Lemn Sissay received the PEN Pinter Prize 2019 at a ceremony at the British Library in London, UK on October 10, 2019.
The PEN Pinter Prize is awarded annually to a writer from Britain, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize winning speech, casts an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world, and shows a ‘fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. Some of those who have won this prize since it was set up in 2009 have been Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michael Longley, Margaret Atwood, Sir Salman Rushdie, and Hanif Kureishi.
The announcement of the prize winners was made by judges; writer, translator and chair of English PEN Maureen Freely; culture correspondent at The Economist Fiammetta Rocco and author Niven Govinden on June 3, 2019. The award was given to Ethiopian-born Brit Lemn Sissay.
Maureen Freely said: “In his every work, Lemn Sissay returns to the underworld he inhabited as an unclaimed child. From his sorrows, he forges beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love. On the page and on the stage, online or at the Foundling Museum, this is an Orpheus who never stops singing.”
Lemn Sissay is an award winning writer, poet, performer playwright, artist and broadcaster who has read on stage throughout the world. The multiple genre artist, awarded an MBE for services to literature by Queen Elizabeth, is the Chancellor of The University of Manchester. His memoir, My Name is Why, was published by Canongate Books on 29 August 2019.
Lemn Sissay said on the win, “I met Harold Pinter when I was thirty six. We were on stage at The Royal Court. I was too intimidated or self-conscious to speak to him. And so I will now. Thank you. What I like about this award is that it is from a great writer and a great organisation. I accept it as a sign that I should continue. All I have is what I leave behind. All I am is what I do.”
At the award ceremony at the British Library, Lemn Sissay announced his co-winner, the International Writer of Courage 2019, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN. That winner he selected is Ethiopian writer, activist and co-founder of blogging platform Zone 9 Befeqadu Hailu.
Lemn Sissay said of Hailu, “it is because of his passion for writing and belief in freedom of expression for Ethiopians that I have chosen Befeqadu Hailu. He is a novelist and a poet and a blogger. He is a man who stands by his word and whose words stood in the face of prison and arose far far above to declaim in the name of humanity. When I was considering him I spoke to many Ethiopians in Ethiopia about him. He is loved by his people and the younger generation: he is a twenty first century hero. It was obvious that the Writer of Courage had to be him. He is my hero.”