'Living legend' Linton Kwesi Johnson wins PEN Pinter Prize 2020

'Living legend' Linton Kwesi Johnson wins PEN Pinter Prize 2020

Poet and reggae recording artist Linton Kwesi Johnson has been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2020 for his commitment to political expression in his work.

Johnson, who is the first black poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series, and only the second living poet to appear in the series, was described by the judges as "fearless, and relentless" and "a living legend".

Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s associate editor for culture and an English PEN trustee–who judged the award alongside Dialogue Books publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove and author Max Porter– said it took the judges "all of two seconds to agree" on Johnson as their "clear and outstanding" winner once all the nominations were on the table.

"Linton Kwesi Johnson is a poet, reggae icon, academic and campaigner, whose impact on the cultural landscape over the last half century has been colossal and multi-generational," she said. "His political ferocity and his tireless scrutiny of history are truly Pinteresque, as is the humour with which he pursues them."

Porter said: "I can think of few people who more clearly embody the power of poetry to enact change. Few post-war figures have been as unwaveringly committed to political expression in their work. He has been fearless, and relentless, but tragically his message is now more important than ever, given the 'Windrush' scandal and the ongoing systemic demonisation of the immigrant population and racial minorities in the UK."

Lovegrove said: "I feel I came into the world with the sound of political and cultural activism from Linton Kwesi Johnson work ringing in my ears. His powerful words and energetic passion have guided me and many others to always interrogate and push forwards against the status quo. It’s been a honour to judge the PEN Pinter Prize this year and a greater honour to be part of the collective awarding the prize to a living legend."

Reacting to the news, Johnson said: "Having received a Golden PEN award from English PEN in 2013, I was surprised to learn that, seven years later, I have now been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize. Awards are the nourishment of every artist’s ego. It is always nice to be acknowledged. It is especially gratifying to receive an award that honours the memory of esteemed dramatist, Harold Pinter, free thinker, anti-imperialist and human rights champion. I would like to thank English PEN and the judges for their kind consideration in honouring me again."
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, Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech, casts an "unflinching, unswerving" gaze on the world and shows a "fierce intellectual determination... to define the real truth of our lives and our societies". Last year it went to poet and performer playwright Lemn Sissay, with judges praising his ability to "forge beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love". 

Lady Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter’s widow, said of this year's award: "On what would have been Harold's 90th birthday, 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."

Johnson will receive the award in a digital ceremony co-hosted by the British Library on 12th October, where he will deliver an address. At the same time Johnson will announce his co-winner, the International Writer of Courage 2020, selected from a shortlist of international cases supported by English PEN.