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Pen power assembles

Pen power assembles

Mixed feelings for Tsitsi Dangarembga. The Zimbabwean author of This Mournable Body is one of the happy six who have made the Booker Prize shortlist. However, she is currently on bail in her home country accused of incitement to commit violence and breaching coronavirus health and safety regulations for taking part in a demonstration against government corruption. One of the benefits of her shortlisting is a raised profile, another is that a weighty section of the British book world has united behind her. Stephen Page, CEO of her publisher Faber & Faber, recently issued a statement calling for her acquittal “and we urge others to support her cause. By joining together and raising our voices, let the power of our collective call effect change.” Among those who have already joined together are publishers such as Atlantic, Icon, Granta, Canongate and Oneworld, the lawyer and former Baillie Gifford Prize winner Philippe Sands, and, leading the Booker Prize contingent, Gaby Wood – literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation – alongside former winners and nominees including Kazuo Ishiguro, Anna Burns and Barbara Kingsolver. Whatever happens at Dangarembga’s trial, the eyes of the world are watching.


There is, meanwhile, another major development in Dangarembga’s life. Few institutions of learning have such an illustrious literary history as the University of East Anglia in Norwich and its fabled Creative Writing programme. Now Dangarembga has been appointed its first International Chair of Creative Writing. The announcement comes as UEA marks 50 years of the creative writing course founded in 1970 by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson and it is designed to deliver events, masterclasses and workshops and encourage new voices from Africa and Asia. UEA can number innumerable alumni who went on to Booker Prize fame such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Anne Enright, Louise Doughty, Adam Foulds, Neel Mukherjee and Tash Aw as well as teachers of the calibre of Rose Tremain, Margaret Atwood and Ali Smith. It is a daunting list that would make any sane woman quail but Dangarembga has already proved she is made of tough stuff.


It has been a good couple of weeks for Douglas Stuart. First Shuggie Bain, his novel about a boy growing up in drugs-and-violence riddled 1980s Glasgow, was included on the Booker Prize shortlist, now it has made the longlist for America’s prestigious National Booker Awards. Nominated in the translated fiction section is Fernanda Melchor, whose Hurricane Season was recently pipped to the International Booker Prize by Marieke van Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening. A win at the NBAs would go a little way to dissipating Melchor’s discomfort. Stuart and Melchor have to wait until 18 November to discover their fate.


Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood, current joint Booker Prize champ, has just been awarded the Richard C Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award, part of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize which seeks to advance amity through the “power of the written word”. It is worth $10,000 and previous winners include John Irving, Gloria Steinem and Elie Wiesel. The organisers noted that “Margaret Atwood continues to remind us that ‘it can’t happen here’ cannot be depended upon” and her view of the world is more urgent than ever. The novelist may be gloomy about the change in tone of current American politics but she isn’t despairing. She says Americans are aware of threats to the US constitution: “That is what stands between you and an absolutist dictatorship,” she said. “And if I were a betting person, which naturally I kind of am, I would bet on American orneriness and refusal to line up.”