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Zimbabwean author, playwright, and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga, who was arrested last year for taking part in anti-government protests, has won the PEN Pinter Prize 2021 after judges described her work as a “magnifying glass to the struggles of ordinary people”.
Dangarembga who was arrested last year in Harare while protesting against corruption, and charged with intention to incite public violence has been hailed by judges as a ‘voice of hope we all need to hear’. Her case has not progressed, and free speech organizations, along with her fellow writers, have called for the charges against her to be dropped. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize with This Mournable Body and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1988 for its predecessor, Nervous Conditions, which she wrote when she was 25, and which was described by Doris Lessing as one of the most important novels of the 20th century. The story of a village girl called Tambudzai was followed by The Book of Not, about Tambu’s teenage years, and the Booker-shortlisted This Mournable Body, the third part of the trilogy, set in the postcolonial Zimbabwe of the 1990s.
The PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 by the charity English PEN, which defends freedom of expression and celebrates literature. In memory of playwright Harold Pinter, the prize is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Commonwealth or former Commonwealth, who, in the words of Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature 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”. Last year the award went to poet and reggae recording artist Linton Kwesi Johnson for his commitment to political expression in his work. Previous winners also include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Margaret Atwood.
Judge Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s associate editor for culture and an English PEN trustee, said Dangarembga “has had an unusual and exemplary career as a writer, filmmaker, and activist, who has made things happen for other people as well as achieving in her own right”.
She added: “Through her trilogy of novels, starting with Nervous Conditions in 1988 and culminating 30 years later in her fine, Booker-shortlisted This Mournable Body, she has charted the development of Zimbabwe from a British colony to an autocratic and trouble-free state. In doing so, she has held a magnifying glass up to the struggles of ordinary people, in so many parts of the world, to lead good lives in the increasingly corrupt and fractured new world order. Hers is a voice we all need to hear and heed.”
Poet Andrew McMillan, who also judged the award, commented: “When Nervous Conditions was published in 1988 it was the first novel to be published in English by a black woman from Zimbabwe; here’s to our bookshelves, our syllabuses, and our collective imaginations being full of many more, from current and future generations, in the years to come.”
Dangarembga said: “I am grateful that my casting — in the words of Harold Pinter — an ‘unflinching, unswerving gaze upon my country and its society has resonated with many people across the globe and this year with the jury of the PEN Pinter Prize 2021. I believe that the positive reception of literary works like mine helps to prove that we can unite around that which is positively human.”
Dangarembga will receive her award at a ceremony hosted by the British Library and English PEN on 11th October, where she will also deliver a keynote address. At the same time, she will also announce her co-winner, the International Writer of Courage 2021, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN.