Svetlana Alexievich & the World’s Ambassadors

Three days ago, Nobel prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich (who is also President of PEN in Belarus) issued a statement saying that unknown persons were at her door. The last member of the Coordinating Council of Belarusian opposition to be imprisoned or exiled by force (she had already faced questioning), she expected to be lifted at any time. Her statement was a love letter to the people of Belarus.  It begins:

“There is no one left of my friends and associates in the opposition’s Coordination Council. They are all in prison, or they have been thrown out of the country. The last, Maksim Znak, was taken today.

First they seized our country, and now they are seizing the best of us. But hundreds of others will come and fill the places of those who have been taken from our ranks.”

The statement goes on to describe the ongoing protests in Belarus and to express the belief that they will continue.  It finishes:

“To my own people, I want to say this: I love you and I am proud of you.  And now there is another unknown person ringing at my door.”

This is extraordinary writing. I defy anyone to remain unmoved by it, or by the raw courage of Alexievich and so many others before her. But what happened next was the most powerful of twists: In an inspired, magnificent gesture, the people who came to her door were ambassadors – diplomats from at least 16 nations – and journalists to document what happened. A group photo shows the diplomats surrounding Alexievich, there to bear witness to what happens to her. (The photo was tweeted by Ann Linde, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs)

What you can do:

  • Write to the Department of Foreign Affairs urging Minister Simon Coveney to intervene (Ireland has no Ambassador in Belarus)
  • Write to your MEP
  • Write to the Honorary Consul of Belarus in Ireland
  • Join your local PEN Centre

Here is a link to a blog describing Conor O’Cleirigh’s interview with Alexievich at ilf Dublin in 2016.

EXPLAINER: Svetlana Alexievich is a writer for our world and for our age. Author of Chernobyl Prayer, Second Hand Time Svetla The Unwomanly Face of War (among others), she documents human experience at its most raw, courageous, precious when faced with extremities of experience:- war, Chernobyl, oppression. In 2015 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”

Born in Ukraine, she grew up in Belarus where she now lives. She is a key member of the non-partisan Coordinating Council of the opposition there, formed after the recent presidential election. The incumbent Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory but a significant number of citizens believe the real winner was Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, currently in exile in Lithuania. Activists, intellectuals, artists and writers came together to form the Coordinating Council. Mass protests are ongoing, with thousands of protesters beaten, arrested, tortured. When threatened with criminal proceedings, some members of the Coordinating Council resigned. One by one, the remaining members have been arrested, charged and/or forced into exile. Svetlana Alexievich is the last remaining member at large, but several thousand volunteers have put their names forward to replace the existing council.

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Sun Flower with Spider: lessons from a Covid summer

This Covid summer we spent more time at home than usual.  The view from our windows deepened; ordinary things around us acquired detail, texture, specific gravity – even emotional meaning, now that we have the time to absorb those meanings.

Our garden gets little direct light. In winter, it has corners that the sun never touches at all and this wet summer has been a marginally brighter iteration of that.  Into this damp atmosphere we introduced a single sunflower seedling, a gift from our  daughter. While other seedlings yielded multiple flowers in other gardens, we watched ours lengthen singly and grow, up and up and further upward, hunting light.

That was a long, green growing, with little reward. Impossibly slender for all that height, surely the stem would snap before the head could grow. But eventually the flowerhead came, high up, taller than the wisteria, taller than us, up among the acacia leaves. It came slowly but one morning it was there: perfect, and perfectly upheld. We watched it day after day as it rotated the growing brightness of its face to follow the path of the distant sun. The core of the flower like nothing so much as a compound eye, all dark geometry and delicate honeycombed seed-harbouring chambers. On bright days the flowerhead blazed, its own source of light. And the sun flower thrived. The word bloom is made for beings like this. That flower glowed, its warm weight impressed on my retina, a solid yellow touch, remarkable.

When I came down early in the mornings, the flower’s bright face waited at the window, my own personal sun. It greeted me with petals spread,  strong yellow arms holding up a misty sky threaded with rain. Brave, hopeful. And still its face craved light and turned. And still it grew. And the bees came, loving it. And wasps.  Magpies watched, jealous, waiting for the fall, for seeds to plunder. And the winds came to assail it but it didn’t break. Rain drummed on it. Finally during a storm one night when we weren’t paying attention its petals fell, canary feathers, to the sodden, slippery wood of our deck – which really could have been a ship, the way the sky tumbled into our garden, rolling over itself like water. We harvested the seeds, hoping to regenerate all that magnificent staying power and courage for next year, the hidden magic we all need in the months ahead.  A solid lonely stem remained, with drooping leaves.

And little by little, two daughter flowers emerged. Or maybe a daughter flower and a son flower. They’re out there now. Not as magnificent as their parent plant as the days turn and shrink and darken, but still hopeful. Brave.  Will they have enough time to reach their full potential? We watch in trepidation as autumn closes in.


