PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: James Miller for Nedim Türfent

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the past few weeks we have been handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they were added, all the tributes were collected together here. Today, for the final tribute, it is the turn of James Miller for Nedim Türfent:

Journalist Nedim Türfent published a video in which a Special Operations officer in Yüksekova, a province on the southeastern Turkish border with Syria, can be seen abusing Kurdish civilians lying on the floor, yelling racist remarks at them. He was detained on May 12, 2016 and sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on Dec. 15, 2017 on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization.” The poem below incorporates some of Nedim’s final tweets (translated from Kurdish) before he was detained. 

985 Days

January 24th, 2019
Nedim Türfent has now been in prison 985 days.

985 days is 140 weeks is 23640 hours.
985 days for opening a window to the truth,
For showing the reality of a situation,
For showing what is.

A ‘curfew’ was declared in the villages of Mezra, Geman and Mergan, in Zawite, Koprulu and Minyanis.

985 days 

985 days ago, my daughter was not even a heartbeat on a scan, 
Not even a blurred shape in the womb.
A life waiting to be conceived, waiting to be brought into the world.

985 days. 

In the last 2 days: 24 Kurds, including journalists and politicians, were arrested in Van, Antep, Isparta, Silopi, Khorasan, Amed and Idil. The last 1 month, how many?

Now, my daughter is eighteen months is 547 days old.
Eighteen months abundant with life, eyes open, smiling, inhabiting the world.
Eighteen months is 547 days of sleeping and not sleeping.

In Gever a "security" outpost under construction today. Concrete blocks brought in by trucks all day long.

Eighteen months. Time to go from milk to food,
New teeth happily munching muffins, sausages, pasta, cheese
A face smeared with yogurt and berries.
Eighteen months enough time to learn to say “more” and “no” and jiggle in her high chair.
And then throw the food on the floor.

The attack on the police station in Giresun killed police officer, Senior Sergeant Zafer Caliskan.

Eighteen months is 547 days.
Enough time for a wriggle to grow into a sit up and a turn over.
547 days is 13,128 hours.
Enough time for a turn over to become a crawl, head forward, bottom up, hands down moving with curious determined purpose.
Enough time for a crawl to become a stand, on wobbling, chubby little legs.
Arms outstretched, a giddy smile.
Amazed at herself.
13,128 hours is enough time for a stand to become a totter, a precarious forward wobble.
Enough time for a totter to become a walk.
Almost enough time for a run.
More than enough time for a climb, a scramble and a slide.

Air-assisted military operation continues in Mount Goman. Heavy bombing from artillery and howitzer.

Eighteen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours enough time to learn to say
Hello, goodbye, Moma, Dadda, moon, star, car and nose.
Enough time to turn the pages of a book, to point and say
“Roar” at the lion, “Tiger” at the tiger.
Enough time for a little finger to point at the duck and say
“Quack quack.”

5th Day of Operation: Special troops and ammunition were downloaded to the areas of Mêrgesaw, Gorbadina and Çiyayê pane.

Eighteen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours is enough time to see autumn, winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter again.

Spring has come to my mountains, colourful flowers opened. The Frontier Battalion is a dagger in the heart of nature!

Seventeen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours is a very long time to see nothing, 
Shut from the light, cut from your freedom
Separated from your family, deprived of your children
Simply for seeing the truth, for showing others the truth.

So far Nedim Türfent has been in prison 985 days, which is 140 weeks which is 23,640 hours.

***

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About Nedim Türfent: Nedim is a Turkish news editor, reporter and poet who, after covering Turkish military operations in the southeast of the country, faced trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him, and is now serving an eight-year-and-nine-months prison sentence in harrowing conditions. He started composing poetry while detained.

About James Miller: James is the author of the novels Lost Boys (Little, Brown 2008), Sunshine State (Little, Brown 2010) and UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink 2017) as well as numerous short stories. He is senior lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University. 

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Ellen Wiles for Dina Meza

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Ellen Wiles for Dina Meza:

I was first invited to pay tribute to Meza as part of the English PEN Modern Literature Festival in January 2019. I took inspiration from a speech she gave on International Women's Day, in which she tells the story of a colleague of hers, Dunia Montoya: another Honduran woman journalist who was brutally beaten by police when she covered a protest against state corruption. Meza quotes Montoya as describing justice in the country as being as distant as ‘the stars in the sky’. Before performing my poem, I began by sounding three notes from a pair of treasured, hand-made bronze chimes were given to me by an experimental visual and performance artist in Myanmar, Aung Myint, who also bravely protested against a repressive military regime for many years, in different ways, and was also both censored and threatened. You can watch my performance of the poem here.

