Today is a day for us to recall that there are myriad writers incarcerated in many intolerant countries. Perhaps more significantly, The Day of The Imprisoned Writer is also a commemoration of the writers killed since the previous year’s Day of The Imprisoned Writer.
Caveat emptor: my musings may not be complete let alone correct.
The Imprisoned Writers
Here’s a link to the PEN International introduction to PEN’s advocacy for defiant, persecuted writers. An annual event since 2004, the PEN link highlights the cases of the five imprisoned writers. Selected for 2020 are Sedigeh Vasmaghi (Iran), Chimengül Awut (China), Paola Ugaz (Peru), Osman Kavala (Turkey) and Kakwenza Rukirabashaija (Uganda).
Some think that dissent is risky, that committing contrarian ideas to words is dangerous, mortally so in some jurisdictions. Others are scared that uncontrolled words might find receptive readers.
Tonight I attended the web launch of the new Irish PEN / PEN na hÉireann. There was an excellent mix of readings and music and the announcement that the new Patron is the President of Ireland / Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins.
Ireland censored books for almost eighty years until repealing the last of the laws in 2010. Some unintended consequences included a conferral of notoriety if not celebrity on some of the banned writers. The banned authors often chose exile.
The Irish Censorship of Publications Board was never required to reveal the reasons for the censorship. Certain Catholic Church clerics wielded control behind the scenes. As we now know of some of those powerful scions, double standards were the rule of the day.
Fortunately, I grew up surrounded by banned books which is itself a double standard. As you can imagine, as a teenager, I took advantage of them, banned books and double standards both. Even in boarding school, where I had an entrepreneurial friend who helped me defy the rules. He lived in East Africa and often came back from school breaks with banned books he’d rent or sell. Irish missionaries had a long reach; some books were banned wherever those zealous Catholics had influence.
In Africa, local market stall hawkers often glued outlawed tomes inside the covers of global best sellers. Between these and a covert supply from other international travellers, I had read Brave New World, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Catcher in the Rye, Borstal Boy, The Lonely Girl, The Gingerman, The Dark and a lot more besides, long before I left school. I read many of them undercover so to speak, in the school library, in my capacity as a librarian assistant in a remarkably well stocked though carefully curated library, an outlet that sustained me for four years. It’s easy to forget that back then books were borrowed then recirculated whereas today, we tend to buy, read and shelve.
Censorship is a slippery slope. Banning material from circulation is one thing but banning the writers themselves from circulation is another. The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International monitors between 700-900 annual attempts to silence dissent by the imprisonments of writers and journalists. And unconscionably, there are probably 30 killings around the world annually. It’s only 18 months since Lyra McKee was murdered while observing a riot in Derry, Northern Ireland. That’s barely 250 km by road from where I’m sitting.
Amnesty International has been calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all the prisoners of conscience worldwide. These calls are more important this year because of the heightened Covid risk. Prisoners of conscience aren’t covered under The Day of The Imprisoned Writer but I mention them just in case you think writers are the only ones jailed for having ‘problematic’ opinions. Prisons across the world are convenient places of rendition and detention and torture and vile abuses you can’t imagine until someone writes about them.
Persecution and harassment of those who express ‘problematic’ opinions is most assuredly a breach of basic human rights. There are still regimes that embrace the notion that repression and suppression demonstrably serve to undermine human potential. Subverting the lives of writers and artists tends to make everyone’s lives more miserable in the process of consolidating power in the hands of morally corrupt leaders.
Sometimes I wonder if PEN is being successful given that ten millennia of ignorance, repression and persecution have been followed by a century of knowledge, repression and persecution. Not many repressive regimes have been eliminated since PEN was founded in 1921 but those who continue to be incarcerated know that they aren’t forgotten and advocacy for their plight continues.
The PEN charter emphasises communication and cooperation across frontiers. Despite being in a Turkish jail, Ahmet Altan says ‘I can pass through your walls with ease.’
We hear you Ahmet Altan, loud and clear.
And perhaps we could sing this traditional English ditty to woo our offspring to sleep:
Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye, five times sixteen writers detained in our jails. If the jails were opened, their freed words would sing. (Now wouldn’t that be a dainty dish to set before us?)
Afterword and Disclosures
- Libran Writer, Chair of Irish PEN, my spouse, reported the launch on her blog.
- I’m a member of English PEN and have just been approved to join Irish PEN.