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Another African Writer Wins the PEN Pinter Prize for the Second Year in a Row

This year, the prestigious prize went to Lemn Sissay after Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi won it in 2018.

Lemn Sissay (Photo:  Antonio Olmos/The Observer)
Lemn Sissay (Photo: Antonio Olmos/The Observer)

British-Ethiopian author, Lemn Sissay, has won the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize.

The 52-year-old author, playwright, performer and broadcaster has received the prestigious prize awarded every year to deserving literary activists whose work cast an “unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world.”

Explaining why he was chosen, the Chair of the judges, 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.”

This makes him the second African writer to win this prize for the second year in a row. The first was Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, who got the award, established in memory of playwright Harold Pinter, back in 2018.

Lemn Sissay (Photo: Hamish Brown 2017 for Red Magazine)
Lemn Sissay (Photo: Hamish Brown 2017 for Red Magazine)

Reacting to the win, Sissay said: “I met Harold Pinter when I was 36. 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.”

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The coveted prize will be presented to him in October at a public ceremony at the British Library.

Who is Lemn Sissay?

He was born on May 21, 1967, after his mother, Yemarshet Sissay, arrived in the UK from Ethiopia in 1966. She was pregnant with him at the time.

After his birth, he was given to foster parents who kept him until he was 12 before putting him back in the foster care. Unable to find a family that wanted him, he moved from one home to the other for five years suffering racism, bullying and sexual assault.

The young teenager developed an interest in literature during this time. He ended up spending up most of his time alone and reading as well as writing.

Sissay self-published his first poetry collection “Perceptions of the Pen” at the age of 17 with his unemployment benefit from the government. He made his money by selling it to miners and workers until he had enough to move to Manchester.

There, he started working as a literature development worker at a publishing cooperative. At the age of 21, he published his second book “Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist”. His writing, which touches on pain, sorrow, race, racism and other delicate issues, quickly made him a national sensation.

He later made the BBC documentary “Internal Flight” about being bullied, abused and finally finding his mother who was working for the UN in the Gambia at the time.

Over time, he became a broadcaster, did more documentaries, one won him the UK Commission for Racial Equality’s Race in the Media Award (RIMA).

Sissay later became the first poet commissioned to write for the 2012 Olympics in London and was awarded an MBE for his services to literature by the Queen of England. He is Poet Laureate of Canterbury and the winner of a NESTA New Radical Award for his work as a poet and a children’s rights campaigner.

Lemn’s memoir, “My Name is Why”, will be published on August 29, 2019.

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