Bangladeshi publisher, writer and editor Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury (known as Tutul) has been named 2016 International Writer of Courage by Margaret Atwood.
Chowdhury accepted the prize in person this evening (13th October) at the British Library during a ceremony held to celebrate Atwood's PEN Pinter Prize win in June earlier this year.
Chowdhury (pictured below), who now lives in exile in Norway, founded Shuddhashar magazine and publishing house in Dhaka to publish progressive work from Bangladeshi writers and bloggers, for whom there has been an esclation in anti-secular violence and in attacks on freedom of expression.
Since the beginning of 2015 at least nine intellectuals, academics, writers, bloggers and activists have been murdered by Islamic extremists, some of which were associates of Chowdhury and worked at Shuddhashar, because their publications were seen as "blasphemous".
Shuddhashar author and blogger Avijit Roy was murdered in the street after leaving a Shuddhashar ceremony during the Ekushey Book Fair in February 2015. The same day, Chowdhury received a death threat through Facebook, threatening to kill Chowdhury and set the offices ablaze for publishing "atheist writers". On notifying the police, Chowdhury was informed that Bangladesh was not a suitable home for a publishing house producing works of this nature.
In October 2015, Chowdhury himself was attacked in his office by unknown assailants armed with machetes and guns, and was hospitalised in a critical condition. His family was forced to leave Bangladesh and settled in Norway in February 2016, through the ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network) residency programme.
Despite this, Chowdhury’s publishing house still exhibited at this year’s Ekushey Book Fair, although the number of books it published had diminished from 26 to four. He continues to fight for free speech in Bangladesh, speaking at the UN summit Human Rights Defenders in Asia: Protection in Practice in Geneva in March 2016. He was shortlisted for the International Publishers Association’s inaugural Prix Voltaire the same month.
Chowdhury said: "I've been through a really bad time. A lot of frustration, pain and uncertainty. At this time Margaret Atwood's decision to share her achievement will inspire me, and give me strength to conquer the tough path waiting for me ahead."
Atwood said: 'It's a great honour to be able to share this year's PEN Pinter Prize with Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury/Tutul. Not only has he shown huge personal courage in the face of adversity, he has also risked everything to give a voice to many other Bangladeshis who are under threat of being silenced, whether through violence or ambivalence. At a time when so many of our colleagues in Bangladesh are risking their lives simply by putting pen to paper, it seems very fitting to share this award with Tutul, and to highlight the plight that he and his colleagues continue to face."
Atwood (pictured above) was chosen as the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize recipient in June by this year’s judges Vicky Featherstone, Zia Haider Rahman, Peter Stothard, Antonia Fraser and President of English PEN and chair of judges, Maureen Freely.
The judges praised Atwood as a "consistent supporter of political causes", adding "her work championing environmental concern comes well within the scope of human rights … she is a very important figure in terms of the PEN and of Harold Pinter".
Atwood said in June: "I am humbled to be the recipient of the 2016 PEN Pinter Prize. I knew Harold Pinter and worked with him – he wrote the scenario for the film version of The Handmaid’s Tale, back in 1089 – and his burning sense of injustice at human rights abuses and the repression of artists was impressive even then. Any winner of such an award is a stand-in for the thousands of people around the world who speak and act against such abuse. I am honoured to be this year’s stand-in."
Picture of Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury: © Arne Olav Lunde Hageberg
Picture of Margaret Atwood: © Liam Sharp