Oxford Student PEN at the PEN/Pinter Prize 2012

Posted: October 10, 2012 in Events
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By Edith Johnson

The PEN/Pinter Prize-giving ceremony was held last Monday at the British Library, and I was lucky enough to attend (thanks to Lady Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter’s widow and herself a former President of English PEN). The judges, who included David Hare and Melvyn Bragg, had awarded the prize to Carol Ann Duffy, and she in turn nominated the Syrian novelist and journalist Samar Yazbek as 2012’s international writer of courage.

The most exciting point in the evening was Samar Yazbek’s speech. She chose to convey her message in her own language, Arabic, before an interpreter read a translation (her emotions needed no interpreter, however; it was a passionate and emotional speech). She discussed her gratitude to PEN and to writers like Duffy and Pinter, her sense of solidarity with fellow writers in Syria, and her continued defiance against the Assad regime. She said that the prize honoured all women writers in Syria who have opposed the regime either privately or publicly.

Carol Ann Duffy also gave a great reading of some of her recent poems. Most of the poems were written since her appointment as Poet Laureate – probably for this reason they were nostalgic and patriotic (but still resolutely Left-wing) in a way that I hadn’t expected from Duffy. She was accompanied on various instruments by a portly minstrel-type character, which added to this effect. Particularly moving was a poem telling the story of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in 1914, in which ordinary soldiers made peace without any prior communication or orders from above. Duffy stressed that the truth about what happened that day had been suppressed by army officials and the government. She didn’t get much more radical than this – her primary targets in other poems included Michael Gove (for the recent GCSE controversy) and the Post Office (for trying to phase out the use of counties in addresses)!

Edith Johnson is Undergraduate Officer on the Oxford Student PEN committee.

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