The Vaclav Havel Library Foundation’s Disturbing the Peace Award to a Courageous Writer at Risk was established in 2016 to honor distinguished writers of fiction and non-journalistic non-fiction who have been unjustly punished for challenging oppressive regimes. The award recognizes writers who share the values of Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who was imprisoned for his resistance to Czechoslovakia’s communist regime and later was elected the first president of democratic Czechoslovakia. Throughout his life, Havel was passionately committed to human rights and outspoken in his defense writers and other artists who suffered because of their activism. The Disturbing the Peace Award pays tribute to Havel’s legacy by honoring writers of distinguished works of fiction, literary nonfiction, drama, memoire, or poetry who are courageous in dissent and inspire similar courage in others.
The six nominees for 2020 include Ahmet Altan (Turkey, in prison), Bùi Chát (Vietnam), Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu (Eritrea, living in Germany), Angel Santiesteban Prats (Cuba), Anand Teltumbde (India, in prison) and Marcia Tiburi (Brazil / USA / Europe).
An independent process guides the selection of each year’s awardee. International institutions prominent in literature and human rights, such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, IDEAS for Cuba, PEN International, and Words Without Borders, submit nominations for the award. A committee of experts then prepares a short list of candidates who fit the award criteria, including outstanding literary output and sustained public leadership. Finally, a jury composed of three individuals prominent in the arts, history, human rights, and related field selects the award recipient. The jury includes the previous year’s awardee.
The Disturbing the Peace award includes a $5,000 cash prize to help awardees cope with significant drops in income or medical and legal bills, which are a common plight, particularly if they have spent time in prison. In 2020, the award will, for the first time, and if current circumstances permit, include a four-week residency in Prague. The residency will afford time for writing and reflection along with opportunities to hold public lectures and seminars at the Vaclav Havel Library, Charles University, and other leading institutions.
Members of the jury for the 2020 Disturbing the Peace Award:
Asli Erdogan is a prize-winning writer and human rights advocate. She worked for Ozgur Gundem, a pro-Kurdish opposition newspaper. She was arrested following the 2016 July coup. Despite her conditional release in December 2016, Erdogan’s indictment still seeks an aggravated life sentence for her involvement with the news outlet. Erdogan was previously the Turkish representative for PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. Asli Erdogan’s second novel, The City in Crimson Cloak, received numerous accolades and has been published in English. In 2018, Erdogan was awarded the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, and in 2019, she received the Disturbing the Peace award. She currently lives in Germany.
Jolyon Naegele was an Eastern and Southeastern European correspondent for the U.S. radio station Voice of America. He worked as a staff correspondent covering Eastern and Southeastern Europe for RFE/RL (1996-2003), VOA (1984-1994), and Business International (1980-1984). In 1985, the New York-born journalist received permission to report from inside Czechoslovakia, where, despite the close attention of the secret police, he managed to interview Vaclav Havel and other significant figures. He began reporting regularly from Yugoslavia, including Kosovo, from the mid-1980s and covered Yugoslavia’s break-up . He was head of the Political Affairs Office at the United Nations Mission Office in Kosovo.
Jim Ottaway, Jr. is a journalist, publisher, and philanthropist. He is a member of the board of directors of Words Without Borders, retired senior vice president of Dow Jones & Co., and retired chairman of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. Mr. Ottaway has served on the Associated Press board of directors and the advisory board of United Press International. He has also been a Pulitzer Prize juror. For many years, he was chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee, a member of Human Rights Watch, and a member of the board of Doctors Without Borders. He has funded long-term fellowships for Czech and Slovak students at Bard College, New York, as well as the Czechoslovak Documentation Center.
Dr. Sevinç Türkkan is a scholar of literary and cultural studies and expert of modern Turkish literature. Her work has appeared in Reading in Translation, Public Seminar, Türkisch-deutsche Studien Jahrbuch, Translation and Literature, Teaching Translation, Critical Essays on Orhan Pamuk, Global Perspectives on Orhan Pamuk, Post-1960 Novelists in Turkey, International Journal of the Humanities, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of Approaches to Teaching the Works of Orhan Pamuk (MLA 2018). Her translation of The Stone Building and Other Places (City Lights 2018) by Aslı Erdoğan (winner of 2019 Vaclav Havel Disturbing the Peace Prize Award) was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Translation Prize.
About the nominees for the 2020 Disturbing the Peace Award:
Ahmet Altan (Turkey) is one of Turkey’s best-known novelists and political columnists. It is a role into which he was born. His father Çetin Altan was an important literary figure as well as a popular journalist and politician. Altan graduated from the economics department of Istanbul University and in the decades that followed worked his way up at various newspapers from the night shift to the head of the foreign desk to managing editor to chief columnist. It is as an op-ed writer that he commanded national attention. No taboo has proved too sacred to withstand his direct style and crystal-clear prose. In 2007, Altan became founding editor-in-chief and lead columnist of the daily Taraf newspaper and remained in that position until resigning in December 2012.
Altan is currently serving a ten-and-a-half year prison sentence on trumped-up charges of “knowingly and willingly assisting a terrorist organization.” First arrested in September 2016, he spent more than three years in pre-trial detention in what amounted to judicial harassment. Sentenced on November 4, 2019, following proceedings marred by violations of his right to a fair trial, he was released pending appeal, only to be sent back to jail eight days later. He is held in Silivri prison, outside Istanbul. A date for his appeal hearing has yet to be set.
Bùi Chát (Vietnam) is a poet and founder of Giay Vun (“Scrap Paper”) Publishing House, which publishes poetry by banned authors. He graduated in 2001 from the Faculty of Literature, Linguistics, and Journalism at the Ho Chi Minh University. Ten years later he returned to the university for his law degree, graduating in 2013. Since 2001, he has worked at multiple jobs, ranging from deliveryman and ceramics trader to independent publisher and active advocate for the freedom to publish. In 2010, his collection of poems, One Rhyme Poems, was published in both English and Vietnamese by the Eva Tas Foundation in Amsterdam in collaboration with the Dutch PEN Center.
