through the appreciation of Kadare’s work.

“This is a time of great urgency, when we need to take care of ourselves and each other,” Davis-Undiano said. “We have a saying in my culture: ‘La cultura sana.’ Culture heals.”

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