Starlight on Honduras

When justice is as distant as the stars in the sky
when fake-fake news fawns over military men
spinning truths as tasteless as cardboard tamales
when free speech and other rights are rendered illusory
when national security means violence with impunity 
and power is swiftly won with the help of a gun

people who speak up are warned to know their place.
and if a woman won’t listen, a rape threat might make her
or targeting another useful weak spot: her children
miming slitting their tarnished little throats should suffice.
the few who still won’t stop must expect to be surveilled 
and learn to see fear as an indulgence to be quelled.

When the body feels as fragile as a porcelain figurine
when the spirit is a petal floating slowly to the earth
when it’s hard to keep a grasp on hope’s fraying rope
when, all around, hard nationalism gains global ground
when oppression starts to threaten even those lucky citizens
who’re used to living cosily in liberal democracies

voice is still the best and only weapon to resist
formations of words can still move minds and heal rifts
so courageous women journalists defiantly persist
believing in the need to keep believing in each other
speaking out against abuse despite existential risks
deserving tributes far more starry than a small poem like this
packed with bleeding liberal metaphors, liberally mixed.

...

I spent the next few months reflecting on Meza’s life, often imagining what she was doing while I was ambling on through my own juxtaposed writer-mother’s life with my two children. I dwelt increasingly on what it would feel like to be forced to put your children’s physical safety at risk every single day through your writing, and particularly to receive sexual threats directed at your daughter – but I found this almost too excruciating to contemplate. When I was invited to perform a second time in tribute to Meza, at the Greenwich Book Festival, 2019, I decided to write a new piece – a piece of prose, this time – born out of those reflections. You can watch my performance of it here.

Wolf Mother 

My daughter surprised all of us by growing a loose, golden Afro as soft as a cloud.
What with her blue eyes, it causes a lot of people to assume that she and her dad aren’t related, 
and it’s a paradise for headlice, but it’s worth all the hours of painstaking combing.
She says t instead of ch
and f instead of th.
She pecks at dry cereal flakes like a little sparrow
eats only the white of egg
licks the honey off her toast
and makes every pancake into a letescope.
She’s exceptionally tall for her age – only just three but the height of a five-year-old –
and is implausibly Bambi-legged.
She could be a supermodel, I’m often told in knowing tones
but I’ll do all I can to keep her future adolescent body safe from judging gazes.
When she doesn’t get her way she throws back her peachy cheeks
and lets her epiglottis vibrate like a fire bell, at a pitch no
human can endure for very long. 
And she knows it.
When she’s sleepy and calm she strokes my face and hair
like I’m a new kitten.
And when I lean down to kiss her goodnight she’ll 
get me in a headlock under her arm, clinging to my skull
like a rugby ball she never wants to touch down.
When she sings, her timbre is as exquisite as
a blackbird’s and she’s bang in tune. 
Her favourite toy is a scruffy and malevolent chicken, whose
gimlet eye she mimics when she wants
to bend my will.

Her older brother is the world’s most beautiful boy.
He doesn’t know it yet, but his coppery skin, sleek black curls
and rainbow smile radiate energy and light 
and promise to open doors to life’s best kept secrets.
He knows all the dwarf planets and names of distant stars, 
can list the rarest dinosaurs like they’re old friends, 
and is intimate with the inhabitants of the Mariana trench. 
Last time we played twenty questions on the way to school, 
I gave up. 
‘Shall I tell you?’, he asked. 
‘Tell me’, I conceded.
‘A benthocodon’, he said, triumphant but mildly disdainful of my ignorance. 
(That’s a deep water jellyfish shaped like a bell, in case you, too, didn’t know).
He can leap like a gazelle, swing easily from monkey bars
and devour stories like Augustus Gloop did chocolate cake – 
he can listen enraptured for hours, snuggling up against me, until 
my voice is hoarse, and he believes that he, like Matilda, 
will one day learn to move objects with his eyes. 
When he doesn’t meet his own expectations of himself, 
he can descend into a furious grump, 
but within five minutes he’ll be sparkling as if nothing had happened.
He’s translated the bleep language spoken by his toy robot,
his alter ego is a peregrine falcon that can dive at 60 miles per hour,
and at five years old he’s so worried about climate change and its effects on animal life
he’s decided to become a vegetarian, which both pleases me and breaks my heart.
He’s engaged to a girl in his class, and saves her grapes at lunchtime,
he can scrape out Rigadoon on his cello, and dances the coconut calypso 
like his limbs are made of slinkies instead of bones. I can 
just about still pick him up and throw him onto our bed to tickle him, 
but it takes all my strength.

