Veteran Jamaican-British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded this year’s PEN Pinter Prize with the judges having described him as a writer “whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational”. Johnson subsequently announced that he was sharing the prize with Eritrean writer and journalist Amanuel Asrat and awarding him with the “International Writer of Courage” honour. Johnson says this is an act of solidarity for Asrat who is still believed to be in a maximum prison following his arrest in 2001 although his exact whereabouts over the past 19 years remain unknown.
Speaking about his decision to honour Asrat with “The Writer of Courage”, Johnson says the following:
“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.”
Asrat, who was the was the editor-in-chief of Zemen, was arrested after the Eritrean government issued a ban on private press on September 18th, 2001. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Asrat’s “whereabouts, health, and status remain unknown as the Eritrean government repeatedly has failed to provide credible answers to questions about imprisoned journalists, or to allow visits from family or lawyers.” His family has also since pleaded with the international community to intervene on Asrat’s behalf following his recent win and acknowledgment.
The PEN Pinter Prize is reportedly awarded on an annual basis to a writer from Britain, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who 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”. The literature prize was established back in 2009 and is awarded in honour of the Nobel-Laureate playwright, Harold Pinter.