Books  |  Jan 13, 2021

PEN Award for Freedom of Expression honours Tsitsi Dangarembga

The PEN Award for Freedom of Expression has honoured Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga for her remarkable work in fighting for freedom of expression. Dangarembga is a novelist, poet, filmmaker and playwright. Her novel, This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. She is also a dedicated activist, and the founding member of PEN Zimbabwe.

The award ceremony, held as part of the opening night of the online Winternachten International Literature Festival The Hague, will be introduced by PEN International President and writer, Jennifer Clement, who said:

“For the past sixteen years, PEN International has given the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression at the opening ceremony of the Winternachten Festival. With the active participation of Netherlands PEN and the PEN Emergency Fund, the award honours writers who have been persecuted for their work and continue to work despite the consequences. Over the years we have recognized courageous writers such as Anna Politkovskaya and Hrant Dink and Stella Nyanzi”

Since its founding in 1971, the PEN Emergency Fund has provided vital support to writers who have been persecuted for their work and are in acute financial need, as well as to their families.

In 2020, the same year that her novel The Mournable Body made the Booker shortlist, Dangarembga was arrested in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, during an anti-government protest. She was charged with intention to incite public violence, however, her arrest was met with immense criticism from the literary community who stood in solidarity with her. Dangarembga displayed unfaltering strength by speaking her truth even while in detention which has made her a worthy recipient of this year's PEN award.

Last year the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression was given to prominent Ugandan academic, writer and feminist activist Dr. Stella Nyanzi, who was sentenced to 18-months in prison for ‘cyber harassment’ in November 2018, in response to a poem she wrote on Facebook criticising President Museveni and his mother. Her conviction and sentence were overturned in February 2020, four weeks after receiving the award in the Hague. 

Previous winners include Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, Eritrean poet and writer Amanuel Asrat, Honduran activist Dina Meza and Cameroonian journalist and academic Enoh Meyomesse.

Formerly known as the Oxfam Novib/ PEN Award for Freedom of Expression, the award was originally given in as a collaboration of PEN International, the PEN Emergency Fund and Oxfam Novib. It has been given to writers who continue to work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution since 2005. This year, PIP The Hague (People in Print) will support the Award.

The PEN Award for Freedom of Expression is the first of a series of events in 2021 marking the PEN International Centenary. 100 years after it was established, PEN International continues to embody the spirit of its remarkable founder, the English writer Catherine Amy Dawson Scott. Today, PEN International is recognized as the world’s foremost association of writers and as a leading expert on freedom of expression.