Michael Rosen unveils Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut as PEN’s Writer of Courage

Michael Rosen unveils Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut as PEN’s Writer of Courage

The 2023 PEN Pinter Prize winner highlights persecution of Uyghur scholars and cultural suppression in China

by Suswati Basu
1 comment

Renowned author Michael Rosen recently announced Professor Rahile Dawut as the recipient of the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize for her courage and commitment to her work despite facing persecution. The annual prize, named after the legendary playwright Harold Pinter, is awarded to writers who have faced adversity for their beliefs. The award ceremony took place at the British Library, with Rachel Harris, Professor of Ethnomusicology at SOAS University of London, accepting the prize on behalf of Dawut.

Michael Rosen on International Writer of Courage winner Rahile Dawut

Who is PEN Pinter Prize 2023 International Writer of Courage recipient Rahile Dawut?

Rahile Dawut is an internationally acclaimed Uyghur academic, anthropologist, and an eminent expert on Uyghur folklore and cultural traditions. Her disappearance in December 2017 while en route to a Beijing academic conference sparked international concern and outrage. It was widely believed that she had been apprehended by Chinese authorities. After more than three years of uncertainty and a dedicated campaign by her daughter and supporters, it was confirmed that she had been sentenced to imprisonment on charges of endangering state security. Her current whereabouts remain unknown.

Michael Rosen’s tribute to Harold Pinter and the PEN Pinter Prize

In his address during the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony, Michael Rosen expressed his gratitude to Lady Antonia Fraser, the writer and founder of PEN Enterprise, as well as other key figures involved in the prize’s selection process. He acknowledged his surprise at being chosen as the recipient of the award and took a moment to reflect on the legacy of Harold Pinter himself.

Rosen reminisced about his first encounter with Pinter’s work as a teenager and how it left a lasting impression on him. He showcased Pinter’s ability to expose the hidden truths and fears of individuals, making them confront the arbitrary menace, control, and punishment in society. Pinter’s dedication to resisting oppression and exploitation resonated deeply with Rosen.

Read: Michael Rosen on fighting to stop closure of mobile libraries

“All over the world, there are people being silenced, incarcerated, persecuted and killed. The world is unjustly, absurdly, grotesquely unequal. And incredibly, after hundreds of years of this unjust, absurd, grotesque inequality, it hasn’t got any better. If anything, it’s got worse. The twin powers of exploitation and oppression seem to be as strong, if not stronger than they’ve ever been.”

Michael Rosen

Rosen then delved into the challenges of writing and how it can foster social resistance in the face of injustice. He questioned the impact of art and literature on society, emphasising that writers often grapple with the dilemma of whether their work can truly make a difference in an unjust world.

He cited the importance of standing up against inequality, oppression, and injustice, acknowledging that these issues persist despite centuries of advocacy and activism. Rosen also noted ongoing conflicts and wars in different parts of the world, underscoring the need for writers to address such issues through their work.

Read: Mongolian books face ban as part of China’s ‘cultural genocide’

Drawing on the ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Rosen reiterated the role of commitment and engagement in literature. He reflected on his own experiences as a writer for children and discussed the significance of engaging young readers in stories that challenge societal norms and encourage critical thinking.

Rosen further explored the power of humour and wordplay in literature, citing examples from his own work and that of Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan. He stressed how absurdism and humour can be legitimate responses to hate and cruelty.

Rahile Dawut: an internationally acclaimed Uyghur scholar persecuted for her work

Transitioning from his personal experiences to the broader theme of cultural preservation, Rosen introduced Professor Rahile Dawut as the recipient of the Writer of Courage award. He praised her dedication to documenting Uyghur cultural heritage and lamented the unjust imprisonment she endured for her research.

Rosen underscored the importance of Dawut’s work in shedding light on the cultural richness of the Uyghur people and the threat posed by the Chinese government’s efforts to erase their heritage. He expressed admiration for her and wished her strength and perseverance in her difficult situation.

“I want to express admiration for what she has done, and I wish her all the mental and physical strength she needs, or as my parents would say: ‘sh’koyech’ a Hebraic yiddish saying, meaning something like a mix of appreciation and wishing strength to someone.”

Michael Rosen

In closing, Rosen mentioned English PEN’s International letter writing campaign, encouraging supporters to send messages of solidarity and hope to Dawut’s family. He handed over the stage to Rachel Harris, a friend and colleague of Dawut, who further elaborated on the significance of Rahile’s work and the challenges she faces.

Rahile Dawut’s imprisonment and China’s cultural cleansing in the Uyghur region

Rachel Harris, Professor of Ethnomusicology, SOAS University of London, provided insight into the cultural and religious significance of Dawut’s research on Uyghur shrine pilgrimage and its importance in preserving Uyghur cultural memory. She described Rahile’s dedication to documenting this heritage and her impact as a scholar and educator.

“China’s actions, then, in the Uyghur region, demonstrably constitute what UNESCO calls strategic ‘cultural cleansing.’ And yet, UNESCO continues to acknowledge China as a protector of Uyghur heritage through its heritage lists.”

Rachel Harris, Professor of Ethnomusicology, SOAS University of London.

Harris also shed light on the dire situation in the Uyghur region, with millions of people facing arbitrary detention, forced labour, and cultural erasure.

She added that the Chinese authorities “have gone to extraordinary lengths to mask what’s been happening in the Uyghur region,” despite documenting 312 individual cases similar to Dawut, “who have been detained and imprisoned specifically because they researched, promoted, transmitted, and created Uyghur culture and history over the past six years.” Harris also highlighted Dawut as a symbol of the devastation faced by the Uyghur people and called for international action against these atrocities.

In short, Michael Rosen and Rachel Harris’s speeches at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony underlined the power of literature and research in shedding light on injustice and oppression while honouring the courage and resilience of writers like Rahile Dawut.

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