Meanwhile, a spider. One insomniac night, coming into the kitchen in grey pre-dawn light, a silvery touch like a falling hair crossed my arm.  I brushed it away but it clung and, looking down, I saw a small brown spider, legs busy on an alternative route of escape. I set her down and went about the midnight business of my desk.  In the morning, the kitchen window displayed a full-size, gloriously intricate, orb-web – the night-time work of that tiny creature, labouring alone. And she at the centre, resting, splayed, backlit by the window, revealing the tiger stripes of her clever, jointed legs.  All day we watched her, intrigued. Such effort. Such symmetry. How do they do it, making themselves fly, sailing invisible air-currents?

photo: Simon Robinson

The next morning she was bundled into herself, clinging to a single filament, the web gone and a tiny white knot of thread an inch away from her. Had she laid her eggs in that tiny cottony sac? She didn’t move all day. Exhausted, perhaps. Starving, her web gone. Where would she get the energy to spin a new one? We left her there and over the next two days we watched as she laboured  to spin her single diagonal line, then went down to a corner to try to make another one. Using so much energy and getting nowhere. As if she’d forgotten how to generate the silk or wrap its radials together. She’d lost the knack of it. Had something happened while we weren’t looking to destroy her home and stun her? Was she ill? She must be famished, we said. The egg sac vanished. Had she been driven to desperation and eaten it herself? We didn’t know how to help. Failed threads fell across the radio on the windowsill, the vegetable brush, a box of batteries waiting to be recycled.  Her legs worked and worked, god knows she was trying, but with no apparent result. But on the fourth morning, today, we found the makings of a proper web, orb-like, radial, geometric.

photo: Simon Robinson

It’s low in the corner of the windowsill, a more promising spot, with a tiny cocoon evident higher up – not the best place for spider-babies. Easy prey – for­ what, a human hand, cleaning?


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Wanting all the Words: Elif Shafak in conversation with Emma Graham-Harrison ( A Guardian Live Event)

6th August 2020

UPDATE 11/08/20:  Guardian Live have made the interview available here.

(This is a long post but I didn’t want to lose any of what Elif Shafak said.  Make yourself a cup of tea & settle in.)

EGH introduced Elif Shafak – Novelist, Essayist and Public Intellectual – saying that her writing garners much attention, not all of it positive: the authorities in her native Turkey would be happier if she stopped writing altogether. She has been tried in the past for insulting Turkishness and more recently for obscenity, because she writes about sexual violence.  EGH said that the level of official fear is testament to the power of ES’s work. They are here (online, to be exact) principally to discuss her Booker prize shortlisted novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Penguin).


EGH said that, given the themes addressed in the novel – which include the brutal murder of a sex worker, people-trafficking, the Yazidis and the Armenian genocide, she expected the novel to be bleak but despite all of that she found it moving and uplifting, a testament to a life lived honestly. She asked if ES had intended it to be like that and asked her to talk about how the novel evolved.

ES: Istanbul itself inspired her to write this way. It is a city where everything is mixed; joy, pain, sorrow… very dynamic and restless, moving all the time. ‘Humour is our oxygen.’ She is interested in how sorrow talks to humour, especially in places where freedoms have been lost. She’s also interested in death, which is not easy to talk about.


EGH: There have been warnings for a long time of the dangers of tribalism, an increase in right wing factions, the emergence of extremists – ES’s novels are prescient. Is this intentional? Did the novel come from her political writing? Or holistically, from beliefs and values?

ES: Her writing is not autobiographical, she is more interested in trying to transcend the self that was given to her at birth, trying to think herself into the shoes of another person: ‘Cognitive flexibility is important.’  If you are seen as different, she said, in the eyes of authority or of the majority for whatever reason (race, class, gender, sexuality), your life will be difficult. She wanted to give voice to people on the periphery, on the margins of society. Her perception of the world shows that many people are pushed out to those margins. Literature needs to pay more attention to silences.


EGH: How did medical research influence the novel?

ES: She was struck by medical research  which shows that after the heart stops beating, the human mind is still active and can continue for roughly ten minutes. If long-term memory is the last to shut down, what do the dead remember? This question gave her the whole structure of the novel. A second strong influence was a little-known graveyard in Istanbul, the Cemetery of the Companionless. Unlike other cemeteries in Istanbul, there are no tombstones, flowers or people to be seen there; this is where society’s undesirables and outcasts are buried. Graves are only marked by wooden posts with numbers, no names. People buried there include LGBTQ people, suicides, abandoned babies, sex workers and drowned refugees. ES’s instinct was to try to reverse that anonymity, to try to rehumanise those dead.

When ES lived in Istanbul, she lived on a cosmopolitan street (the Street of the Cauldron Makers) that had seen waves of different kinds of people move through it over time. It was populated by ethnic minorities until they left because they felt unsafe, then sexual minorities, who moved on for similar reasons, then feminists, bohemian artists and so on, each wave leaving a few people behind so that now the street has a culturally mixed population. She was there for the earthquake and describes how an ultra-conservative, habitually taciturn, grocer opened a pack of cigarettes and gave one to the transgender neighbour he never spoke to. The next day he was back to normal.  Just for that one night they were all united by their fear of death.


EGH asked about the shift from writing in Turkish to writing in English. ‘Language is part of your art; it’s not like journalism where you have to be factual. What caused the shift and do you think you’ll change back?’

ES: this is an important question, she thinks about it all the time. She quotes Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet who says that language is his homeland.  It is possible to dream in other languages, she said, calling herself an immigrant to English, a condition where the mind runs faster than the tongue. It’s frustrating but can be motivating too; it gives a kind of cognitive distance. To see a painting better, we don’t step closer but step back.

