By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Shamsie: ‘A Matter of Great Sadness’The publication in the UK on Monday (September 23) of an open letter signed by hundreds of writers, many prominent, has crystallized for many the controversy over a German book prize program withdrawing its award to British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie because of her stated support for the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions), which is critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinians.
We are seeing news-media coverage in Germany, the UK, Pakistan, the States, Israel, India, Slovenia, Italy, and articles in regional news outlets including The Middle East Eye, the Middle East Monitor, and Al Jazeera.
The situation has rapidly developed into a heated demonstration of what many worry is a rising climate in many markets in which political considerations may challenge and seek to label and/or suppress the world community of literature and its industry’s players.
As the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) Freedom to Publish committee chair Kristenn Einarsson has pointed out on many occasions, self-censorship—among authors and publishers—is a frequent consequence of state or commercial actions that curtail or condemn the free movement and regard for literature.
The Nelly Sachs Prize, since 1961, has been awarded biannually by the city of Dortmund in Germany. It is named for the Jewish German poet and carries a purse of €15,000 (US$16,453). In the past, recipients of the award have included Elias Canetti, Erich Fromm. David Grossman, Milan Kundera, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood.
The statement of purpose of the award program includes, “to improve cultural relations between peoples, advocating intergovernmental cultural work as a new and interconnected one.” While the English translation of this statement seems to have suffered a confusing edit, the statement goes on to talk about “tolerance and reconciliation among peoples in their lives and ministries.”
On September 6, Shamsie was named the winner of the Nelly Sachs, with a rationale that called her work, in part, writing that “builds bridges between societies.” The prize was to have been presented on December 8 at Dortmund’s town hall. The award recognizes its winner’s body of work.
As early as the 12th of the month, however, Spiegel Online was carrying a story, saying that a blog post at a site called ruhr barone on September 10 had called into question Shamsie’s selection as this year’s laureate.
In her coverage at The Guardian on September 19, Alison Flood writes that the eight-member jury has stated that it didn’t know of Shamsie’s position on the Palestinian-Israeli situation and issued a comment on the decision to withdraw the award, saying, in part, “Shamsie’s political positioning to actively participate in the cultural boycott as part of the BDS campaign a … is clearly in contradiction to the statutory objectives of the award.
“The cultural boycott does not transcend borders, but affects the whole of Israeli society regardless of its actual political and cultural heterogeneity. Kamila Shamsie’s work is also withheld from the Israeli population in this way. This contrasts with the claim of the Nelly Sachs prize to proclaim and exemplify reconciliation among peoples and cultures. The jury regrets the situation in every respect.”
‘That a Jury Should Bow to Pressure’
Shamsie, an author with Bloomsbury, is a particularly well-regarded and visible author, her 2017 Home Fire having received the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. She is an energetic proponent in the UK and international market for the recognition and support of women in publishing.
And with the Dortmund jury in reversal, between 250 and 300 writers have signed a letter published at the London Review of Books, also on Monday (September 23), carrying a statement from Shamsie on the prize’s withdrawal.
“In the just-concluded Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to annex up to one third of the West Bank, in contravention of international law, and his political opponent Benny Gantz’s objection to this was that Netanyahu had stolen his idea; this closely followed the killing of two Palestinian teenagers by Israeli forces – which was condemned as ‘appalling’ by the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.
“In this political context, the jury of the Nelly Sachs Prize has chosen to withdraw the award from me on the basis of my support for a nonviolent campaign to bring pressure on the Israeli government.
“It is a matter of great sadness to me that a jury should bow to pressure and withdraw a prize from a writer who is exercising her freedom of conscience and freedom of expression; and it is a matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the South African boycott) that campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust.”
The large cohort of writers, in their open letter of support for Shamsie and condemnation of the Nelly Sachs withdrawal of the prize, writes, it is with dismay that we learned of the decision of the City of Dortmund to rescind the Nelly Sachs Award for Literature from Kamila Shamsie because of her stated commitment to the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.”
The authors point to dueling court decisions in Germany, the Bundestag having called the BDS movement anti-semitic but several city courts upholding a right to boycott, and the writers ask in their letter, “What is the meaning of a literary award that undermines the right to advocate for human rights, the principles of freedom of conscience and expression, and the freedom to criticize? Without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries.”
Writers signing the objection to the withdrawal of the Nelly Sachs from Shamsie include JM Coetzee, Noam Chomsky, Teju Cole, English PEN chair Maureen Freely, PEN International president Jennifer Clement, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Sally Rooney.