I lost him once. 
He was two, and his sister was a baby. 
We were out in the park, on a balmy summer day, and I was changing her nappy – 
and when I looked up he’d gone. 
I scooped up the baby and circled the fenced-off toddler area, 
once, then twice, keeping studiously calm. 
But he was nowhere. 
The panic churned; my feet picked up speed.
I told every adult I passed, speaking too fast, but they understood 
from my face alone, and we all fanned out 
like a newly-oiled machine
searching, calling. 
I headed half-blind towards the road – 
he’d always been good about roads before, but what if… 
The baby, who was being jiggled and grasped too tight, 
started to cry, as time slowed and fractured around me. 
How could I continue living if…?

And then he emerged, from a bush that he’d been imagining as his 
den in the Jungle Book, where he lived with Mother Wolf. 
And right at that moment, 
I was Mother Wolf, 
from heckled neck to claw. 
I was pure animal.

When I became pregnant for the second time
I was happy – but all the same I couldn’t imagine having 
an inch more space in my heart to love a second small person 
with the newfound fierceness I felt for my son. 
But then, when she arrived, new caverns opened up within me, 
at least as big again, yet without diminishing the size of the caverns 
that had opened up for him. 
It’s like one of those impossible pictures of houses 
with infinitely intertwining stairs. 
It makes no rational sense.
It’s just one of the illogical miracles of motherhood.

The writer Dina Meza has three children, 
and I’m sure she loves the third one 
as voraciously as the first two. Since learning about her work, 
while I do the school and nursery drop-offs, 
reliant on the knowledge that my children will be safe and nurtured, 
and that, if they need me for anything, I can drop the writing I’m doing freely
and come running – I often think of her
waving her three children off to school, 
while being watched over by bodyguards, 
heading off to report unofficially on a disappearance
that echoes her own brother’s tragedy,
being followed by a car crawling along with no 
number plate, that she pretends not to notice,
wondering whether to answer a call on her tapped phone, 
hoping that, if the voice on the other end issues a threat
the threat will be to her, and not to her children.

As I collapse onto the sofa with a cup of tea 
after putting my children to bed, I think of her doing the same
after returning home – to a new home where armed men have not 
yet broken in – before summoning the energy to return to her
desk and write the words that will rile still further with their truth, 
that will ratchet up the risk to her children once again
for the longer-term benefit of all our children. 
As I open up a school newsletter asking parents to 
support a project to plant a set of trees in the playground 
she, I think, might, this moment, be opening a letter saying: 
Don’t think you can carry on treacherously 
undermining our national unity and security.
We know where your children go to school now
all three of them, and their routes back
to your new home that you told them were the safest ones. 

I put the newsletter aside and creep back into my children’s bedroom. ‘
My daughter has shifted herself around on the lower bunk 
so that she is lying horizontally, with one arm dangling 
off the edge, overseen by the malevolent chicken
whose eyes gleam at me as if in a proprietorial challenge.
I bare my fangs at it and growl.
As I turn her around gently, she sighs and resettles, and I 
stroke the soft billow of her hair and 
pull the duvet over her skinny arms. 
Up on the top bunk, my son has one arm flung around 
his furry wombat, a present when he was born from a 
friend down under, and his head is tilted towards the creature’s 
whiskers, his lips slightly parted as if he’d 
fallen asleep while telling it an anecdote. 
The smooth line of his forehead 
glows in the marmalade light of the city 
and the moon that seeps through the blinds. 

***

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About Dina Meza: Dina Meza is an astoundingly courageous Honduran journalist and human rights defender. Her work was initially motivated by her brother’s disappearance and torture by the state nearly thirty years ago. She is the founder and President of PEN Honduras, and founding editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’ where she publishes information on human rights violations and corruption in Honduras – despite receiving constant death threats to herself and her three children, including sexual threats to her daughter. She needs protection around the clock. Nevertheless, she persists. She is the recipient of both the special Amnesty International UK prize for journalists at risk and the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression prize. You can read a piece she wrote about freedom of expression in her country here

About Ellen Wiles: Ellen is a writer, ethnographer and curator. She is the author of The Invisible Crowd (Harper Collins, 2017), a novel, and Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition (Columbia University Press, 2015). She is the founder of Ark, an experimental live literature project, and has recently completed an ethnographic PhD on live literature and cultural value. She was formerly a human rights barrister and a musician.



PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Steven J. Fowler for Oleg Sentsov

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Steven J. Fowler for Oleg Sentsov:

First performance, January 2019

My first performance was for Oleg Sentsov, the filmmaker currently imprisoned in a penal colony for 20 years on trumped up charges by Russia. What struck me about him, which I wanted to represent, was his unearthly stubbornness, and insistence, and heart, and courage, and resilience. He clearly has an iron mind and is utterly principled, beyond any possible expectation in fact. I read his letter at the end of the performance but wanted to use the somewhat pathetic metaphor of eating nailed fruit as a way to represent the intensity of his refusal, when in court in Russia, to offer any submission. 

Second performance, June 2019

For my second performance I once again nailed fruit and then ate it nailed, but this time with a black bag on my head while improvising some words about what Oleg Sentsov’s gesture of resistance, and life in general means to me, building on the six months between works I had to think about him. The principle that we might not be brave when called, and that even if, at first flush we may feel courage, it normally dissipates as reality sets in. This is an idea I have thought about my whole life. That it is easy to be what you hope to be when the weather is fair, but character is what happens when you realise days in you will be forgotten and your suffering, no matter how representative, symbolic or important, if yours alone. The man, Oleg Sentsov, is a giant. He has a giant soul. He embarrasses me into gratitude for my life, and that there seems no question on the horizon for my own principles like the one he has quite unbelievably answered.

***

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About Oleg Sentsov: Oleg is a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Siberia on trumped-up terrorism charges, after a grossly unfair trial by a Russian military court, marred by allegations of torture, and who has so far spent 145 days on hunger strike. He was awarded the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for his work.

About Steven J. Fowler: Steven is a writer and artist who works in poetry, fiction, theatre, film, photography, visual art, sound art and performance. He has published seven collections of poetry, three of artworks, four of collaborative poetry plus volumes of selected essays and selected collaborations and has been translated into 27 languages. Steven has been commissioned by Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, Whitechapel Gallery, Tate Britain, the London Sinfonietta, Wellcome Collection and Liverpool Biennial and he is the founder and curator of The Enemies Project and Poem Brut as well as editor at 3am magazine and executive editor at The Versopolis Review. He is a lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University, teaches at Tate Modern, Poetry School and Photographer's Gallery. He is the director of Writers' Centre Kingston and European Poetry Festival.

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Paul Ewen for Behrouz Boochani

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Paul Ewen for Behrouz Boochani:

Behrooz Boochani is an Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, who has been illegally detained by the Australian government in the Manus Island Detention Centre for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran. In his book, No Friend But The Mountains, Behrouz returns often to his memory of the chestnut oak tree. In his Kurdish homeland, the people found asylum within chestnut oak tree forests, while a devastating war was being waged upon them. In the searing heat on Manus Island, there aren’t any chestnut oak trees, but Behrouz does write of mango trees, which surround the detention centre. This piece, written for Behrouz, is based on the chestnut oak tree and the hope of refuge, which it carries. 

Swap

It was just after four in the morning when I broke into Kew Gardens. It was my only option. The grounds were all fenced off, with high gates and uniformed security guards. Trees, it seems, are very precious things. 

Inside, using a map of the surrounds, I cautiously crept off the lighted paths, attempting to avoid the sound of kicked leaves underfoot. Near an outbuilding, I found my first object of interest: a mango tree. With my torchlight, I revealed more leaves, mango leaves, gathered on the ground beneath it. Working quickly, I began picking these up, every last one, including the sticks and the twigs. Collecting them in a thick sturdy bag, I silently set off in search of my second location. 

The English oak, also known as the common oak, is the most common tree species in the UK. But the chestnut oak is a much rarer thing. In Kew Gardens there is a particularly fine specimen, which was first introduced to Kew in 1843. Today it stands at over 36 metres, and has been crowned the ‘National Champion Chestnut Oak of the UK’. Its green leaves, unlike the longer, rounded edges of the mango leaf, are indented, almost perforated, in appearance. My torchlight soon picked out many of these, despatched onto a wide catchment of grass, from this giant of trees. Making a careful note of their arrangement, I began gathering them into a pile, which I placed just outside of the drop zone. In their place, I began loosely dropping mango leaves from the mango tree. When the bag was empty, I refilled it with the leaves of the chestnut oak, before retracing my steps, back to the mango tree. 

