Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe delivered a speech at a ceremony for the 2023 Booker Prize in which she said that she put a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale in a “secret library” of her former prison ward.
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, which has been adapted for TV, film and opera, is about the oppression of women by an authoritarian government.
There have been protests in Iran over laws about what women can wear in public.
On the night of the Booker Prize event at Old Billingsgate, London, Dublin author Paul Lynch took home the award for Prophet Song, which deals with what happens when a new secret police is established in Ireland.
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was imprisoned in Iran for six years, said during her speech: “I spent nine months in solitary confinement with very little access to anything. Being claustrophobic, solitary was a horrific experience.
“After five months my family could bring me books. When the guard opened the door and handed over the books to me, I felt liberated, I could read books, they could could transform my life and take me to another world.”
She also said: “One day a cellmate received a book through the post; it was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, translated into Farsi.
“Who thought a book banned in Iran could find its way to prison through the post? We hid the cover in newspapers to hide it from the camera.”
She added that inmates wanted to read the book, and also a guard.
“When we left, we all bequeathed books to the secret library in the ward to keep our stories alive for others to come, just like those who left their books for us to survive,” she said.
Another book she read was War And Peace by Russian author Leo Tolstoy, which took her back to London when she was “free”.
Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe also said: “Books helped me to take refuge into the world of others when I was incapable of making one of my own.
“They salvaged me by being one of the very few tools I had, together with imagination, to escape the Evin walls without physically moving.”
She was detained in 2016 and returned to the UK in March 2022.
Atwood’s second instalment of The Handmaid’s Tale, 2019’s The Testaments, won her the Booker Prize.
Tribute was also paid to Dame Antonia Byatt, known as AS Byatt, who died at the age of 87 in November.
An extract from her 1990 Booker Prize novel Possession was read out by Bridgerton actress Adjoa Andoh, who was one of the judges for this year’s award.
Guests were also shown a video from the Booker Prize Foundation which highlighted its prison work. London-born singer Dua Lipa visited HMP Downview to see the Books Unlocked project, in association with the National Literacy Trust, in action.
Lipa spoke at last year’s Booker Prize, when Shehan Karunatilaka took home the award for The Seven Moons Of Maali Almeida.
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