Malorie Blackman’s PEN Pinter Prize 2022 speech
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This speech was delivered at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library on 10 October 2022.
I am thrilled – and more than a little stunned – to be standing before you today, having been awarded the PEN Pinter Prize 2022. I am only too aware that I am slipping into some very large shoes indeed. The list of the past PEN Pinter Prize winners is a list of the notable and phenomenal – from the first winner Tony Harrison in 2009, to last year’s winner, Tsitsi Dangarembga.
My sincere thanks to author and supporter of the prize, Lady Antonia Fraser; Daniel Gorman, Director of English PEN; the PEN Pinter Prize judges – Margaret Busby, Daniel Hahn and the Chair of English PEN, Ruth Borthwick; and all those at English PEN who are responsible for me standing here today.
And I am very aware of the legacy left by Harold Pinter, who cared passionately about freedom of speech and human rights. That’s why I’m honoured to share this prize with this year’s International Writer of Courage.
There are many fearless authors who write for young adults and children, tackling complex issues in an entertaining, informative, understandable, and unflinching way. That’s why I know that, although I may be the first author of children’s and YA books to receive this prestigious award, I certainly won’t be the last. I hope this speaks to a recognition of not just the ever-growing depth and breadth of stories available to all our children, but also the undeniable quality of the stories available.
Now I must confess, I feel a bit of a fraud standing here. I feel you’re all expecting me to talk about how you square the circle of freedom of expression versus the freedom to say whatever you want, no matter how inflammatory, hateful or hurtful. I have yet to find a way to make those parallel lines meet.
I never set out to be a mouth almighty, either in my writing or when I speak. My heaven is to sit down at a computer and create stories. But no author writes in a vacuum. The real world impinges and impacts as it does, as it should, as it must. It would not be healthy for any writer to find themselves detached from the real world. I am a citizen of Britain, but I am also a citizen of this planet. What happens on the other side of the world has an impact on me and on us all.
Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are rights and privileges that must be fought for. But should we be free to say whatever we want? Is that what freedom of speech means? If you have a point of view and I disagree with it, then I should be perfectly at liberty to say so. I would argue that intent matters, and the context within which the intent sits matters, too.
But freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. If my speech is filled with hate, vitriol and bigoted invective, then shouldn’t I be held accountable for it? If my speech is designed to marginalise or divide or incite hatred to the extent that others are harmed, shouldn’t I be held responsible for my words?
But here’s the crucial thing, we authors will frequently – if not always – create characters who espouse views or who do things that readers don’t like or agree with. That’s a facet of our job – but it doesn’t give anyone, anywhere, the right to threaten us because one or more of our characters speak, or live, or love in a way that meets with disapproval. Quite simply, if you don’t like the idea of one of my books, other books I’ve written are available. Other books from other authors are available. Move on.
All I’ve ever sought to do with my stories is tell the truth – the truth behind being marginalised or misunderstood, being a sinner or being sinned against.
Not all my books are about overtly political issues, but I feel that it’s incredibly important to be honest in the ones that do tackle such topics. Honesty means presenting characters with their complex thoughts, feelings and emotions truthfully, and situations and societies in believable, relatable and accessible ways. When I present societies or situations that are uncomfortable or unsettling, it is so that they may be better understood – yes, by my readers, but sometimes particularly by me.
I entitled this talk ‘Just Sayin’’, which is also the title of my autobiography that’s published next week – and yes, that was a shameless plug – because for far too many of us, finding our voice and speaking our truth has not always been encouraged. Indeed, far too often our voices are actively suppressed.
A love of reading made me want to create my own stories in the first place. As a child and a teenager, I must’ve read thousands of books, but I never read a single book that featured a black child like me. Not one. Reading was my lifeline, my escape route, my greatest pleasure. And ironically, being invisible in the world of literature made me fight even harder to have my own voice within it.
The late and very great Toni Morrison wrote: ‘If there’s a story you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ That was the major reason I became an author in the first place. Toni Morrison’s mantra and the feedback I get from children and young adults have kept me writing for over three decades.
Now there’s no two ways about it: we are living in a time marked by impatience, suspicion, anger and fear, when some people unfortunately feel that the written or spoken word should not be used to express views different to their own, and in which, if such words are used, they are then met with intimidation, threats, and sometimes even violence.
