After surviving an extremist attack in his own country and being forced into exile in Norway, Bangladeshi publisher and writer Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, who is also known as Tutul, was named winner of the International Writer of Courage award by Margaret Atwood, on October 13.
Speaking in London, he challenged his critics to counter his views in writing, rather than with violence, describing “a strong effort in Bangladesh to turn the wheels of civilisation backwards and repeat the events and lies of a barbaric era,” reports The Guardian.
“We are challenging this process through rational thinking and through our writing,” Tutul said. “Anyone who wishes to counter [us] can do so through their writing. But please do not issue fatwas to have me, to have us, killed. Do not dispatch undercover assassins with knives and guns.”
Atwood won the Pen Pinter prize earlier this year. The award is shared with a writer who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs, selected by the winner in consultation with English Pen’s Writers at Risk committee.
Tutul is a publisher, writer and editor who founded Shuddhashar magazine and publishing house in Dhaka, where he promoted progressive work from Bangladeshi writers and bloggers.
According to Pen, at least nine writers, intellectuals and activists have been murdered in Bangladesh by Islamic extremists since the start of 2015. Many of the victims worked with Shuddhashar, including the author and blogger Avijit Roy, who was murdered in the street in February 2015. Tutul received a death threat the same day, for publishing atheist writers; in October last year, he was attacked by assailants with machetes and guns, and hospitalised in a critical condition. He and his family were forced into exile, eventually settling in Norway in February.
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Atwood said it was an honour to share the prize with the Bangladeshi publisher. “Not only has he shown huge personal courage in the face of adversity, he has also risked everything to give a voice to many other Bangladeshis who are under threat of being silenced, whether through violence or ambivalence,” she said. “At a time when so many of our colleagues in Bangladesh are risking their lives simply by putting pen to paper, it seems very fitting to share this award with Tutul, and to highlight the plight that he and his colleagues continue to face.”
Tutul told the Guardian that he hoped winning the prize would “give me some inspiration and some power in the future, for my writing and my publication”.
“The current situation is that it is not possible to continue my work in Bangladesh. But I am dreaming and thinking about how I can continue my job and my work in an alternative way. I’m thinking I will convert my books to ebooks, and continue my publication by epublication, because the situation in Bangladesh is that it is not easy to publish any free-thinking books,” he said.
“I miss my country. I have done all of my work there and it’s difficult to establish working in another country for me. I am always dreaming that the day will come when I go back to my country.”
And he reiterated his call for his critics to answer him with words instead of violence. “If [the Islamic fundamentalists] have any logical ground, they can reply logically, by writing. I always think that text and books and writing can be the change in our social structure, in our mentality.”
The Pen Pinter prize, for an author who, in the Nobel laureate’s words, shows a “fierce intellectual determination ... to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”, has been running since 2009, and awarded to writers including Salman Rushdie and Carol Ann Duffy. Former recipients of the International Writer of Courage award include the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano.
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Margaret Atwood publicity photo by Jean Malek[/caption]
Atwood, who personally knew Pinter, in whose honour the prize is named, said in her speech that she could “only imagine” what the playwright would have said about the world’s current “downward path to anarchy and chaos”.
As well as noting the murder of MP Jo Cox and the Florida nightclub shooting in July, Atwood also pointed to Donald Trump banning the Washington Post from covering his campaign: “For doing what? For quoting what he himself said. This is not only Stalinist, it’s not only Orwellian – it’s Kafkaesque.”
“You expect these kinds of things in tinpot dictatorships, but not in American presidential contests,” Atwood continued. “Journalists – and an open communications system – are one of the pillars of democracies, imperfect though such democracies always are. [But] even in titular democracies, such events are becoming, unfortunately, much more frequent. I can only imagine what Harold Pinter would have said about this downward path to anarchy and chaos, or else to closed and rigid societies in which there is no art apart from the wallpaper usually demanded by such regimes.”