Toronto, Asharq Al Awsat – Where do the poems and stories that exist in the minds of imprisoned writers go when they are deprived of reading and writing tools and are delivered into the hands of the executioner and subjected to barbaric modern torture devices? Is the suffering experienced by all prisoners and the stories and poems that spring from it universally alike in the same way that the agendas and practices of dictatorship governments are similar?
Perhaps if we were to leaf through the memoirs of any prisoner, both men and women, on the occasion of the Day of the Imprisoned Writers as designated by PEN to be the 15th November, where the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN marked the 26th Writers in Prison Day with a campaign that centers around defending over 100 writers and journalists worldwide who are imprisoned or facing charges for alleged libel. The occasion was celebrated in the 144 different branches of the PEN association located in 101 different countries.
Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka was present and read excerpts from his work. He said during an interview that in 1988, years after his release from prison, that, “I was in solitary confinement for 22 months for a total period of more than two years. I understood the fact that it was an attempt to break my mind. Books and all means of writing were held from me, I persisted in trying to find human interaction.”
The Syrian poet, Faraj Bayrakdar, who is the winner of the Hellman-Hammett Award in 1998 and the American PEN Freedom-to-Write Award in 1999, said in an interview with the Oman-based ‘Nazwa’ magazine, that “it hadn’t been long since my imprisonment that I began to discover poetry as a flash of light in the darkness, and justice in the face of tyranny, and love in the face of hate. I started writing in memory, as there were no pens or paper. Years later, they moved us to Sydnaya prison where I was able to reveal the poetry in my memories and the memories of my friends to transcribe it onto paper…later, I learned from my late friend, Jameel Hatmal, that he, in collaboration with others managed to get hold of the first few and they published them.”
Other writers recognized included, Hrant Dink, the Turkish editor of an Armenian-language newspaper who is still pending trial; Wesenseged Gebrekidan, the imprisoned Ethiopian journalist; Lydia Cacho, the Mexican writer who is still on trial for defamation; Yang Xiaoqing, the internet journalist from China who is sentenced to one year in prison, and the two Egyptians, editor and journalist respectively, Ibrahim Issa and Sahar Zaki who are both sentenced to a year for ‘insulting’ the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak.
Yet despite all forms of repression, we still hear and read about how prisoners can ‘reinvent’ ink and paper and still manage to transcribe their words, set them free and release them into the world. David Cozac, the Canadian PEN representative who is also the head and coordinator of the Writers in Exile Network in Canada, gave a speech in which he highlighted the role and goals of the Canadian branch of PEN and its role in organizing continuous campaigns that can help liberate the words and opinions of imprisoned writers everywhere.
In the tradition of the PEN Association, there was a vacant seat in the hall in honor and memory of an absent imprisoned writer. This particular seat was dedicated to Chinese writer U Win Tin, from Myanmar, who is 76-years-old and has already spent one-fifth of his life in prison for his peaceful opposition to the ruling military authorities, and his contributions to the defense of human rights and freedom of expression. First arrested in July 1989, he is not granted any rights in prison and does not receive proper medical attention or visitation rights, which is why the Canadian PEN Association issued a petition demanding his immediate release.
Additionally, women writers from around the world read passages from their writings, books and autobiographies in what was a reflection of their personal experiences in Canada and in their native countries. Jacquelyn Salam read pages from her book ‘Autumn Shedding Berry Leaves’ and a text that includes a dialogue with an ex-prisoner.
The Day of the Imprisoned Writer also took the opportunity to commemorate writers and journalists who were killed in the past year, including the late Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya whose death caused PEN centers worldwide to protest, hold vigils and send appeals to the Russian authorities demanding a proper investigation, also sending condolences to her family and colleagues. In total, 37 writers had been killed since November 15 of last year, with Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Russia ranking the highest among the most dangerous countries.