Lemn Sissay has won the PEN Pinter prize, set up in memory of playwright Harold Pinter. Sissay, 52, who was an official poet for the London 2012 Olympics, grew up in care and has spoken about how he was imprisoned, bullied and physically abused by staff. He later made documentaries about the search for his family.
Writer Maureen Freely, one of the judges, said: ‘In his every work, Lemn Sissay returns to the underworld he inhabited as an unclaimed child. From his sorrows, he forges beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love.”
Sissay, who was FA Cup poet in 2015, said: “I met Harold Pinter when I was 36. We were on stage at the Royal Court. I was too intimidated or self-conscious to speak to him. And so I will now. ‘Thank you’.
“What I like about this award is that it is from a great writer and a great organisation. I accept it as a sign that I should continue.”
The poet, performer playwright, artist and broadcaster will receive the award at a ceremony at the British Library on 10 October.
The prize is awarded to writers who take an “unflinching, unswerving” look at the world.
Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter’s widow, said: “This is the perfect way to mark the memory of Harold because, like him, the PEN Pinter prize combines respect for great writing with an unquenchable concern for human rights.”
Former winners include Half of a Yellow Sun author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Sir Salman Rushdie, Sir Tom Stoppard and Dame Carol Ann Duffy.
Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature and is chancellor of the University of Manchester.