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Standing up for free speech

Standing up for free speech

Three of the most eminent Man Booker winners – J.M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and V S Naipaul – are among the 38 Nobel laureates who have written an open letter to President Erdogan of Turkey asking him to release writers arrested in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup. Other signatories calling on Erdogan to free the novelist Ahmet Altan, his brother the economist Mehmet Altan, and the journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, are Wole Soyinka, Joseph Stiglitz and Mario Vargas Llosa. The Nobel winners write that: “The space for democratic debate in Turkey has shrunk alarmingly following increased judicial harassment of large strata of society, including journalists, members of parliament, academics and ordinary citizens, and government action which has reduced pluralism and led to self-censorship.” They ask that “The authorities should urgently change course by overhauling criminal legislation and practice, redevelop judicial independence and reaffirm their commitment to protect free speech.” In 2009, Erdogan, himself once imprisoned under the same anti-free speech article of the penal code, said that “Turkey is no longer the same old Turkey who used to sentence its great writers to prison – this era is gone for ever.” Erdogan has changed his mind and Coetzee, Ishiguro, Naipaul et al want him to change it back again.

Congratulations are due to Sebastian Barry. The multiple Man Booker nominee (2005, 2008, 2011) has just been appointed Irish Fiction Laureate, a post he will hold until 2021 and that involves the promotion of Irish literature at home and abroad. His own work has long fulfilled that brief: as well as his Man Booker nominations he has won the Costa Prize and Walter Scott Prize, his play The Steward of Christendom scooped several awards and his Man Booker shortlisted The Secret Scripture was made into a successful film. To keep things in the family, Barry takes over his new duties from another Man Booker alumnus, the 2007 winner Anne Enright.

A missing painting known as the “Nigerian Mona Lisa”, which was first discovered after disappearing for several decades and then briefly put back into the limelight before shuffling out of it again, has resurfaced. Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu, the portrait of an Ife princess called Adetutu Ademiluyi, is a fabled work in Nigeria and can be found in reproduction in homes across the country. Enwonwu painted three versions of the picture but all were lost following his death in 1994. Version two turned up recently in a flat in London and has just been sold at Bonham's for a whopping £1.2 million (its estimate was a more modest £300,000). Nigerian novelist and Man Booker winner Ben Okri spoke to Bonhams Magazine about its significance: “It has been a legendary painting for 40 years,” he said. “Everybody keeps talking about Tutu, saying: where is Tutu?” But why is it so important? Enwonwu “wasn’t just painting the girl,” said Okri, “he was painting the whole tradition. It’s a symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, it’s a symbol of the phoenix rising.” The buyer was anonymous so Tutu is likely to disappear from view again. However, perhaps the enormous price will encourage the two other versions to come out of hiding.

Margaret Atwood, 2000 Man Booker winner and now, thanks to The Handmaid's Tale, a darling of television world, has long been concerned with environmental issues. She has treated them in her disturbing fiction and been cited as the inspiration for the new school of “Cli-Fi” writers. She is also ambassador for a women's environmental movement called “Under Her Eye” which works “globally to tackle the environmental challenges of our age through art, science, health, technology, finance, activism, leadership and policy – all tied together by the power of the arts to tell these urgent stories, spark conversations and inspire change”. Atwood will be speaking on environmental challenges at summit-festival the British Library on 1st-2nd June. If you are worried that it might be all a bit worthy the Atwood promises the opposite: “This isn't climate change; it’s EVERYTHING change.”

Next week, Fiona Mozley (shortlisted in 2017 for Elmet) and Kamila Shamsie will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, in a join event on 9 March (buy tickets here).  The following day, Shamsie, who was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize and is one of our Golden Man Booker judges this year, will also be running a workshop on the hardest part of writing a novel – starting it.