Sadly, these are not the days of nuance.
I know we were all shocked to hear what happened to Salman Rushdie on 12 August this year. The man who allegedly stabbed him is reported to have read two pages of The Satanic Verses. Two pages. If that is true, it sadly speaks to the times in which we currently find ourselves. An excerpt, a tweet, an opinion, a headline – they are all that are required by some in the rush to judgment. What happened to Salman Rushdie earlier this year is a reminder of the risks faced by authors with a commitment to free speech.
In August 2014, when I was UK Children’s Laureate, I was interviewed by Sky News and asked about diversity in children’s publishing. No surprise there – I’m always asked about diversity in children’s publishing. My comments were along the lines of: progress has been made, but there is more to do. We need to have more stories written by authors from LGBTQ+ communities, by authors of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller heritage, more authors of colour, more ill and disabled writers and more writers from working class backgrounds. And the stories these authors produce don’t necessarily have to have, as their sole focus, what it’s like to be a minority in society. That would be so limiting.
I said something like: ‘I think what we need, especially in publishing, are more commissioning editors who are people of colour. Readers also want to escape into fiction beyond themselves. But I think there is a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading.’
This was reported with the headline: children’s books ‘have too many white faces’. For the next several weeks I had to contend with some of the worst and scariest racist abuse I’d ever received, threats of rape and harm against me and my family, and death threats. All of which happened in this country. Now I never said the statement reported in the Sky headline. Sky admitted as much, apologised and changed it. But to the haters, it didn’t matter. The abuse continued. The threats continued.
Do stories unite us? Maybe. Maybe not. But they do connect us. A character I create may express an idea with which you fundamentally disagree. Hell, a character I create may and frequently does express an idea with which I fundamentally disagree. And isn’t that wonderful? As a reader I love that alternative or even opposite views to my own, as expressed by the characters in the books I read, allow me to analyse other points of view, to consider and maybe even embrace new ideas and concepts, new ways of thinking.
That’s part of the beauty of stories, in all their forms. How mean and narrow life would be if all the arts did was reflect our own life, views and fixed ideas back at us. How narrow. How shallow. How sad.
It can be a tremendous act of courage to tell the truth through art, and every creative person who does so is doing humanity an unparalleled service. But we live in times where there are those who wish to deny certain sections of society their voice. School boards across American are trying to have books written predominantly by LGBTQ+ authors and authors of colour withdrawn or banned.
John Green – author of The Fault in Our Stars, and other insightful, wonderful YA books – tweeted in September 2022: ‘Looking for Alaska has been in print for 17 years, and it has been challenged countless times, but I’ve never seen anything like the concerted effort in 2022 to remove it and so many other books from libraries and schools around the country.’
Closer to home, Robin Stevens, author of the excellent ‘Detective Society’ series, spoke of her book Death in the Spotlight being banned by a school after a teacher discovered Robin had retweeted posts from Mermaids, an organisation supporting gender diverse and transgender young people. The author stated, ‘The thing that I found upsetting was not that they disagreed with me, but that they were using the disagreement to ban my books at their school. Seeing a queer character children can relate to in a popular children’s book series has given them a lot of joy and confidence, and it’s deeply saddening that both straight and queer kids at this teacher’s school won’t have the chance to read the book.’
In my own case, a few years ago, a school librarian told me with pleasure and a great deal of pride that she didn’t keep my book Boys Don’t Cry – the story of two brothers, one of whom is gay – on the school library shelves. It had to be asked for specifically. When I asked why, I was told it was so that the school librarian could assess whether or not the requester should get the book. Now I have a great deal of respect for public and school librarians, but this is not right. She didn’t hide my book away so that she could ensure it was age appropriate for the potential reader. No, she took delight in telling me that it was the subject matter that she deemed troublesome, and she had made it her business to assess who should and should not have access to that subject matter. I told her it was a pity she was policing the book in that way as the mere fact that the book had to be asked for might put some readers off. My concerns were dismissed.
I once had a white teenage girl in a signing queue tell me how much she loved my books. She confessed that she bought my books whenever she could afford them but then had to hide them from her mum. When I asked why, she admitted that her mum didn’t want her reading ‘race books’. I said, ‘What does your mum mean by “a race book”?’, to which the girl replied, ‘Books with black people in them. She thinks they’re all anti-white’. I asked, ‘Has she actually read any of my books?’ The girl shook her head. Enough said. But I’m grateful that my books had given that girl enough ammunition to think for herself and not just take on the views of her mother.