Attempting to closely replicate their natural, scattered arrangement from before, I began redistributing the chestnut oak tree leaves on the grass and roots beneath the branches of the mango tree. I took particular care and attention with this task, and after a few final leaves and twigs had been painstakingly shifted, upended and turned, I sat down, leaning back on the trunk. From here, surrounded by fallen chestnut oak leaves, now lit by the first rays of escaping sun, I imagined I was not beneath a mango tree, in a fenced-off area patrolled by security guards, but in a safe, welcoming place where one could feel free. 

***

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About Behrouz Boochani: An Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, Behrouz Boochani has been illegally detained by the Australian government on Manus Island for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran and undertake a life-threatening boat journey, along with other asylum seekers. Behrouz has written: “We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge..” His book, No Friend But The Mountains, details the extreme oppression and hardships in the Manus Island Detention Centre, as a result of the Australian government’s inhumane refugee policy..

About Paul Ewen: Paul is a New Zealand writer based in London. His work has appeared in the British Council’s New Writing anthology, the Guardian, TES and Five Dials. Paul’s first novel, Francis Plug: How To Be A Public Author, was described by the New Statesman as ‘a modern comic masterpiece’. The follow-up novel, Francis Plug: Writer in Residence, was shortlisted for the 2019 Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction. British comedian Stewart Lee has called Francis Plug “the only writer that matters”.

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak:

Dawit Isaak was born in Eritrea in 1964. He was granted Swedish citizenship in 1992. In 2001, having returned to Eritrea, he was arrested and imprisoned without trial for supposed anti-government activity involving his work as a journalist for the country’s first independent newspaper, of which he was a part owner. There has been no sighting of Isaak since 2005. #FreeDawit

Empathy

From the Greek, Empátheia
From the Greek, en- páthos.
In feeling.
In.

I am trying to step in. Not much, you say. Not angry. Or representative. Not of any real use, perhaps. 

But still. 

Two years old. Wheezing sea-sick in isolation room, porthole window in antiseptic white door. Three. A stranger in my unconsoling father’s house. Eight. A bathroom door, rusted metal lazy in a lock just high enough to reach. 

Somewhere else, a twenty-three year old man has all the doors unlocked, an arrivant from a furnace to Sweden’s western coast chill. Sadness but with a heart-held, already-known, future. Marry. Raise children. Write words. Perhaps. Not here, but in that first, difficult love. 

It is a name with the poetry of a fantasy. Eritrea. 

Eighteen. The girl along the corridor is in love with university halls – they remind her, she tells me, of her boarding school. In the night, I forget where I am. Pack my belongings into the back of the car. Mollusc-spiralled on the backseat, shivering. Going home.

The young man, too, is home. In the place with the fantasy name he makes already-known futures real. Swims on the exhilaration of promises – independence, democracy, free-speech.

He is full of hope. He has called his first born daughter Betlehem. 

Twenty-two. Dissertation. Keywords: postcolonial, politics, space. Diversion in the project to Rubin Hurricane Carter, African American boxer falsely imprisoned for twenty years on charges of murder. Carter refuses to be freed from his cell; he wakes only when the other prisoners are asleep, exercises only at night. 

My style needs correction. My ideas are too political. They award me the thesis. 

The young man, too, is fulfilled. Perhaps. He has a little money. Buys pages of his own. Loves cheese. And coffee. He has a tendency to oversleep. 

They come for him on a Sunday, not in the newspaper offices but in his home.  

Twenty-six. I investigate escape ladders. Plan night-time routes along flat roofs. Debate the relative merits of ropes fashioned from sheets and mattresses thrown from windows. Decline invitations to travel by plane, decline anything where the aisle is unavailable. Accept employment where I can leave the room. Speak too fast, always, in case a door is about to close. 

In Eritrea two days pass quicker than the last 3000. The young man – he is still young –  smiles. Perhaps. He stretches and remembers how limbs move; visits the doctor and watches bruises transfigure purple to yellow. Kisses his children with plum-soft lips. Inhales just long enough for the heartbeat to return to normal before the handcuffs are re-secured. 

His wife tells the newspapers that this is a family matter. 

Thirty-two. My pregnant body is inside out; I am waiting nine months to be delivered. In the MRI scanner I forget not to open my eyes and for a second – an unalloyed heartbeat – am buried alive. 

For his fourth-seventh birthday, the man is given the gift of the rumour of his death. It is a premature arrival.

Perhaps.