She doesn’t translate her own work from English to Turkish, but when the professional translator has finished she will change some of the vocabulary. Her readers know and expect that she will use old vocabulary, which is a mixture of other dialects. She loves the way that English absorbs and accommodates foreign words like chutzpah. In Turkey, language is being narrowed and restricted as 45% of ‘old’ (mostly Persian) words have been deleted from the modern Turkish dictionary, making it a far slimmer volume than the substantial Ottoman dictionaries of the past.  If you are seen as modern and progressive, you are not expected to engage with this rich older vocabulary but, she points out, without it, she can say ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ in Turkish, but not have a word for any of the shades and tones that lie between them. ‘I want all the words,’ she says.  We need nuance. She’d rather expand her vocabulary than limit it.


EGH spoke about the recent black and white photo campaign protesting femicide in Turkey.

ES: Authoritarianism is on the rise and it’s no coincidence that the patriarchy is being reinforced.  There is alarming discussion of a proposed change in the law that will give rapists lighter sentences if they marry their victims. This reveals that the judiciary are thinking about an abstract idea of honour rather than the experience of women and girls who have been assaulted. Violence against women is increasing. Domestic violence has increased 1400%.  One in three marriages involve underage brides. The Government is trying to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention which protects the rights of women, children and sexual minorities. This is why Turkish women are protesting on the streets.  There are similar trends in Poland and Hungary. Demagogues attack women’s rights.


Q & A:

EGH reads a question from a member of the audience about how intentional the use of the image of a hooded falcon was in the novel, was ES making a political point?

ES: ‘I like it when writers ask questions; I don’t like books that preach. I like to raise questions about difficult issues, to open spaces where we can talk democratically. I’m critical of certainty.’  She went on to say that faith without doubt is dangerous.  Although not, religious herself, she  points out that atheism can be dogmatic too. She doesn’t like the ways in which religion can divide humanity into us and them, but she’s interested in individual spiritual journeys. ‘Who am I to judge someone else’s journey?’ she asks.  In general, religion is a subject that the left have not been able to talk about.


Question: as a writer of colour, the questioner wants to know how to balance writing minorities?

ES: resists labels of any kind. She doesn’t like identity politics in literature, we shouldn’t confine writers to specific subjects.  In the 1960s and 70s African American feminists such as Audre Lord were hugely influential in the way they brought multiplicity to such questions, able to look at all the selves inside one person. Those were progressive movements working to end sexism and racism – especially those LGBTQ individuals who knew all the levels and nuances of power.

Literature is not about identity.  Not just study and research but honesty is needed. Literature is about transcending all those boundaries. It’s a work of the heart – if you feel it inside, she advised the questioner, go for it. What matters is how the story touches your heart.


Question: (really three questions) Which books inspire you? What are you reading now? What’s on your bookshelf?

ES has been judging the George Orwell prize so she’s been reading a lot of non-fiction. She’s been enjoying it but as a novelist, her primary love is fiction. When people (usually men) say they don’t read fiction, she wonders how they divide their reading. Fiction is about life. She doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t need empathy or emotional connection. We have got so many things wrong (about our world today) partly because we are all atomised, we don’t connect the dots. It’s interesting when we look beyond our own fields and interests – she enjoys reading about neuroscience, for instance; she likes to read beyond what she already knows.


Question: You are a passionate advocate for minority rights, How important is creativity in the fight for inclusion?

ES: The Nazis didn’t start with the gas chambers. Oppression starts with words. Feminism showed us that politics is personal. Wherever power is (being abused), it can be resisted through telling stories. It starts with dehumanising the Other. We must rehumanise through the transformative power of storytelling.


Question: What can Turkish women outside Turkey do to support women who are still there?

ES: It’s important to keep global sisterhood and solidarity alive. Patriarchy does not mean that women are weak. Many are raising their voices and we should support them however we can, via social media, asking questions, writing letters to governments.  The worst we can do is give in to numbness. It’s important not to be disconnected.  When you gain a step forward there is always a backlash. We must keep talking, moving forward together.


A Question about negative responses to her work.

ES: ‘I’ve learned to make a clear distinction between the elite (including the cultural elite) and the people.’  It’s the people who matter. In Turkey if a reader likes a book they share it with their sisters, mothers, friends … she sees it at signings, where passages of her books have been underlined in different colour pens, by different hands. Word of mouth is important. From the elite you get a lot of nastiness nut she has heartwarming conversations with readers.


EGH: In authoritarian circumstances literature becomes more important.

ES: It is one of our last democratic spaces. Where people are divided maybe storytelling is one of the last places where we come together. In Turkey many people are xenophobic – they are taught to be this way in schools … but at readings, someone xenophobic might say they loved x – who may be Armenian or Greek – or someone who is homophobic will say, I cried when y was hurt. People are less judgemental when they are reading. We go inside, away from the energies of populism, fascism, synchronised chanting etc.


EGH: Are you hopeful?

ES: I can’t be optimistic, it’s not in my DNA.  There is a joke that goes: if you look at a map and trace the Danube from Germany to the Black Sea, you can see the level of optimism drop along the way.

Gramsci talks about a pessimism of the intellect which keeps us alert – BUT: we also need optimism of the will and mind.  Look at Beirut, you can see the resilience of people there. Their courage can teach us. We need connections that go beyond borders.


EGH: You have a book coming out soon …

ES: A booklet: How to Stay Sane in a World of Division. It’s a manifesto, a rallying cry for hopefulness. It looks at all the questions and emotions we deal with now.

