Top literature prize for Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson
Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded this year’s PEN Pinter Prize.

Judges praised his work, saying: “Few post-war figures have been as unwaveringly committed to political expression in their work.”

The local poet and reggae artist will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12 October.

The prize was established in 2009 by the charity English PEN, which defends freedom of expression and celebrates literature, in memory of the Nobel Laureate playwright Harold Pinter.

The judges who awarded this year’s prize were The Guardian’s associate editor for culture Claire Armitstead, Dialogue Books publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove, and author Max Porter.

Armitstead said: “Once we had laid our nominations on the table, it took all of two seconds to agree that we had a clear and outstanding winner for the PEN Pinter Prize 2020.

“Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational.

“His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them.”

Max Porter said: “I can think of few people who more clearly embody the power of poetry to enact change. Few post-war figures have been as unwaveringly committed to political expression in their work.

“He has been fearless, and relentless, but tragically his message is now more important than ever, given the Windrush scandal and the ongoing systemic demonisation of the immigrant population and racial minorities in the UK.”

Sharmaine Lovegrove said: “I feel I came into the world with the sound of political and cultural activism from Linton Kwesi Johnson’s work ringing in my ears.

“His powerful words and energetic passion have guided me and many others to always interrogate and push forwards against the status quo.

“It’s been a honour to judge the PEN Pinter Prize this year and an greater honour to be part of the collective awarding the prize to a living legend.”

Johnson said: “Having received a Golden PEN award from English PEN in 2013, I was surprised to learn that, seven years later, I have now been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize.

“Awards are the nourishment of every artist’s ego. It is always nice to be acknowledged.

“It is especially gratifying to receive an award that honours the memory of esteemed dramatist, Harold Pinter, free thinker, anti-imperialist and human rights champion. I would like to thank English PEN and the judges for their kind consideration in honouring me again.”

Linton Kwesi Johnson was the second living poet and the first Black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.

The PEN Pinter Prize is awarded each year to a writer of outstanding literary merit who lives in the UK, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize for 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”.

During the virtual ceremony in October, Linton Kwesi Johnson will announce his co-winner, the International Writer of Courage 2020, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN.

The recipient will be an international writer who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty.

Former winners of the PEN Pinter Prize include Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi.

Linton Kwesi Johnson is a trustee of the George Padmore Institute and the 198 Gallery on Railton Road, two London-based charities with a focus on the cultural and political contributions made by the UK’s populations of colour.

English PEN is one of the world’s oldest human rights organisations, championing the freedom to write and read. It protects freedom of expression whenever it is under attack, supporting writers facing persecution around the world, and celebrating contemporary international writing with literary prizes, grants and events.

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