Thirty-seven. My new lover sleeps like Gulliver. I crouch downstairs, in a small sliver of light, invocating camomile-conjured disappearing spells. I know the meaning of imprisonment. 

Hume broke his own rules when he said we can imagine a missing shade of blue. 

In Gothenburg, a replica cell is created. Visitors come. They sit with the absent man, respectfully. They are affected. 

With the surety of resurrection, it is impossible to experience death. 

Thirty-eight. I am with love. John gives us the house with the sheep for the music festival. We perform our separation from the world, wallow in isolation. Revel in the stripping of time. Bemoan lack of phone signal whilst surfing Facebook from the stairway. It is so good, someone declares, to get away from everything. 

The man is perhaps no longer young. He has been in his cell for more than 6000 days. 

Or, if you prefer, 518,400,000 seconds.

Or, if you prefer, the time it takes for a man’s children to reach adulthood.

What is your preference?

In the house surrounded by sheep the children bluster us to the first landing, to a small metal hook in the wooden floor. Incessant clamour demands we lift the lid – show us the priest’s hole, they squeal. We try to give them a lesson: mutter vaguely about papists, queens, and dying for one’s beliefs. They roll their eyes. Reach for the light switch. Clamber down the ladder, squeezing into the hole. My own daughter refuses, declines coaxing, peers silently over the edge. A den of detritus, midnight feasts littering the floor. The walls are covered in markings, initials carved, the audacity of marker pens. You can write here what you like. If John catches you then he will charge you more to remove the offending mark. Your parents will pay if you get caught. 

Concert day and the house is full. An old English man, white haired and pale faced, climbs the stairs. He sees the children curling into the floor, disappearing. He has never been to the house, he tells us, not before today. It is a fine building, and he wishes he had come earlier. But he has heard all about the priest’s hole, he says, and glances at my daughter. He wouldn’t go down there; you’re right, he says, to stay up here. Sometimes people do things you can’t even imagine, he says. There is a cruelty in people you don’t expect. His grandson came here once, some years past, with a group of friends. When he climbed into the hole, he tells us, the other boys shut the lid and stood on it. 

Weight on wood. 

What is the opposite of empathy? 

I try not to imagine it. I must imagine it. 

I try to imagine it.

At it is then I hear the call, quiet but clear, the door opening, the ladder climbed, the face – this face both old and young – looking outwards, emerging amidst a dancing mist of words. 

***

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About Dawit Isaak: Dawit is an Eritrean-Swedish journalist who was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, and arrested along with other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Although alleged to be ‘traitors’, not one of them has been charged or tried.

About Sara Upstone: Sara is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Head of School of Arts, Culture and Communication at Kingston University, London. She is the author of three monographs, most recently Rethinking Race and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2017), but her real pleasure is creative work that explores the intersection of literary forms and interdisciplinary practice. She is a regular contributor to the online journal Versopolis, and editor of Literary London Journal

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: An Introduction

Clockwise from top left: Oleg Sentsov, Dina Meza, Behrooz Boochani, Nedim Türfent, Narges Mohammadi and Dawit Isaak.

Clockwise from top left: Oleg Sentsov, Dina Meza, Behrooz Boochani, Nedim Türfent, Narges Mohammadi and Dawit Isaak.

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the world who are supported by English PEN. First up, an introduction to the project by Ellen Wiles: 

Elsewhere. It’s a beautiful word, to my ears – a word that alludes to daydreaming of travel to faraway climes and cultures, to the zing of immersion in a new place that transcends the mundanity of everyday surroundings, to fantasies of slipping the shackles of routine and setting out on an unfamiliar earthen path, strewn with pine needles, perhaps, leading up through a forest sputtering with strange bird calls towards the crest of a hill in anticipation of a lavender horizon patterned with unfamiliar shapes.

It is also a poignant word. It suggests a yearning, a longing, a separation from a beloved, a sense that the place being imagined is not yet accessible and may never be so – and it also suggests a sense of displacement to somewhere that feels other; or enforced confinement in a place that you still call home but that has changed almost beyond recognition, perhaps because it has become oppressive and threatening, governed by forces that would wish you elsewhere. 

These latter, darker senses of elsewhere permeate the lives and work of most of the writers supported by English PEN, and, consequently, the preoccupations of the UK-based writers who pay tribute to their incredible work and bravery in this series of new literary pieces, one of which will be published each day over the coming week.

