Poet and playwright Lemn Sissay wins major literary prize

Lemn Sissay. Photo by Hamish Brown
Lemn Sissay. Photo by Hamish Brown
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One of the borough's best-known cultural exports has won a major literature prize.

Poet and playwright Lemn Sissay, who was fostered in Atherton and spent his teenage years in the borough's care system, scooped the PEN Pinter Prize set up in memory of iconic dramatist Harold Pinter.

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Lemn, 52, was an official poet for the London 2012 Olympics and is also chancellor of the University of Manchester.

He has been outspoken about his own experiences growing up, telling how he was imprisoned, bullied and physically abused by staff at care facilities.

He launched a legal case against Wigan Council for the treatment he received, settling out of court and getting an apology from the local authority.

He later made documentaries about the search for his family which took him to Ethiopia.

Judges for the PEN Pinter Prize praised his ability to "from his sorrows, forge beautiful words and a thousand reasons to live and love".

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."

Lemn, who was also 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. 'Thankyou'. 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 October 10.

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 Ngozie Adichie, Margaret Atwood of The Handmaid's Tale fame, Sir Salman Rushdie, Sir Tom Stoppard and Dame Carol Ann Duffy.

Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature.