Linton Kwesi Johnson has won the PEN Pinter Prize. The Jamaican dub poet’s “political ferocity” and “tireless scrutiny of history” praised as “truly Pinteresque” by judges. Born in rural Jamaica in 1952, Johnson moved to London in 1963. His first poetry collection, Voices of the Living and the Dead, was published by Race Today in 1974, with his first LP, Dread Beat an’Blood, released in 1978. Setting radical political poetry in Jamaican patois to a reggae beat, it told stories of police brutality and Brixton street life and created the genre of dub poetry.
The award, set up by writers’ organization English PEN, is intended to defend freedom of expression and celebrate literature. It aims at honoring a writer who, as Harold Pinter put it in his 2005 Nobel prize speech, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world and shows a “fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”.
Johnson, who was the first black poet ever to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series with his collection Mi Revalueshanary Fren, joins former winners of the prize including Lemn Sissay, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Margaret Atwood.
The 67-year-old poet said that “awards are the nourishment of every artist’s ego”, and that it was “always nice to be acknowledged”. “It is especially gratifying to receive an award that honors the memory of esteemed dramatist Harold Pinter – free thinker, anti-imperialist, and human rights champion,” he added.