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For any readers who are unfamiliar with the work of English PEN – or its many international sister associations – it is a vitally important charity that has two main strands. Firstly, it promotes the freedom to write and read, and campaigns for writers at risk around the world, including writers who have been disappeared, imprisoned, persecuted or exiled because of their work. Secondly, it promotes international literature, runs a unique literary translation grants programme that enables more writing to be shared around the world, publishes the international digital literary zine, Pen Transmissions, and awards prizes to outstanding writers. To further all these functions and to engage wider audiences and raise funds, the charity runs regular events, from vigils to film screenings, panel discussions and book launches. 

The literary pieces of that feature in this series were written for the 2019 English PEN Modern Literature Festival, which is co-curated by Cat Lucas, English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme Manager, and Steven J. Fowler, a poet, artist and educator, and which, this year, evolved in a spin-off event at the Greenwich Book Festival, staged by Sam Jordison. The structural concept of the series is that a group of UK-based writers are each allocated one English PEN-supported writer who is at risk elsewhere in the world, and are commissioned to write and perform a new piece of work in solidarity with them. As Fowler describes this project: it ‘asks writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists to come together to continue English PEN's relationship with innovative contemporary literature by celebrating writers at risk around the world. New pieces of poetry, text, reportage are performed to evidence the struggle of fellow writers across the globe, in solidarity. The events are intended as a call to membership.’ 

I was honoured to be invited to be one of the UK-based writers this year – an invitation that meant a lot to me, particularly since I used to work as a human rights barrister and so have a longstanding concern with the right freedom of expression. Since none of the writer pairings are able to meet in person during this process, I like to imagine each of our new pieces being folded into a literary paper aeroplane and flown from each writer in the UK to their counterpart elsewhere, floating unnoticed by the powers that be over borders and through prison walls. 

To take on writing a piece for another writer whose situation is so much harder than one’s own, and whose freedom is so much more limited, feels like a weight of responsibility as well as a privilege. Steve has described his feelings, when he co-curated the inaugural festival, on being presented with a pack of summaries of the lives of thirty English PEN-supported writers at risk: ‘When I received the files on the writers at risk… I was just about to board a long flight and so had the chance to read them in one go, over about nine hours, in the strange environs of a plane. It’s hard to describe the feeling afterwards, certainly the sense of responsibility, that I had sought out this project, enthusiastic from the off, but perhaps not truly prepared for the reality of the writers we would be writing about. It’s mawkish to speak of admiration, but coming face to face with such will, such commitment to principle… left me feeling as ashamed as I was inspired. Perhaps one can never really divorce oneself from the selfish question of whether I would continue to speak up in such circumstances, facing prison, torture, perhaps death. To risk my life and the lives of those I love.’

Each individual contributor featured in this series has experienced strong emotions in the process of stepping into the shoes of their allocated writer and attempting to craft a literary response to their situation. As Sam Jordison puts it:

‘First and foremost, there's the fury and sadness on behalf of the writers who are so unjustly imprisoned and kept from their homes, families and work. The other thing that hit me as a publisher is that when faced with similar regimes and circumstances every single writer from Galley Beggar Press [which he co-directs] would probably be in jail too. That made me feel proud of my writers - but also afraid on their behalf... And also reminded me again that the people English PEN supports are very close to us and a vital part of our world. They are like people I know and love. It is to the detriment of us all that they have been treated so badly.’

That being said, as Steve always emphasizes at the end of each festival event, the weight borne by each of the contributing writers is miniscule compared to that borne by Cat Lucas in her capacity as the Writers at Risk Programme Manager, year after year, as she works tirelessly to support these writers at risk and many more, lugging all their heartrending stories around with her in a giant backpack. 

Despite all that weightiness, what comes through from these literary tributes is neither a sense of despairing gloom, nor a flood of self-involved guilt from the UK-based writers about how easy their writing and reading lives are in comparison to their counterparts elsewhere. That would be to diminish the magnitude of those writers’ spirits, literary talents, and resilience in the face of oppression and brutality. There is powerful, thoughtful, experimental, poetic and uplifting writing on display here, in fitting testament to the writers for whom each piece was created. So I urge you to delve with us into the spirit of the festival this week, and to read each of these pieces as they are published. 

You will find out more about each writer pairing in the six pieces to come, but I’ll introduce them briefly here. 

