Writers Lemn Sissay & Zone 9′s Befeqadu Hailu Share 2019 PEN Pinter Prize

Poet Lemn Sissay (right) has named writer and activist Befeqadu Hailu (left), who is a co-founder of the blogging platform Zone 9, as this year’s ‘international writer of courage’ (Composite: PR/Hollie Fernando)

The Guardian

The poet Lemn Sissay has won the PEN Pinter award alongside the Ethiopian writer Befeqadu Hailu, who dedicated his award “to all those who use their voices for the voiceless”.

Hailu, a writer, activist and co-founder of the blogging platform Zone 9, has been jailed four times for his work, although never convicted of the charges brought against him. Under the motto “we blog because we care”, Zone 9 sets out to create a space for freedom of expression, where individuals can speak out against human rights violations in Ethiopia.

Sissay chose Hailu as the PEN Pinter international writer of courage, calling him “a man who stands by his word and whose words stood in the face of prison and arose far, far above to declaim in the name of humanity”.

“When I was considering him, I spoke to many Ethiopians in Ethiopia about him,” Sissay said. “He is loved by his people and the younger generation: He is a 21st-century hero. It was obvious that the writer of courage had to be him. He is my hero.”

Speaking in Amharic at the British Library event, Hailu thanked Sissay for choosing him to share the award. Hailu said he had wasted “596 days of his life in prison as a result of his writing”, as well as being “a victim of surveillance, intimidation, beatings and insults”.

“But I can say confidently that I have gained rather than lost by writing,” he said. “My wish is to use my voice for the service of the suppressed, those who are victimised because of sexual orientation, creed, religion or political opinion. My dream will come true. My wish is to give my voice to the service of the voiceless, who spoke for me when I could not. I pay it back only when I write to become a voice for the voiceless, the unheard.”

The PEN Pinter award goes to a writer who is deemed to, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, cast an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world, and show a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”. Sissay, who was announced as recipient in June, was described by judges as “an Orpheus who never stops singing”, who in every work “returns to the underworld he inhabited as an unclaimed child”, and “from his sorrows … forges beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love”. Sissay grew up in foster care in Wigan and his childhood was scarred by racist bullying.

The prize is shared with an international writer of courage who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs.

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