Lemn Sissay MBE awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2019

Lemn Sissay

Poet, performer playwright, artist and broadcaster Lemn Sissay has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2019. He will receive the award at a public ceremony at the British Library on the evening of Thursday 10 October, where he will deliver an address.

Lemn Sissay was chosen by this year’s judges: writer, translator and chair of English PEN Maureen Freely; culture correspondent at The Economist Fiammetta Rocco and author Niven Govinden.

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.’

Lemn Sissay said:

‘I met Harold Pinter when I was thirty six. 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.’

The PEN Pinter Prize was established in 2009 by the charity English PEN, which defends freedom of expression and celebrates literature, in memory of Nobel-Laureate playwright Harold Pinter. The prize is awarded annually to a writer of outstanding literary merit resident in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, 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’.

Lady Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter’s widow, said:

‘This is the perfect way to mark the memory of Harold because, like him, the PEN Pinter Prize combines respect for great writing with an unquenchable concern for human rights.’

During the public ceremony at the British Library, Lemn Sissay will announce his co-winner, the International Writer of Courage 2019, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN. The recipient will be an international writer who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty. The PEN Pinter Prize 2018 was awarded to writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, who shared the prize with lawyer and human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair.

A limited edition booklet of Lemn Sissay’s British Library address will be published by Faber & Faber and available to the audience at the event.

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Former winners of the PEN Pinter Prize are: Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2018), Michael Longley (2017), Margaret Atwood (2016), James Fenton (2015), Salman Rushdie (2014), Tom Stoppard (2013), Carol Ann Duffy (2012), David Hare (2011), Hanif Kureishi (2010) and Tony Harrison (2009). Former International Writers of Courage have been: Waleed Abulkhair (2018), Mahvash Sabet (2017), Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury a.k.a.Tutul (2016), Raif Badawi (2015), Mazen Darwish (2014), Iryna Khalip (2013), Samar Yazbek (2012), Roberto Saviano (2011), Lydia Cacho (2010) and Zarganar (Maung Thura) (2009).


Lemn Sissay is an award winning writer. Lemn is a poet, performer playwright, artist and broadcaster. He has read on stage throughout the world: from The Library of Congress in The United States to The University of Addis Ababa, from the Botanic Gardens of Singapore to literature festivals in Sri Lanka, from Wembley Football stadium to Maryland Football stadium, from the theatres of Bangalore to the theatres of Dubai, from a literature festival in Bali to a stage in Greenland AND Wigan library.  He read poetry at Sir Paul McCartney’s book launch at The Queens Theatre in The West End.

He was awarded an MBE for services to literature by The Queen of England. He is Chancellor of The University of Manchester and an Honorary Doctor from The University of Huddersfield, The University of Manchester and The University of Kent. He was the first poet commissioned to write for the London Olympics and poet of the FA Cup. He is Poet Laureate of Canterbury. …. If you Google the name “Lemn Sissay” all the returning hits will be about him because there is only one Lemn Sissay in the world.

Lemn’s memoir, My Name is Why, will be published by Canongate Books on 29 August 2019.

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