She’s also working on a novel.


UPDATE 11/08/20:  Guardian Live have made the interview available here.

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COVID-19 as Weapon

It has not taken long for authoritarian regimes to turn Covid 19 into a weapon.

In Turkey, for example, thousands of people who were imprisoned for criminal offences including rape and murder have been released because of the risk of infection during the pandemic. Meanwhile, writers, journalists and political activists remain in detention and, obviously, at risk, as though their lives and health have less value.

This week, we hear of the cruel, inhumane treatment of 81 year old poet and activist Varavara Rao in Mumbai.  Rao’s health has been of concern since June. At first denied medical treatment, he was finally admitted to hospital. Relatives say that when they visited him there they found him in an appalling condition, lying in a pool of his own urine on unchanged sheets.

English PEN reports that ‘Mohamed Monir has died after reportedly contracting the (Coronavirus) in pre-trial detention.’ The Middle East Monitor is calling Monir’s death ‘murder by Coronavirus’, comparing it to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Finally, I read with great sadness that Narges Mohammadi not only remains in detention, but has contracted the virus (Source: English PEN). In 2016 Mohammadi was the featured writer at Frontline Defenders’ reading to honour the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. I read for her that day.  Here is some of what I learned about her when preparing for the reading:

Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to 22 years in prison in Iran:  10 years for membership of a human rights organisation; 5 years for “assembly and collusion against national security,” and one year for “propaganda against the state.” She was also to serve six years of an 11-year prison sentence issued in 2011 for the same reasons. It was not  clear whether or not she would serve the 2 sentences concurrently.

In a statement in October 2016, Mohammadi said that she had no doubt that the people who sentenced her, as well as the people of Iran, know that she has committed ‘no crime or sin to deserve such a harsh punishment.  I have faith in the path I have chosen (&) the actions I have taken, as well as my beliefs. I am determined to make human rights a reality [in Iran] and have no regrets. … I will endure this incarceration, but I will never accept it as lawful, human or moral, and I will always speak out against this injustice.”

Narges Mohammadi has two children, twins, who have left Iran since her imprisonment. Much of her writing from prison expresses her devastation on being separated from her children, and their grief for her. They are currently pleading for her release. (Link via English PEN)

Their plea is a reminder of the extreme disruption that families experience when an activist is imprisoned.  The effects and the trauma are not just experienced by the prisoner but by their families also. It seems to me that this extended punishment is yet another weapon that repressive regimes use to silence people.  It makes Narges Mohammaddi’s courage all the more admirable, her commitment to human rights more extraordinary.  The price she and her family have to pay was already higher than most of us would be willing to pay. Now Covid-19 has been added to her punishment.



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Truth in the Dark (Nurcan Baysal)

Picture Jason Clarke.

Nurcan Baysal is a journalist and an award-winning human rights activist based in Diyarbakir, Turkey. She has been arrested and detained repeatedly for her writing about Turkish Kurdistan and for tweets she has posted concerning military assaults on the Kurdish community.  Most recently she has come under scrutiny for her comments on the Turkish government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. Historical tweets have been revived for scrutiny, the effect being that she has to travel to police stations and face questioning in spite of the current global need to avoid infection. In the winter of 2019, while she was writer-in-residence with English PEN, her home in Diyarbakir was raided in a clear attempt to intimidate her by means of terrorising her children.  There is a good summary of her current situation on the English PEN website.

In a recent article published on Ahval, Nurcan writes:

“…While the threat of the coronavirus is still among us, being in public places such as a police station, hospital or courthouse carries risks. Over the past four years, I have been sentenced to 10 months in prison, detained three times, my house has been raided by police twice and authorities have launched dozens of investigations against me. Now, I have to think again and again while tweeting or writing an article. How can I continue journalism and human rights advocacy in this situation?”

Her article calls attention to the thousands of writers, journalists and human rights activists who are currently in Turkish and other prisons because of their work.  She highlights the dilemma faced by activists like her who feel a sense of responsibility towards the populations they defend together with a contradictory imperative not to put their families at risk. She acknowledges the importance of the support of international organisations such as PEN and Front Line Defenders to writers like her, believing that international attention acts as a brake on official harassment. She is free today, she writes in this article, thanks to the solidarity of international organisations. But, she asks, what about the thousands of other local journalists at risk or in prison, not only in Turkey but all over the world? If international solidarity can save them, does the support she enjoys not need to be multiplied to reach all of them? Established journalists with international reputations can write with authority about situations in areas of conflict and/or repression thanks to the work of local journalists; how can we balance that with a reciprocal level of support?

“You have to find new ways to reach us,” she writes. “We have to establish mechanisms to act fast without waiting for solidarity campaigns launched by local journalists and rights activists. Political pressures and judicial harassment have brought many local journalists to the crossroads. If we do not increase solidarity, many of us will perish. Dictators will prevail, and the truth will be left in the dark.”

Her words are a challenge to all of us who value our right to freedom of expression, to everyone who cares about real journalism. If we are lucky enough to live in an open democracy, how can we be effective in supporting those who literally risk their lives every time they post a tweet or write an article questioning government policy? Even those of us who belong to human rights support groups have to ask ourselves: how can we amplify solidarity? How can we translate our concern into effective action?

There are no easy answers, but that’s not a reason to avoid the question.


Nurcan will take part in an online conversation with Maureen Freely, chair of English PEN at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday 10th June. This event is only open to members of English PEN.

