Tsitsi Dangarembga Awarded PEN Pinter Prize 2021

The novelist—Open Country Mag’s December 2020 cover star—is recognized for her “unflinching, unswerving gaze,” having “charted the development of Zimbabwe from a British colony to an autocratic and troubled free state.”
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Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Tsitsi Dangarembga.

The Zimbabwean novelist, filmmaker, and activist Tsitsi Dangarembga has been awarded the 2021 PEN Pinter Prize.  The Prize, coming a few months after Dangarembga received the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression, honours her “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world, particularly Zimbabwe, and her “fierce, intellectual determination . . . to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.”

Established in 2009 in honour of the late Noble laureate in literature Harold Pinter, who also served as a Vice President of English PEN, the PEN Pinter Prize goes to a writer who has committed themselves intellectually to digging and presenting the truth as it is. It has previously been awarded to, among other writers, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Dangarembga finished her debut novel, Nervous Conditions, when she was 25; it was published four years later in 1988, the first novel in English by a Black Zimbabwean woman. Eighteen years later, a sequel, The Book of Not, hit shelves. This was followed by This Mournable Body, which was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. The books—known as the Zimbabwe Trilogy—do the work of mapping the country’s situation, especially for women. Beyond the page, Tsitsi Dangarembga is known for her activism. In the summer of 2020, she was arrested for protesting in Harare.

To mark her Booker Prize shortlisting, Dangarembga was on the first cover of Open Country Mag in December 2020. Our cover story focused on her Trilogy and journey to writing the books.

“Through her trilogy of novels. . . she has charted the development of Zimbabwe from a British colony to an autocratic and troubled free state,” said judge Claire Armitstead, an English PEN trustee. “[S]he has held a magnifying glass up to the struggles of ordinary people, in so many parts of the world, to lead good lives in the increasingly corrupt and fractured new world order. Hers is a voice we all need to hear and heed.”

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Fellow judge and chair of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, Ellah P. Wakatama, said, “It is an honour to join my colleagues in raising up the voice of a woman whose words have written the story of my country of birth with a clarity, bravery and honesty that is a rare and precious gift.” Wakatama worked on This Mournable Body.

Tsitsi Dangarembga said: “I am grateful that my casting—in the words of Harold Pinter—an ‘unflinching, unswerving gaze’ upon my country and its society has resonated with many people across the globe and this year with the jury of the PEN Pinter prize. I believe that the positive reception of literary works like mine helps to prove that we can unite around that which is positively human.”

In a comment to Open Country Mag, she added that she is “very excited at this development.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga will give a keynote speech on October 11, at a ceremony where she will also announce the winner of the 2021 International Writer of Courage Award, a prize tied with the Pinter Prize.

Ernest Ogunyemi
Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí was a staff writer at Open Country Mag. His works have recently appeared/are forthcoming in AGNI, Joyland, No Tokens, Olongo Africa, The Dark, Fiyah, Agbowó, Southern Humanities Review, Minnesota Review, McNeese Review, Down River Road, and West Trade Review. He is the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed of: The Young African Poets Anthology.
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