Linton Kwesi Johnson shared the PEN Pinter Prize 2020 with Amanuel Asrat in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on October 12, 2020.
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 it since 2009 have been Lemn Sissay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michael Longley, Margaret Atwood, Sir Salman Rushdie, and Hanif Kureishi.
On July 7, Linton Kwesi Johnson was announced the 2020 winner by the panel of judges: The Guardian’s Associate Editor for Culture Claire Armitstead; Dialogue Books Publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, and author Max Porter. The winner apart from his own award also announces the “International Writer of Courage” which is someone who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.
At the award ceremony Johnson announced that Eritrean poet, critic and editor-in-chief of the leading newspaper Zemen, Amanuel Asrat was this year’s International Writer of Courage.
Linton Kwesi Johnson said of Asrat, “Keeping a citizen incarcerated, incommunicado, without charge or trial for nearly 20 years is the kind of egregious brutality that we associate with totalitarian states and dictatorships. As a gesture of solidarity from a poet of the African diaspora, I have chosen the Eritrean poet, songwriter, critic, and journalist Amanuel Asrat as the Writer of Courage for 2020.”
Amanuel Asrat is credited for the Eritrean poetry resurgence of the early 2000s. An award-winning poet and songwriter, his writings detailed the daily life of the underprivileged, and explored themes of war and peace. Unlike wartime Eritrean poetry popular at the time, he depicted the negative side of conflict. In addition, Amanuel Asrat co-founded a grassroots literary club called ‘Saturday’s Supper’ in 2001. Similar literary clubs soon started to emerge in all major Eritrean towns.
Daniel Mebrahtu, Amanuel Asrat’s brother, said, ‘We, the family of Amanuel Asrat, are very pleased, honoured and humbled to accept this award on behalf of our son and brother, Amanuel Asrat. Many thanks to English PEN and Mr. Linton Kwesi-Johnson. Amanuel is suffering under the harsh conditions of the Eiraeiro dungeon in Eritrea for 19 years and counting. His whereabouts are not known. We don’t even know whether he is alive or dead. We wish Amanuel was aware of this prize and honour somehow. We ask the international community to intervene in his case and other prisoners of conscience in Eritrea, and demand their immediate release. Thank you for the recognition, for your thoughts and prayers. Thank you for your constant support. We really appreciate it.’