Nurcan’s own website is here

She is currently a columnist for Ahval

You can also read about her in Yes, We Still Drink Coffee! Published by Fighting Words and Front Line Defenders in 2019, this book features both an essay written by Nurcan and an essay about her work.



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On 6th May, a Zoom meeting for members of English PEN heard Daniel Gorman (Director) and Philippe Sands (President) in conversation. The primary focus of the discussion was on Human Rights in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they also referred to Philippe Sands’ new book, The Ratline. This is a summary of their discussion. It was followed by Q & A with members, not included here.


Daniel Gorman:

We’ve all heard NHS workers’ accounts of the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment for frontline and support workers during this pandemic. Those same news bulletins have told us that NHS workers, including doctors, have been asked to keep quiet about the conditions of their working lives. The NHS controls communication channels. In addition, there has been fierce government rebuttal of critical accounts of the UK’s response to the pandemic by e.g. The Times and The Independent. Meanwhile, the UK has slipped down the World Press Freedom Index.

Philippe Sands:

  • Even during a pandemic, we need to protect the ability of individuals to express themselves freely. However, there is a difficult balance to maintain. For example, Facebook’s recent decision to remove conspiracy theorist David Icke’s account raises questions: how do we balance the right to freedom of expression with the risks of spreading dangerous misinformation? If that free expression is causing harm, what then? These are urgent questions and need to be addressed.
  • Testing and tracing are very important but Apps currently in development raise questions about privacy and surveillance. Tracing Apps will store data about contacts and movement: where and by whom will this data be stored? Who will be able to use it?
  • There are very big questions about how and where this pandemic started. This is an absolute indicator that the absence of robust journalism is catastrophic; if word had come out earlier a lot of misery could have been avoided.
  • Many issues that we haven’t even thought of yet are likely to arise.

The government is quick to take to the airwaves to stifle criticism but we need discussion; we need writers, journalists and thinkers to express their views so that we can evaluate available information and form our own ideas.

Daniel Gorman held up a copy of the PEN charter and said that he always goes back to it for guidance. It includes commitments that PEN members sign up to, such as dispelling hatred and a reminder that freedom entails exercising voluntary restraint.



Philippe Sands: Reasonable people can hold different views. An organisation like English PEN allows discussion – it’s not easy but … there are no black and white answers.

The arrival of the internet has been transformative, giving much access to information from many sources. There are downsides to it but upsides too: it opens new vistas, makes it easy to participate in online discussions like this one; it challenges us to expand and develop our frames of reference and our thinking.

One thing we’ve learned from this crisis is that government really matters; there are areas the markets cannot reach or deliver on.  We need information, we need resources,  we need organisation. We’ve seen underpaid and undervalued workers keeping everything going. We all hope that there will be consequent transformations in life and government as a result, when the crisis is over. Those discussions should start now. Clapping for three and a half minutes once a week to show appreciation is not enough.

We’ve also seen that people are willing to place their trust in government. The downside of that is that we may be inclined to turn a blind eye to government failings … this tendency can be exploited for less than positive reasons – hence the need for responsible independent journalism.

This is a difficult moment but also an opportunity. We need to reach across the spectrum, across boundaries of difference. PEN is not party political, we need to knock down barriers and work together, open up a space for intelligent, respectful discussions among members, who come from a range of backgrounds and perspectives. Coming up to the centenary (2021) this is a real opportunity to re-engage with members.


They talked about the origins and development of Philippe Sands’s most recent book The Ratline, which Daniel Gorman described as ‘a fitting follow-up to East West Street’. He asked if there had been any push-back to the book’s effect of humanising Nazi characters – Otto Von Wächter and his wife, Charlotte. Von Wächter was a committed Nazi, Governor of Kraców when the ghetto wall was built and later of Galicia. He was wanted by the Allies but survived in hiding for years before his sudden death in 1949. His family believe he was murdered.

The Ratline grew from a lecture Sands gave where he was introduced to Von Wächter’s son, Horst.  Horst is not an apologist for Nazism. He was never a Nazi, but he wants to defend his father from the labels of ‘monster’ and war-criminal. He gave Sands access to his extensive archive of material, arguing that his father was also a good father and devoted husband. He wanted Sands to find out if his father was, in fact, murdered and by whom.

This, too, is dangerous territory but Sands doesn’t flinch. He tells us that it’s not right, or even useful, to dismiss people as monsters; Otto Von Wächter did monstrous things but he was also a husband, father, lover and writer. Charlotte is unique and passionate: an enabler, facilitator, anti-Semite but also a fantastic life-partner and strong mother.

We can only begin to understand how intelligent people can get involved with extreme movements and heinous acts if we try to see them in the round. We should step back and consider:  What would we do?

Sands reminds us that readers are intelligent, acute people. The writer’s task is to lay out facts and information, not to impose our views. He talked about the overlapping questions of what constitutes memory, truth, invention, fact, fiction.  He tells us that, as a lawyer, he often hears opposing counsel’s arguments and thinks: ‘good point’ or ‘fair argument’. There is no such thing as absolute truth.  He has recently watched Rashomon and Run Lola Run. All the stories in those films are true and accurate but they differ according to who is doing the telling … this is a a great space for exploration and reflection.


