#100PENMembers No. 31: Kamila Shamsie

Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, a Trustee of English PEN and of the Free Word Centre, has written seven novels to great critical acclaim and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017 for Home Fire, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2018. As well as being an active PEN member, she has also been defended by the organisation. 

Kamila Shamsie
Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

In 2019 Shamsie won the Nelly Sachs Prize but it was rescinded because of her public support of the movement to boycott Israel (BDS – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). The international literary community – including PEN International members – responded immediately and a letter was published in the London Review of Books protesting the decision and signed by more than 250 leading contemporary writers including Arundhati Roy, Jeanette Winterson and PEN International President Jennifer Clement.

The letter asked about the balance of literature and human rights: ‘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 criticize? Without these, art and culture become meaningless luxuries.’

The jury for the prize – awarded in memory of the Jewish German Nobel Prize winner – felt that Shamsie’s actions placed her at odds with its ethos because her action against Israel ‘is clearly in contradiction to the statutory objectives of the award.’ As they put it, ‘The cultural boycott does not transcend borders, but affects the whole of Israeli society regardless of its actual political and cultural heterogeneity. Kamila Shamsie’s work is also withheld from the Israeli population in this way.’

Shamsie responded: ‘It is a matter of great sadness to me 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.’

Shamsie is herself a dedicated campaigner for free expression, writing and speaking in defence of writers all over the world. She has been particularly prominent in her support of PEN’s International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. 

Day of the Imprisoned writer (now 15thNovember) has been a mainstay of PEN’s calendar since it was instigated in 1981 by PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. The idea was first proposed by Arthur Miller at the 1969 PEN International Congress at Menton, France, where, in one of his last actions as President, he wrote a Memorandum calling for ‘all P.E.N. Centers to set aside a date, to be decided, as International Writers’ Day. On this day the Centers shall gather as many writers in their areas as possible into public meetings, whether outdoors or in, along with interested private and official personalities, to draw the world’s attention to the facts of the imprisonment and exile of writers; to demand their freedom and to assert by every means of publicity that the imprisonment of writers is regarded by civilised men everywhere as a violation of men’s sacred right to think and speak his thoughts and to communicate with other men.’ 

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer – as it is now known – marks a day once a year when PEN members across the world undertake one of the most important activities in the organisation’s history – they write to imprisoned writers. In some cases, these open letters are published in national and international media to draw attention to the plight of certain writers or causes, but primarily this is an exchange between individuals in which writers write to writers, exchanging words and ideas through prison walls in a way which invokes freedom by defying the barriers of nationality, race, age and the physical walls of persecution and oppression. It enacts PEN’s central premise, that there can be no barriers to ideas, ‘that literature knows no frontiers.’

In 2017 Shamsie took part in the Day of the Imprisoned Writer by writing to Razan Zaitouneh –human rights defender, lawyer, blogger and founder of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria and who was abducted in December 2013 from the offices of the VDC and remains imprisoned in Syria. 

Shamsie praised Zaitouneh for continuing to inspire others: ‘I hope one day after you’re returned to your family, I’ll have a chance to meet you. I’ll bring along a book of poems by Faiz, one that contains some lines that he wrote when he was in prison (for opposing autocracy): though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed/ in rooms where lovers are destined to meet/ they cannot snuff out the moon, so today/ nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed.’