Last week I attended the Neustadt Festival at the University of Oklahoma where I was thrilled to be invited by Daniel Simon, Editor of World Literature Today. WLT organises this festival and every two years honours a towering writer with the title of Neustadt Laureate and a prize of $50,000. This year the honour went to Rohinton Mistry, a writer I hugely admire and whose epic book, A Fine Balance, Kristine Landon-Smith and myself have had the privilege to adapt for the stage. It was one of Tamasha’s sell-out out shows which thankfully the book-lovers loved, and forgave us the compression of 600 pages into a two hour experience. Indeed as part of the three day festivities, Drama students from the University, under the direction of Judith Pender, performed extracts from our adaptation.
There was a gang of us staying at the Montford Inn in Norman; Beena Kamlani, Susan Andrade, Vijay Seshadri, Samrat Upadhyay, myself and the Mistrys; Rohinton and his delightful wife Freny. Over our daily Tonhawa smoothie and bespoke breakfasts, provided by William, we all connected with a shared love of Rohinton’s novels and the experience of being writers from the Indian Diaspora. Indeed the word ‘diaspora’ itself sparked off a lively debate with Rohinton about whether we had indeed been ‘dispersed’ or whether those of us that had left our homes of our own accord could claim to be part of a so called ‘diaspora’. This is just a small snippet of the morning conversations that included much mirth at my large suitcase whose lock had been brutally severed during the journey. Rather naively, in my British way I thought I might lodge a gentle complaint with the Airline concerned as my suitcase was now permanently un- lockable. The others laughed out loud in shared recognition of numerous personal experiences of cases that had been opened and combed through, with a note left inside if you were lucky. Apparently, I should have looked at the Transport Security Administration (TSA) guidelines and bought a ‘TSA compliant’ lock that can be opened comfortably by the security people. ‘Why did I bring such a large suitcase?’ enquired one of the group, who only travels with a small ‘carry on’. Well that’s another story. My teenage son had given me a shopping list from Abercrombie and Fitch (A and F) which is a current ‘must have’ American brand and never mind that his mum was only going to be in Oklahoma for three days, this was a priority.
Security aside, we had a warm welcome from everyone and I was struck by the amount of involvement the students had in the festival. Eager interns drove and escorted us everywhere and we made a short visit to the Oklahoma Memorial which honours the victims, survivors and rescuers of the bombing of the Afred P, Murrah Federal building in April 1995. On the soil, where the building had stood is a beautiful outdoor space; a reflecting pool framed by twin gates which have etched on them the time marking the moment of innocence before the attack, and the moment after when the city changed irrevocably. There is a field of 168 chairs commemorating each of the lives lost and the small chairs were particularly evocative, representing the 19 children killed. What particularly struck me was the ‘survivor tree’, a 90 year old American Elm that bears witness to the events. In the shade of this symbol of human resilience I couldn’t help but think about the amount of innocent people that are dying everyday in the aftermath of 9/11 and the global ‘War on Terror’. These people remain nameless to the World and there are no Memorials to commemorate their individual lives. Only their families remember them in their hearts and are left bewildered as to their huge losses.
The Shopping trip
The obligatory shopping trip was facilitated by three drama students who were in the extracts of the play and kindly gave up an afternoon for the pilgrimage to A and F. The shopping mall was an hour or so away and we had to drive, giving us plenty of time to chat about student life. While the sprawling University seems to be hugely well funded and has enviable Art collections and a huge library, the students have clearly got to be resourceful to meet their economic challenges. I got an insight into how they had to pay for cars (distances are huge and public transport is not an option), accommodation and fees through extra jobs, vacation work and still ended up with a huge loan after they graduate. As student loans are such a hot topic in the UK with Nick Clegg’s reneged promise and lukewarm apology, I was struck by what a huge reality they are to American students. There is no sense of entitlement to a free education but an acceptance of having to play a key role in paying for one’s own future. Apparently, unlike the UK, these students don’t have the buffer of waiting till they are earning a certain threshold. Student loans are never ‘written off’. I felt a bit guilty asking Michael to model sweaters and fleeces for my son that he would really have to save to afford. Same here, but I justified my expenditure on my credit card on the excuse that the items were cheaper in dollars than in London. A delighted son on my return confirmed this decision as he admired himself in the mirror in his fitted sweaters that sculpted his body like the models in the ads. The sweat pants I bought hubby however had to be returned to the London store. The cut was ‘skinny’ and clung to hubby’s legs rather unflatteringly. The brand is not for people over 30 as I discovered in the heaving London shop, pumping out loud music down Saville Row.
The visit culminated in wonderful award ceremony and a memorable keynote speech by Rohinton, including some wonderful singing, where he talked about leaving for Canada as a young man with one suitcase. The decision of what to include in his 22kg allowance and what to leave behind proved less momentous than he thought at the time. His body of work to date has proven that he never really left behind his homeland but looked back on it from the vantage point of distance and time. It is a credit to the Neustadt family whose enduring endowment supports this prestigious award that great literature is given such support and recognition. I continue to try and get this message across to our British Asian business community that the ‘profit’ of supporting the Arts is not in the commercial gain but in what we gain as human beings through nourishing our souls and looking to Art, to ultimately show us a better way to live.
I travelled back with my bulging suitcase and full of inspiration and hope. The students’ extracts from our play, performed by a multi racial cast, confirmed to me the universal connections that Rohinton’s work has achieved. The accolade of Neustadt laureate is hugely deserved.
The Neustadt International Prize for Literature is a biennial award sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and World Literature Today. The Prize consists of $50,000, a replica of an eagle feather cast in silver, and a certificate. A generous endowment from the Neustadt family of Ardmore, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas, ensures the award in perpetuity.
Rohinton’s inspiring keynote speech and platform pieces from all the contributors will be published in the special January edition of World literature Today.
“Mistry writes with great passion, and his body of work shows the most compassionate and astute observations of the human condition, making him one of the most exciting and important contemporary novelists writing in the English language.”
—Samrat Upadhyay in his statement nominating Rohinton Mistry for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.