On the English PEN website there is a disturbing article about Nurcan Baysal, Turkish journalist, writer and activist who has featured on this blog before. Nurcan was writer-in-residence at English PEN last October. Now back in Turkey, she is suffering renewed accusations and charges.  (More information here)

There is also a request for messages of support for Ahmet Altan – author of the powerful I Will Never See the World Again – and other Turkish writers and journalists who have NOT been released from prison in response to Covid-19. If you haven’t read Altan’s book yet, do. It will give you a very different perspective on the concept of Lockdown.

English PEN, together with Reporters Without Borders and ALQST have been holding monthly vigils in solidarity with writers, journalists and activists who are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and to call for justice for Jamal Khashoggi. During the pandemic, these vigils will be held online. Check this link for the date of the next vigil: VIRTUAL VIGILS

If you would like to join future English PEN Zoom calls, join English PEN here.

(N.B. Irish PEN will be relaunched in the autumn when it amalgamates with the Freedom to Write Campaign)

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Letters With Wings project for Poetry Day Ireland  (30th April, 2020)

With people all over the world confined to home because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a cosmopolitan group of poets based in Northern Ireland have set up Letters With Wings, “to bond with artists and activists who are kept in prisons for their art or for their journalism or because they are fighting for human rights.”

The organisers are: Viviana Fiorentino (Italy), Maria McManus (Northern Ireland), Nandi Jola (South Africa), Csilla Toldy (Hungary).

If you would like to participate, go to these Facebook and Twitter links.

  1. Choose an artist/activist who is a prisoner
  2. Take a photo of your poem or poetic letter to that person
  3. Post it on the Letters With Wings pages on either Facebook or Twitter. #PoetryDayIrl #Letterswithwings


This post is for Narges Mohammadi (Iran) and also in memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia (Malta).


The peaceful night that round me flows,
Breaks through your iron prison doors,
Free through the world your spirit goes,
Forbidden hands are clasping yours.

The wind is our confederate,
The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth’s barred gate,
Where all the world’s wild Rebels are

(Eva Gore-Booth, Broken Glory, 1918)

Eva Gore-Booth, a passionate advocate of the principles of non-violence, wrote this poem for her sister, Constance Markievicz, who was in prison for her part in Ireland’s 1916 Rising. The sisters had an arrangement that they would think about each other at the same time every day, believing that they could connect in this way.

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Eavan Boland

It’s a real shock to learn that Eavan Boland has died. Hers was the kind of presence that seemed outside of time, even though definitely not Outside History. She has had a profound effect on so many of us in different ways over the years – here are some of the things that I remember most acutely, things I’m grateful for and events that I’m glad I witnessed. In roughly chronological order (as they came to me):

  • A Kind of Scar: The Woman Poet in a National Tradition is one of the seminal LIP pamphlets published by Attic press in the 1980s. In this, Boland challenges some of the sacred cows of Irish poetry using her own experience as a lens. It was a daring, radical thing to write and it predates by a long shot the explosion of fine personal essay and memoir writing that Irish literature enjoys now.
  • Many discussions (and some arguments) about her poem “The Achill Woman”.
  • Several readings and talks over the years, including a seminar at WERRC in UCD where she made a distinction between the erotic and the sexual in poetry. I had to ask her to say more about what she meant in making that distinction but I got there in the end. She had a way of drilling deeper into the core of words and shifting our angle of perception. These shifts were not always comfortable, but they were effective. She had such a strong mind.
  • When the Field Day Anthology debacle first blew up she could have sat back and savoured her own inclusion but instead she spoke up and out, publicly and bravely, against the exclusion of other women writers.
  • I’d love to say all of her work but I haven’t read everything. These, though:
  • Night Feed, the poems
  • “Anorexic”, the poem (‘Flesh is heretic…’)
  • The Journey, the poems & the poem
  • Outside History, the poems & the poem (‘There are outsiders, always ….’)
  • In a Time of Violence, the poems. Especially: “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”; “Love”; “The Pomegranate”
  • Object Lessons  I’m not even sure how to categorise this: Memoir? Challenge? Argument?
  • The Making of a Poem (with Mark Strand)

Once, when the Eastern Washington University was in town running a summer school for writers, I audited a poetry workshop given by Eavan. It was, bar none, the most terrifying workshop I ever attended. Terrifying because, at a time when people were always prone to say pleasant, absolutely unhelpful things about other people’s work (‘that’s lovely’ or, ‘Something just like that happened to me …’), Eavan’s commitment was to poetry itself and she cut right through to any weakness she perceived in the work in front of her. As often happened in her presence, I found myself challenged to consider what really matters in a given situation: protecting people’s feelings or defending the value of the art. There was no doubt which side Eavan was on. And at the same time, it would have been an enormous compliment to know that she valued your work enough to deal with it in that way. It was a kind of recognition.

Having said that, it was the Arlen House workshops facilitated by Eavan in the 1980s that kick-started the careers of many Irish women writers. It also led to the establishment of what is possibly the longest-running writers’ group in the country, WEB. This group still meets, some of the original members are still at its core.

I was lucky enough to be in the audience when, to celebrate Eavan’s 70th birthday, she and Paula Meehan had a public conversation, moderated by Jody Allen Randolph in the Peacock Theatre. The occasion was a launch of Eavan Boland – a Poet’s Dublin. It was an extraordinarily warm, personal occasion, a real privilege to witness. I posted a blog about it at the time here.