In 2000, Bùi Chát and fellow poet Ly Doi founded the Mở Miệng (“Open Mouth”) underground poetry group, which described its members as “cast-aside poets on the pavement.” Bùi Chát named the group Open Mouth to signal that its members were young and radical poets who did not agree with the “guiding principles” of the state-controlled Association of Writers and the communist government’s Ministry of Culture. Bùi Chát and Ly Doi were jailed for two days for passing out flyers at a poetry reading cancelled by the police. Bùi Chát also invented the concept of “garbage poetry,” which is known for its sarcastic ridiculing of the version of Vietnamese cultural history promoted by the Communist Party. For his advocacy, Bùi Chát was awarded the 2010 Freedom to Publish Prize by the International Publishers’ Association.
Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu (Eritrea, living in Germany) is one of Eritrea’s most prominent poets, journalists, and writers. Since 1990 she has worked with both state and private media. She was regularly publishing poems, short stories, and articles until 2001, when the Eritrean government banned all private newspapers. In 2000, Yirgalem co-founded the well-known literary club of Adi-Kei. In 2002 she attended the Asmara Teacher Training Institute and worked for five years as a producer and presenter at Radio Bana.
In 2009, Yirgalem was arrested and imprisoned for six years in a military prison without any contact with the outside world. Among other charges, she was accused of having planned to assassinate of the Eritrean president. While in prison, she was subjected to severe abuses, which led to repeated hospital stays. Yirgalem was not released from prison until 2015. Three years later she fled Eritrea for Uganda, where she continued published her poems and other works, including a description of her experiences in prison. Yirgalem now lives and works in Germany. In 2018 she was one of five writers and activists who were recognized by PEN International, and in 2019 she received the PEN Eritrea Prize for Freedom of Expression. Her latest book of poetry, I Am Alive, appeared in October 2019 in Tigrinya.
Ángel Santiesteban Prats (Cuba) is a renowned Cuban short-story writer, social commentator, and blogger. He has been published around the world and has received various literary prizes, including the 2001 Alejo Carpentier Award of the Cuban Book Institute for his collection of short stories, The Children Nobody Wanted, and the Casa de las Américas Award in 2006 for his short-story collection, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn. In March 2009, he started a blog entitled The Children Nobody Wanted.
For his open opposition to the regime, Santiesteban has been subjected to continuous harassment and accusations. On December 8, 2012, he was condemned to five years in prison for his criticism of the Castro dictatorship. The regime tried to hide him in a military hospital for dermatological treatment, but his family and lawyer said this was a ploy to remove him from access by the Commission of National and International Journalists, which had permission to visit him in the prison in which he was previously held. Santiesteban was later refused treatment by authorities as a proper hospital and instead was moved to several other detention facilities. He has since been released from prison. The script and screenplay for the upcoming film Plantados, a multi-million dollars production, was co-written by Ángel Santiesteban.
Anand Teltumbde (India, in prison) is an Indian scholar, writer, civil rights activist, and public intellectual. He has written extensively on Dalit rights and the anti-caste movement in India. He is currently senior professor at the Goa Institute of Management and a columnist for the Economic and Political Weekly. He is actively involved in several organizations, including the Committee for Protection of Democratic Rights and the All India Forum for Right to Education.
In February 2019, Teltumbe was arrested as part of a government crackdown on lawyers and activists who are critical of Prime Minster Modi. More than 600 scholars issued a joint statement in support of Teltumbde, condemning the government’s actions as a “witch-hunt,” and more than 150 organizations and intellectuals signed a letter calling on the United Nations to intervene. On March 16, 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed Teltumbde’s plea for anticipatory bail, and he was ordered to surrender to the National Investigation Agency, which he did. Amnesty International India expressed its disappointment in light of the guidelines of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which calls on the government to release all political prisoners because of the coronavirus pandemic in India.
Marcia Tiburi (Brazil /USA/ Europe) is a Brazilian writer and philosopher. She holds a bachelor’s degree in visual arts, advanced degrees in philosophy, and has taught at universities across Brazil. Her books include How to Talk to Fascists, Political Farce, Feminism for All, and Under My Feet, My Whole Body. Tiburi ran for governor of Rio de Janeiro in 2018, finishing seventh. She left Brazil in 2018 because of hundreds of death threats and harassment from the Free Brazil Movement, a group that opposes gender equality and women’s reproductive rights. She had a residency at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh in 2019.
In a wide-ranging oeuvre, Tiburi has moved from philosophical fiction to political tracts that have placed her squarely in the crosshairs of her country’s authoritarian leader, President Jair Bolsonaro. She articulates concern for the environment, passion for defending gender minorities, feminism, and democracy in all forms. She teaches, writes, tweets, and travels. In Paris, she found inspiration in the writings of Gertrude Stein. In her assessment of her country’s politics, she bemoans the “collective delirium” that enables Bolsonaro to mesmerize the public with dangerous antics. In her major tract, How to Talk to Fascists (due out in English translation in 2021), she describes tanatopolitics as a complex means by which the ruling elite maintains control by condemning humans who are deemed “other.”
Members of the 2020 VHLF Award Committee:
Tamar Newberger, computer scientist, activist
Pavla Niklová, VHLF executive director
Martin Palouš, former ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United Nations and the United States, and president, VHLF board of directors
Lise Stone, vice chair, VHLF board of directors
Salil Tripathi, chair, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International
Marilyn Wyatt, former diplomat and vice chair, VHLF board of directors