Here we are in the twenty-first century and there are those who try to tell children, teens and young adults of colour, children and young adults who may be neurodivergent, disabled, or part of the LGBTQ+ community, that they don’t have a right to exist in public if it makes certain grown-ups uncomfortable. All of our children have a right to see themselves and their lives reflected in literature, and to be the creators of stories themselves. All of them.
Freedom of speech, of expression, is one of the basic tenets on which any true democracy stands or falls. I was born in Britain. It’s my home and I love it. That’s why I feel able to criticise it and call out certain political behaviours, with a view to making it better. That’s why we vote, why we protest, march and demonstrate – to make our voices heard. That’s why I speak out regarding the need to feed all children who need it during the summer holidays, when most of those in government initially voted against such action. But when I express such an opinion on social media, I get told that this not my country and if I don’t like it I should go back to where I came from.
I’ve been called a race-baiter and a racist basher for using my voice. Racist basher! I ask you! Racist bashing is a negative thing now? I hope I am a racist basher. Every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Me and my voice aren’t going away.
Citizenship should not end at land boundaries. We are all citizens of the same planet. Didn’t Covid teach us that what starts on the other side of the world may affect us sooner or later? If some are not free can any of us say we truly are? And what do I mean by free? I mean having the chance to fulfil one’s own potential.
I’ve been accused of being ‘woke’. Well, God I hope so. How extraordinary that a positive word used by the African American community since the 1940s to mean ‘alert to social injustice’ should have been so co-opted by the white right-wing and have its meaning changed to something pejorative. The opposite of woke is asleep. I hope I’m not asleep to injustice, bigotry and unkindness. I hope I never will be.
In tribute, I would like to give the last word before announcing the International Writer of Courage to last year’s PEN Pinter Prize winner, Tsitsi Dangarembga, who was recently given a suspended sentence in Zimbabwe after being found guilty of inciting violence by staging a peaceful protest calling for political reform. She was holding a placard that said ‘We want better. Reform our institutions’. She wrote: ‘Every moment is a moment for potential resolution. It just needs somebody to say, in that moment, “OK, we’re going to do things differently – and mean it”.
The PEN Pinter Prize is shared with an International Writer of Courage, someone who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs and denied the basic rights I have just described.
I am grateful that I have been given the opportunity to highlight the life and work of a writer who has had to face harassment, torture and incarceration. When I first heard of the plight endured by this individual – an engineer, blogger and activist – I was immediately struck by his commitment regarding effecting change in his homeland of Bahrain, including by highlighting the methods used to supress freedom of expression. He has been incarcerated for over a decade and has been on hunger strike and without solid food for over 400 days, which shines a spotlight on an immensely brave man who defines the word courage.
I hope that this award raises awareness of his persecution around the world and affirms to him that he has not been forgotten, his voice has not been silenced. It is my honour to announce that the PEN Pinter Prize International Writer of Courage 2022 is, Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace.
Malorie Blackman has written over 70 books for children and young adults, including the Noughts and Crosses series of novels (Noughts and Crosses won the Red House FCBG Children’s Book Award as well as being included in the top 100 of the BBC Big Read), Cloud Busting (winner of the Smarties Silver Award), Thief (winner of the Young Telegraph/Fully Booked Award) and Hacker (winner of the WH Smiths Children’s Book Award and the Young Telegraph/Gimme 5 Award for best children’s book of the year). Her latest book is Endgame, the final novel of the Noughts and Crosses series.
Malorie is a scriptwriting graduate of the National Film and Television School. Her work has appeared on TV, with Pig-Heart Boy, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, being adapted into a BAFTA winning 6-part TV serial. As well as writing original and adapted drama scripts for TV, Malorie also regularly wrote for CBBC’s Byker Grove. She also co-wrote the Doctor Who episode – Rosa.
In 2005, Malorie was honoured with the Eleanor Farjeon Award in recognition of her distinguished contribution to the world of children’s books. In 2008, she was then honoured with an OBE for her services to Children’s Literature. Malorie was appointed Children’s Laureate 2013–2015.
Photo credit: George Torode