“It is an honour to give Tsitsi Dangarembga the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. Her brave work as a writer, filmmaker and activist in Zimbabwe was once again in the spotlight last year when she was arrested for anti-corruption protests. Dangarembga’s work centres on the lack of freedoms for women in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal world. Her debut novel Nervous Conditions became the very first published English novel by a black woman from Zimbabwe. I am particularly delighted to give the award to Tsitsi today, a special day which marks the 50th’s anniversary of the PEN Emergency Fund, an international fund for writers in dire straits of which we are extremely proud”.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is an award-winning Zimbabwean novelist, filmmaker and playwright. Her novel, This Mournable Body was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. She is also the author of Nervous Conditions, which she wrote at the age of twenty-five and for which she was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Nervous Conditions was praised by Doris Lessing as one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.
Dangarembga founded the production house Nyerai Films and the International Images Film Festival for Women, as well as the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa where she works as director.
Dangarembga is also a poet and a dedicated activist, as well as the founding member of PEN Zimbabwe. On 31 July 2020 she was peacefully protesting corruption in Harare when plain clothes police officers arrested her without stating the charges. She was detained overnight and then charged with incitement to commit violence and breaching anti-coronavirus health regulations. Dangarembga was released on bail and ordered to attend court on 18 September 2020. She was ordered to surrender her passport to the authorities and to report to a police station every week until her next appearance in court. Her case has not progressed, and she continues to make court appearances as ordered. PEN International has been calling for the immediate dropping of all charges against her since August 2020.
The date of the award is of symbolic importance as it marks the PEN Emergency Fund’s 50th anniversary. 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, including their families. The fund provides small humanitarian grants of up to 1,500 euros for a range of emergency assistance measures which include safe passage, medical assistance, and immediate subsistence. Its impact can be life-changing and life-saving. In 2020, 32 writers benefitted from these grants.
“As a writer you can have a pretty good life when you live in a democratic country. But when your colleagues are in the midst of challenging circumstances for simply performing their duties in countries who regards writers as enemies, feeling sorry is not enough. It is our responsibility to support those colleagues who are abused and even jailed, sometimes for decades, just because their writings do not suit the rulers. I believe that we can feel free, only when everyone is free. I feel blessed our fund has the possibility to support those writers in need”. Job Degenaar, PEN Emergency Fund's President.
The award has been given yearly to writers who have been persecuted for their work and continue working despite their persecution since 2005. Formerly known as the Oxfam Novib/ PEN Award for Freedom of Expression, it was originally made as a collaboration of PEN International, the PEN Emergency Fund and Oxfam Novib. This year, PIP The Hague (People in Print) will support the Award. Previous winners include Ugandan academic, writer, and feminist activist Dr Stella Nyanzi (2020), Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, Nicaraguan author Gioconda Belli and Italian journalist Roberto Saviano (2019), as well as Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega and Venezuelan journalist Milagros Socorro (2018). For a full list of winners and more information about the award click here.
The PEN Award for Freedom of Expression is the first in a series of events planned in 2021 to mark 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 defender of freedom of expression globally.