Edna O’Brien is to receive France’s highest cultural distinction, and be named commander of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres this week.
The honour dates back to 1957, and is intended to reward people who have “distinguished themselves by their creations in the artistic or literary field”. From her debut, The Country Girls, that was banned when first published in 1960, to her most recent novel, Girl, which tells the story of Nigeria’s abducted Chibok schoolgirls, the French embassy in Ireland described O’Brien as “a committed feminist who offered a voice to women around the world”, and is “one of the greatest writers of the 20th century”.
France has three ranks of cultural awards, knight, officer and commander, with the latter the most prestigious. The title has previously gone to writers including TS Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Seamus Heaney and Ray Bradbury, and to other cultural figures including Sean Connery, Bono, Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep.
O’Brien, 90, “has built a special relationship with France and the French public both for the quality of her writing but also for her universal struggles, which received a particular resonance in France”, said the French embassy. O’Brien opened the Avignon theatre festival last year with a reading from Girl, that the ministry described as “a moving story about violence against women, one of her lifelong concerns”. She was also the first non-French recipient of the Prix Femina special in 2019, a unique award in honour of her entire body of work.
The ceremony, which will be held on Sunday, will see names including Irish minister of culture Catherine Martin, Irish author Colum McCann and Irish actor Gabriel Byrne pay tribute to O’Brien.