PEN Pinter Prize: India’s Arundhati Roy Gets UN Backing

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Indian author Arundhati Roy, facing charges in India for alleged “anti-national remarks” about Kashmir, receives robust support from the United Nations’ Human Rights Office.

Arundhati Roy. Image provided by English PEN, Mayank Austen Soofi

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Arundhati Roy Receives the Prize in October
The Indian author Arundhati Roy has attracted backing from the United Nations’ Human Rights Office in the charges launched against her and the former Central University of Kashmir professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain.

The office of the UN’s high commissioner Volker Türk “urges authorities to drop cases” against Roy and Hussain, which have been lodged in India against them under the country’s Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The charges are for “anti-national remarks” that the two are alleged by the state to have made about Kashmir at a seminar in New Delhi in 2010.

The UN’s objection follows an open letter in which more than 200 Indian activists, journalists, and academics have called for the Modi government to withdraw the charges.  And even an opposition member of parliament, Mahua Moitra, the Trinamool MP, has commented in social media, saying, “If by prosecuting Arundhati Roy under UAPA, BJP is trying to prove they’re back, well they’re not. And they’ll never be back the same way they were. This kind of fascism is exactly what Indians have voted against.”

Among the most timely recipients of English PEN’s Pinter Prize, the announcement of the honor precedes an October 10 event at the British Library, at which Roy will deliver her laureate’s address. She also will be selecting from a shortlist provided by PEN, a “Writer of Courage” whose recognition is seen as being important in defense of freedom.

Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize for Fiction for her The God of Small Things (Penguin Random House), a book that has been translated into a reported 40 languages.

Our Publishing Perspectives readers will remember that in early June Faber was announced to be the new three-year sponsor of the PEN Pinter Prize, perhaps the most prestigious of English PEN’s awards, and meant to directly focus on writers who cast an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world, and show a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies,” in words taken from the late Harold Pinter’s Nobel address.

Not unlike the International Publishers Association (IPA) Prix Voltaire for publishers, the Pinter Prize honors humanitarian bravery and the zeal of activist writing among authors. The award is given annually to a writer who lives in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, the Commonwealth, or former Commonwealth venues.

And English PEN makes the point of saying that this year’s PEN Pinter Prize jurors chose Roy in April. Those jurors this year comprise Ruth Borthwick; Khalid Abdalla; and Roger Robinson.

At the Washington Post, Siddhartha Deb writes that the charges lodged against Roy in India were timed to the return to power in June “with only 240 seats, forced to rely on other political parties to form a government. The loss of more than 60 seats—despite the suppression of political opponents, complete control over the media and conveniently malfunctioning voting machines—has left the Hindu right in disarray. Roy’s sudden prosecution appears to be a blatant show of force by a weakened BJP [Narenda Modi’s party]—which only reveals the party’s faltering attempt to cling to its power.”

And at Voice of America, Shaikh Azizur Rahman writes, “To her supporters, Roy is an advocate for the rights of the oppressed and one of the most outspoken public figures on issues concerning the marginalized. But her critics, mostly supporters of BJP and other Hindu nationalist organizations, view her as an anti-national figure, attacking her on social media and burning her effigies.”

Khalid Abdalla

In part of the jury’s rationale for her selection at English PEN, juror Khalid Abdalla writes with particular eloquence, “Arundhati Roy is a luminous voice of freedom and justice whose words have come with fierce clarity and determination for almost 30 years now.

“Her books, her writings, the spirit with which her life is lived, have been a lodestar through the many crises and the darkness our world has faced since her first book, The God of Small Things.

“This year, as the world faces the deep histories that have created this moment in Gaza, our need for writers who are unflinching and unswerving has been immense. In honoring Arundhati Roy this year, we are celebrating both the dignity of her body of work and the timeliness of her words, that arrive with the depth of her craft exactly when we need them most.”

Former Winners of the PEN Pinter Prize
  • Michael Rosen (2023)
  • Malorie Blackman (2022)
  • Tsitsi Dangarembga (2021)
  • Linton Kwesi Johnson (2020)
  • Lemn Sissay (2019)
  • Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2018)
  • Michael Longley (2017)
  • Margaret Atwood (2016)
  • James Fenton (2015)
  • Salman Rushdie (2014)
  • Tom Stoppard (2013)
  • Carol Ann Duffy (2012)
  • David Hare (2011)
  • Hanif Kureishi (2010)
  • Tony Harrison (2009)

More from Publishing Perspectives on the PEN Pinter Prize is here, more on English PEN is here, more on Faber is here, more from us on the international book industry’s publishing and book awards programs is here, and more on the United Kingdom’s market is here.

Publishing Perspectives is the International Publishers Association’s world media partner.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.