Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie accepts PEN Pinter prize with call to speak out

Arguing that authors have a duty to ‘call a lie a lie’, novelist also names human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair as the 2018 International Writer of Courage

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken out about the responsibility of authors to engage with politics and “call a lie a lie”, as she accepted the PEN Pinter prize on Tuesday evening.

Awarded to an outstanding writer who shows “the real truth of our lives and our societies” with their work, the prize went this year to the Nigerian novelist who judges described as “sophisticated beyond measure in her understanding of gender, race, and global inequality”.

In her acceptance lecture at the British Library, Adichie said that while writers should not necessarily speak out on political issues, she did not believe “that art is a valid reason for evading the responsibilities of citizenship – which are to think clearly, to remain informed, and, sometimes, to act and speak”.

“Art can illuminate politics. Art can humanise politics. Art can shine the light towards truth. But sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes politics must be engaged with as politics. And this could not be any truer or more urgent today, with the political landscapes of many western countries so blatantly awash in what Harold Pinter called ‘a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed’. We must know what is true. And we must call a lie a lie,” said Adichie in her lecture, entitled Shut Up and Write.

The award-winning novelist revealed how she has been criticised in Nigeria for speaking out about its law criminalising homosexuality, and for her efforts to start a “much-needed conversation” about women’s rights in the country.

Reactions to her arguments had seen her told that “I could not, as an African, claim to be a feminist because feminism and being African were mutually exclusive. Feminism was a sickness of the west, and one I had appropriated by being poisoned by the west. As for gay people, homosexuality was un-African, and my supporting the rights of gay people meant a disregard of African culture.”

Adichie said that she did not choose to speak out about social issues because she is a writer. “But my writing gave me a platform to speak about issues that I have always cared about,” she said. “I do not want to use my art as an armour of neutrality behind which to hide. I am a writer and I am a citizen, and I see my speaking out on social issues as a responsibility of citizenship. I am struck by how often this speaking out is met, in Nigeria, not with genuine engagement, whether to agree or disagree, but with a desire to silence me. A journalist once helpfully summed it up for me: people don’t like it when you talk about feminism, they just want you to shut up and write.”

At the ceremony, Adichie named the lawyer and human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair as this year’s International Writer of Courage, a title awarded by the PEN Pinter winner each year. Abulkhair, a founding member of the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, is currently four years into a 15-year prison sentence after being charged with undermining the regime and officials, inciting public opinion and insulting the judiciary. He also represented the Saudi dissident writer Raif Badawi in court, whose 2014 sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes prompted outrage around the world.

Waleed Abulkhair pictured in 2012.
Waleed Abulkhair pictured in 2012. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

According to PEN, after Abulkhair set up salons for liberal youth to discuss new ideas, following the tightening of laws around public gatherings, a judge and several clerics “demanded that death be the punishment for speaking openly about opposition to religious conservatism”. His sentence also includes a 15-year travel ban and a 200,000 riyal (£41,000) fine.

PEN said he has been denied medication, books and post in jail. Abulkhair told the Washington Post in 2012: “I am unable to leave this country, but the sun of humanity shines upon me every day. I bask in its rays, gaining strength against the darkness of oppression. My voice and the voices of others like me shall reach the world, no matter how hard they try to silence us. We shall say, consistently and proudly: steadfastness.”

“Waleed has dedicated his life to holding the Saudi authorities accountable for human rights abuses,” said Adichie. “He has dedicated his life to speaking out, to supporting the victims of those abuses. Waleed, like Harold Pinter, has shown a lucid dedication to telling his truth. But rather than being lauded for this dedication, Waleed has paid a heavy price – 15 years behind bars.”

She said she was deeply proud to share the prize with Abulkhair, “and I hope that this small act of solidarity will bring him some comfort, and will remind him that his struggle has not been forgotten, nor will it be in vain.”

Adichie joins former winners of the PEN Pinter prize including Salman Rushdie, Carol Ann Duffy and Margaret Atwood. Previous recipients of the International writer of courage include Bangladeshi publisher and writer Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, also known as Tutul; and Italian investigative journalist Roberto Saviano.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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