A website that complements and extends the territory of the book, curated by Jody Allen Randolph and Moynagh Sullivan is here


The last time I saw Eavan was at the launch of a collection of essays about her work, Eavan Boland: Inside History, edited by Nessa O’Mahony & Siobhan Campbell. Mary Robinson launched the book in the (then new) premises of Poetry Ireland. Both rooms were packed to the rafters with well-wishers. Proper order. She is an enormous loss, to all of us.

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Life in Direct Provision Centres

Ireland’s system of Direct Provision for asylum seekers was only ever meant to be temporary in the lives of the people who are housed within it but many people find themselves trapped there for years. Twenty years after its inception, the Irish Times is running an informative series of articles about Direct Provision. The series comes against a backdrop of recent arson attacks on hotels that were scheduled to house asylum seekers in Donegal and Roscommon and protests against DP centres being set up in Oughterard and on Achill Island.  Some of those protests are against the system itself, which is seen as inhumane, damaging and counterproductive but some are simply against asylum seekers moving into new areas.  Meanwhile, other parts of the country have welcomed the new arrivals. While the debates rage on, I interviewed Donnah Vuma, who is originally from Zimbabwe.  Donnah won the Clare Woman of the Year award in 2017 for her work in raising awareness of the effects of living in DP for extended periods of time and reaching out to local groups for friendship.  A member of MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, she has been involved with Now We’re Cooking (with Rev. Vicki Lynch) and set up the Every Child is Your Child community group in Limerick.

Donnah is currently studying for a joint honours degree in Politics and International Relations with Sociology, having won a scholarship on the University of Limerick Place of Sanctuary programme (UL is a University of Sanctuary).  She took part in a recent “Writing Human Rights” panel at the Red Line Book Festival run by South Dublin County Council in October,  which also featured contributors to the Front Line Defenders and Fighting Words’ book Yes, We Still Drink Coffee! available from Fighting Words.

How does living in DP affect family life?

 Living in direct provision has a huge impact on family life. Families are often forced to share a single room meaning that there is no privacy between children and parents, this can easily affect the mental health of all individuals and causes a lot of frustration. Because most centres are not self-catering, it means that families are not able to prepare their own meals, or actually sit down and have a meal together. Families are not able to observe or practice family traditions or elements of their culture due to limitations such as space. Parents don’t have the opportunity to transfer important life skills to their children, simple tasks such as being able to clean home, cook or do laundry.

Could you talk about the reality of living on €38.80 per week?

It is an almost impossible task. Every single task, need and want has to be set out on a list in order of priority. It’s very difficult as new items are constantly popping up. You have to try and save up for emergencies that may arise from that €38.80. You can’t afford to even take the kids out to something like a movie or dinner. It’s especially difficult during the holiday seasons when there is so much going on, the children have an expectation that they will be getting the same things or similar to their peers, it’s so hard to often have to explain to them that you cannot afford it or why you cannot afford it. At times holidays just go by and you do your best to ignore them and not even expose the children to them by keeping them in the centre and not visiting town for example. Having daughters adds extra pressure, there are items you cannot compromise on, sanitary products, laundry products, toiletry items, that all has to come out of that allowance. You still have to consider getting lunch pack items for the week – if you have school going aged children (I have 3), the bills just pile up.

In September, Leo Varadkar was widely quoted as saying that Direct Provision is not compulsory. Has that been your experience?

I feel that it is very irresponsible for them to keep referring to DP as voluntary. When you arrive in Ireland seeking refugee there are certain things that happen that have to be kept in mind:

  1. You have to give up all identity documents upon entry into the country.
  2. You probably have no friends or relatives in the country
  3. You do not have the right to work
  4. You have no entitlement to any social welfare payment, Housing assistance payments, rental allowance etc, you only get the €38.80 per week allowance.

Therefore, it is actually impossible to be able to live independently. Once you get the work permit, it is only valid for 6 months at a time, renewable depending on the progress of your protection application. It would not make any sense for a person to move out of DP for the duration of employment (which is usually 6 months because of the permit) only to apply to go back into the system once employment ceases.

You have succeeded in making a life outside the Direct Provision system or maybe I should say in parallel with it – you are a student at UL, you’re an active member of MASI, you set up your own community group, Every Child is Your Child. How did you achieve so much? Was it difficult?

This hasn’t come easy at all. It has been a result of unnecessary resilience and resistance. My biggest motivation for making it to this point has been my children. I have not had the opportunity to “not do anything” because I feel like I have to be a positive role model for them. I have always engaged in voluntary work and education, through that involvement I have made many friends and connections that I have been able to call on in times of need or in search of opportunities. ECIYC was set up through experiencing financial challenges, specifically school-associated costs. I had seen other parents going through the same challenges and felt that we needed to find a way to come up with temporary solutions, hence ECIYC was born. I was one of the 1st students awarded the University of Sanctuary scholarship when it was set up in UL, really great moment in my life as I had tried to enrol into third level education before. I was expected to pay non EU fees which would have been impossible for me. I think all these achievements have been results of building good relationships within the community and proving that one can be an asset if and when given the opportunity. It was also a way to show that although most people come here seeking refuge, they don’t leave their skills, hopes and dreams and aspirations behind. We bring the expertise and knowledge with us, all we really need is the platform to be able to showcase those skills and be able to make positive contributions to the community.

If you could change only one thing about Direct Provision, what would it be?

