Published September 29, 2019
Kamila Shamsie at the Women’s Prize for Fiction — one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary awards — ceremony with ‘Bessie’, the bronze statuette presented to winners along with a cash award | Penguin Random House
Kamila Shamsie at the Women’s Prize for Fiction — one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary awards — ceremony with ‘Bessie’, the bronze statuette presented to winners along with a cash award | Penguin Random House

It did not make it to ‘breaking news’ in Pakistan, where news channels have multiplied and all need a blast every hour. But more than the announcement of the Nelly Sachs Prize itself, however, the bigger news was that the prize had been withdrawn from Kamila Shamsie. The announcement of the withdrawal of the prize devalues the prize itself, rather than diminish the stature of the writer in any way.

Pardon my ignorance, but I had never heard of this particular prize until I was shocked to read in an article from a British newspaper — tagged to me on Facebook, that gossip with the ever-wagging tongue — that the judges had virtually snatched back the prize before it could be handed to the author. Shamsie is a writer whose work I admire, so I have no reason to be surprised at her winning this or any other literary prize, but it was the negative news of the prize being revoked, and the manner of how it happened, that was enough to leave a very unpleasant taste. The jury sees itself riding a high horse by invoking questions of human rights, yet it is these very principles they have violated. Rather than attacking or shaming Shamsie, they should reflect on their own conduct.

The not-so-well-publicised news about the prize was that on September 6, an eight-member jury announced to make the British-Pakistani author their latest winner, citing writing that “builds bridges between societies.” This is the very quality which was soon to be denied by the very people espousing it.

The withdrawal of the Nelly Sachs Prize to Kamila Shamsie devalues the prize itself, rather than diminish the stature of the writer in any way

Named for the German-Swedish Jewish Nobel laureate poet Nelly Sachs, this prize — which includes a cash award of €15,000 — is awarded every two years by the city of Dortmund in Germany to a writer promoting “tolerance and reconciliation” and who has worked to “improve cultural relations between people.” It is not given on a single book, but is based on the life and work of the author under consideration. Previous recipients have included such distinguished writers as Milan Kundera and Margaret Atwood.

However, the background search on this particular author was allegedly incomplete and the jury was soon ready to eat their words. “With its vote for the British writer Kamila Shamsie, the jury honoured the author’s outstanding literary work,” they announced, but then they went on to say that “despite prior research, the members of the jury were not aware that the author has been participating in the boycott measures against the Israeli government for its Palestinian policies since 2014.” They concluded that they would cancel their original vote and withdraw the award now that they had learned of Shamsie’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — abbreviated as the BDS movement — directed at the state of Israel. Her views, the jury said, contrasted “with the claim of the Nelly Sachs Prize to proclaim and exemplify reconciliation among peoples and culture.”

Not to be cowed down by such high-handed measures, Shamsie shot back, saying that “it was a matter of great sadness 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.” She went on to describe it as a “matter of outrage that the BDS movement (modelled on the [apartheid] 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.” Israel’s track record of atrocities against the Palestinians is too well-known for me to repeat here, but suffice it to say that they have acquired an export quality and the lessons learned there are now being applied against the Kashmiris of India-held Jammu and Kashmir.

Shamsie’s spirited response was shamefully ignored by the prize authorities who did not circulate her response, turning a deaf ear to it. This is all the more reason for referring to it. In parts of her response subsequently quoted in British newspapers, she wrote that “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.” Shamsie went on to say that “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.” Shamsie did not mince her words when she clearly stated that “in this political context, the jury has chosen to withdraw the award from me on the basis of my support for a non-violent campaign to bring pressure on the Israeli government.”

The jury chose to ignore Shamise’s voice — the very writer whom they were praising — but I would like to know what they will do with the voices of many more international writers who have clearly identified this as a violation of the author’s rights as an individual. Before long, an open letter was circulating among writers and gathering signatures before being published in the London Review of Books; the signatories include such respectable names as Noam Chomsky, Amit Chaudhuri, Arundhati Roy, J.M. Coetzee, William Dalrymple, Yann Martel, Jeanette Winterson, Michael Ondaatje (himself a winner of the same award) and Ben Okri, going on to say that the Nelly Sachs prize has chosen to “punish an author for her human rights advocacy.”

The writers ask a pertinent question: “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 criticise?” They go on to say that “without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries.”

I wonder if the jury can ignore such a spirited defence. They may choose to keep the prize money, but they must issue an apology to Shamsie and the independent spirit of the politically conscious writer. It is Shamsie’s prerogative to hold opinions on all matters, including the political. If she did not have such opinions, she would hardly have been a worthwhile novelist — something even her new detractors would be unable to deny.

The writer is a critic and fiction writer. He teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 29th, 2019



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