The first featured writer at risk is Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian journalist and human rights defender, who is currently detained in prison – the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – has frequently been kept in solitary confinement, and suffers from a chronic and painful health condition that is not being properly treated. Her tribute is written by Sam Jordison, who, as I have mentioned, is a publisher, and is also the author of Crap Towns, and the co-author of Literary London, among many other titles. Drawing on Narges’s love of mountains, Sam has written an evocative piece describing a morning walk he loves to take on the mountain above his mother’s house in the Lake District, and reflecting on Narges’s plight as a fellow parent. 

The second writer at risk featured is Dawit Isaak, an Eritrean-Swedish journalist who was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, and arrested along with other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Although alleged to be ‘traitors’, not one of them has been charged or tried. Isaak’s tribute comes from Sara Upstone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Head of the Department of Humanities at Kingston University, who specialises in literatures of identity, the politics of the body and questions of the human. She has crafted a beautiful, moving and poetic piece exploring the process of empathy. 

The third second writer at risk featured is Behrooz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist, writer, human rights defender, poet and film-maker, who has been illegally detained by the Australian government in the Manus Island Detention Centre for over six years, after being forced to flee Iran. His book, No Friend But The Mountains, composed by necessity via WhatsApp, details the extreme hardship on Manus Island, and won the prestigious Victorian premier’s literary prize. His tribute comes from writer Paul Ewen, aka Francis Plug, author of How to Be a Public Author and Writer in Residence, who hails from New Zealand, and has drawn on Boochani’s recurring memory of the chestnut oak tree to write a piece based on this tree and the hope of refuge that it carries – the writing of required a nocturnal break-in.

The fourth writer at risk featured is Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Siberia on trumped-up terrorism charges, after a grossly unfair trial by a Russian military court, marred by allegations of torture, and who has so far spent 145 days on hunger strike. He was awarded the prestigious European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for his work. Steven J. Fowler pays tribute to him with two arresting and memorable performances involving the nailing and eating of pieces of fruit.  

The fifth writer at risk featured is Dina Meza, a Honduran journalist and human rights defender, founder and President of PEN Honduras, founding editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’ where she publishes information on human rights violations and corruption in Honduras, despite receiving constant death threats to herself and her children. She is the recipient of both the special Amnesty International UK prize for journalists at risk and the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression prize. I paid tribute to her in two pieces: a poem and a prose reflection on the implications of such persistent risk-taking for her experience of motherhood.

The final writer at risk featured is Nedim Türfent, a Turkish news editor, reporter and poet who, after covering Turkish military operations in the southeast of the country, faced trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him, and is now serving an eight-year-and-nine-months prison sentence in harrowing conditions. He started composing poetry while detained. His tribute comes from James Miller, author of the novels Lost Boys, Sunshine State and UnAmerican Activities, and a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Kingston University. James’s numerically poetic piece reflects on the relative experience of time both in and out of prison. 

This is of course only a little literary project – and yet the stakes underlying it are high. In this era of global political tumult and climate crisis, when authoritarian and populist governments are sweeping to power, freedom of expression is increasingly under threat, along with the whole precious notion of human rights that was forged in a rare moment of cooperative international reckoning after World War II. As someone who has worked as a lawyer in countries like Myanmar, where freedom of expression, among other human rights, was severely restricted for decades under military rule, this prospect fills me with dread. Those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries like the UK and its European counterparts (at least for now) that have long enjoyed the apparent flourishing of liberal democracy and the freedoms that come with it can no longer afford to take them for granted. The political tyranny that most of us have always thought of as existing ‘elsewhere’ could emerge ‘here’ far more easily and quickly than might be imagined. 

Literature – and the freedom to both read and create it – matters. All of us who believe in this would do well to take action to protect this freedom, to raise our voices and to deploy our pens… or, less romantically, our laptops, tablets and phones. One easy way to make a difference is to join English PEN, or one of its sister organisations. Membership makes a huge difference, and, as Steven J. Fowler has emphasized, every message of support to a writer at risk can give them heart. It is also important just to continue to make time in life to revel in reading, and to support good writing wherever possible. As Ursula K. Le Guin put it: ‘We read books to find out who we are’. We also read and write in order to allow our children to find out who they want to be, to make the world we all live in a better place – and even, melodramatic though it might sound, to save our species. Humans have always made art and told stories, and now, more than ever, our future depends on them. 

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About the author:
Ellen Wiles is a writer, ethnographer and curator. She is the author of The Invisible Crowd (Harper Collins, 2017), a novel, and Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition (Columbia University Press, 2015). She is the founder of Ark, an experimental live literature project, and has recently completed an ethnographic PhD on live literature and cultural value. She was formerly a human rights barrister and a musician.