I wouldn’t reform DP at all, I would want to see the system totally abolished. Reception centres, which are absolutely necessary, should be run on a not-for-profit basis, should respect the rights of the individual and most importantly have vulnerability assessment mechanisms in place.

Given current crisis levels of homelessness in Ireland, can you see a workable alternative to Direct Provision?

Very easy, give people a meaningful right to work with no restrictions. Once people are allowed to access the labour market fully, they will be able to provide adequately for their needs and for those of their families. No one would prefer to live in Direct Provision if they could afford to sustain themselves.

It makes better financial/economic sense to give people access to rent-allowance schemes or HAP than paying for people to live in DP, it is much cheaper. The millions being used to house people in DP can be invested in providing affordable housing in communities, it can be invested in reviving and repopulating rural towns for example.

Are there supports in place for people when they leave Direct Provision?

No, from the time you are granted your status you are on your own; it would be up to you to try and find NGO’s that could be of assistance to you and your specific needs.

If people want to help, what would you advise them to do?

I would advise people to get involved in the campaigns, support grassroots organisations like MASI and ECIYC. Challenge the rise of the far right rhetoric, dispel the myths and rumours associated with refugees and asylum seekers. It Is important for people to ask their politicians what they are doing about Direct Provision, what humane solutions they are proposing etc. its is important to remember that at the end of the day, we are all human, people living in DP are just ordinary people seeking asylum, fleeing persecution from wherever they came from, this is a natural survival instinct of any human being. No one’s safety should come at the price of their freedom.

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Imprisoned Voices: A Hearing

Today is PEN International’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

Last night, the Freedom to Write Campaign held a poetry reading in the brilliant Parnell Square premises of Poetry Ireland, who were supporting the event, as was Irish PEN.

The format of the event was that a member of FTW (June Considine, Catherine Dunne, Kate Ennals, Tony Glavin, Liz McManus, Maria McManus, Lia Mills, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne) introduced a writer or writers in prison, and then a poet read work by that writer, work that relates to the theme and work of their own. The event was organised by June Considine, who had arranged photographs of the featured imprisoned writers in frames on the mantelpiece, like family photos: Nedim Turfent (Turkey), Dawit Isaac (Eritrea), Chimengul Awut (China) and Galal El-Behairy. Kate Ennals produced a pamphlet for the occasion. About 60 people gathered to listen, generating an attentive, moving atmosphere. (Kate has posted a blog about the event here)

Chris Murray read the work of poet, lyricist and activist Galal El-Behairy, who is serving a three year sentence in Egypt for ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news’; Chris also spoke movingly about the plight of Syrian schoolgirl Tal Al-Mallouhi, poet and blogger, who was arrested in 2009. Her current location in detention is unknown.  (See Chris Murray’s blog for one of Tal Al-Mallouhi’s poems.)

Colm Keegan read for Chimengul Awut, a well-known Uyghur poet and editor, who is in a re-education camp in China for her role in editing a book. As well as work of his own, Colm’s ‘theme’ poem was an inspired choice: Derek Mahon’s  “A Disused Shed in County Wexford”.

Maria McManus read for Dawit Isaac, an award winning Swedish-Eritrean journalist and poet, who has been held in prison, incommunicado, for 17 years. She read an extract from Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling before reading work of her own  and an extract from Isaac’s Hope and other Texts. She rounded off her reading with a quote from Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance speech, reminding us of Isaac’s dual nationality.

Celia de Fréine read for journalist and poet Nedim Turfent, who is in prison in Turkey for covering Turkish military operations in southeast Turkey. Celia chose extracts from Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language for her themed text and  read her translation of the poem “June” by Shi Tao which was part of the 2008 PEN International Poem Relay, following the progress of the Olympic Torch to London.


Nedim Turfent sent us a letter for the occasion, wishing us well, hoping that our future in Ireland is bright and that our ink won’t run out. This is an incredibly generous sentiment to come from a young man who is facing 105 months in prison – of which, he tells us, 1240 days have already been served. “If only the mountains could speak of what they have witnessed,” he wrote. But they can’t – which is why journalists like him and Erol Zavar risk their freedom to bear witness for them.

Like Nedim Turfent, Erol Zavar was arrested when he was 29 years old, in January 2000 – almost 20 years ago. He will pass his 49th birthday in prison. Imagine. From being aged 29 to 49. In prison. Little is known about his current whereabouts or his health, which has not been good during his imprisonment. He has written two collections of poetry but they are not, to my knowledge, available in English.

I couldn’t let the occasion pass without mentioning Ahmet Altan, Turkish journalist and novelist, author of I Will Never See the World Again.  Ahmet Altan was sentenced to life imprisonment for alleged links to the failed coup of 2016, charges which he denies. He was released on 4th November and wrote a powerful, moving article in the Guardian about the courageous spirit of his fellow-prisoners, and his sense of having become somehow an accomplice to their continued detention, through his release. Two days ago, in a cynical, cruel move, he was re-arrested, after 8 days of freedom.

The final section of the evening was introduced by Catherine Dunne, who spoke about Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maltese anti-corruption campaigner and journalist, who was assassinated by a car bomb two years ago.  PEN International have set up a Poetry Memorial for Daphne, whose actual memorial is repeatedly destroyed by Maltese officials. Two of the Memorial’s poems were the final readings of the night, read by their authors Chris Murray and Celia de Fréine.


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