Labour Party Irish Society Zoom (Supporting Margaret Keane’ s family campaign for an inscription in Irish on her headstone)

Last night the UK Labour Party Irish Society held a Zoom meeting concerning the case of a headstone in the graveyard of St Giles’ Church in the Diocese of Coventry. The family of Margaret Keane, who died in 2018, went through a routine application process for a gravestone for their mother and in time for their father Bernie, who is still alive. They put a lot of thought, care and love into the design and wording of this gravestone, on which they want to include the inscription in ár gcroídhe go deo … in our hearts forever. In a shock ruling with deeply worrying implications, permission was refused, specifically concerning the Irish wording. The family have appealed the decision. The Church of England and, notably, the bishop of Coventry, a city known for its global influence for reconciliation, have disowned the decision. The appeal is due to be heard on 24th Feb in the Court of Arches, Canterbury. There is a widespread campaign to support the family. Many groups, organisations and individuals are involved, including Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann, Wales PEN Cymru, Scottish PEN, English PEN, Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge, Conradh na Gaeilge, Irish in Britain and others.

(@My_Mums_Voice and #MessagetoMargaret on Twitter; Links to more info below.)

The Zoom event took place at 6:30 pm on Tuesday 16th February 2021.

Paula Kelly (Women’s Officer of LPIS)  was in the Chair.

Bez Martin, Margaret Keane’s daughter, spoke first. Speaking for her siblings as well as herself, she said they were glad their Irish parents had brought them up in England with a perfect balance of belonging and assimilation, with deep involvement in the GAA, holidays in Ballyhaunis every year and a love for the Irish language.

Bez spoke lovingly about their parents and the values and the community they grew up in. Margaret Keane died in 2018. Learning to live without her was made harder for the family by the 2019 decision to refuse permission for the inscription they had chosen with great care to reflect those values, their love for their parents and their acute sense of loss.

However this campaign is about more than their individual case. They are representing the rights of the Irish community, not just in Coventry but beyond.

They do not want to stir up animosity or conflict (although they have endured an amount of hateful commentary on social media). They have also received astonishing levels of support from many sources, including organisations and powerful people; but the big lesson for them in this experience is that it’s the ordinary person who can make a difference.

Mary Rachel McCabe QC, one of the family’s legal team, said that Bez’s speech was a powerful reminder that behind the headlines there is a bereaved family. She gave us a brief history of the case:

Background: The parish council initially ruled in favour of the family’s headstone design, with a small query about an elevated Celtic cross, no issue with the language at all. The next level of application is the Diocesan Advisory Council, who also queried the cross but not the use of Irish. They didn’t recommend approval solely because of the elevation of the cross, suggesting an embedded version instead. This query is the reason the application was sent forward to the Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry, Stephen Eyre QC. He ruled against the headstone, saying that “Given the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic there is a sad risk that the phrase would be regarded as some form of slogan or that its inclusion without translation would of itself be seen as a political statement.”

Remember, the inscription states: in ár gcroídhe go deo … in our hearts forever.

Eyre’s ruling was subsequently disowned by the Church of England and in particular by the bishop of Coventry, who noted the city of Coventry’s essential role in promoting reconciliation across the globe.  The city of Coventry has a diverse population, including many of Irish heritage, and the assumption that a person viewing the headstone would assume negative connotations to an inscription in Irish is extraordinary.

The family had no legal representation at that point, but following media attention, Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, Mary Rachel McCabe QC and Caroline Brogan (solicitor) got involved. Gallagher wrote a blog at the time which summarises the issues

In a witty but thought provoking speech, Caoilfhionn Gallagher noted that the words chosen by the family matter, as well as the language. Such words are chosen to express the personality of the deceased and the emotion the family wish to convey. She cited witty examples of other headstone inscriptions, including the Nation’s Favourite Epitaph (2012) Spike Milligans’ Dúirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite (I told you I was ill), which came ahead of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Either those curtains go or I do’. Many people will recognise Spike Milligan’s inscription, but few realise that on th eheadstone it is actually in Irish and untranslated (this was news to me).  She gave these examples to demonstrate that not all inscriptions have to be particularly worthy or religious. She reminded us that after Goldsmith’s death in 1744, Samuel Johnson wrote his epitaph in Latin because he ‘refused to disgrace the walls of Westminster Abbey with an English inscription’.[1]

The goal of the legal team, beyond securing permission for the Keane family to remember and grieve their mother as they wish, is to set guidance so that no other family has to go through this experience. (The arcane nature of the ecclesiastical courts and their sundry expenses was referred to by several people during the Q & A)

Two of the grounds for Appeal are that the decision is unreasonable and that it violates the family’s Human Rights – among them the right to freedom from discrimination.  It was noted that there are several headstones with, for example inscriptions in Welsh (untranslated) in the graveyard where Margaret Keane is buried.

Gallagher referred, too, to the Blindboy Boatclub Tweet and Podcast which point out the assumption inherent in the decision, that anyone who speaks Irish or loves the language is associated with the IRA/terrorism. This point was also taken up later by speakers from Conradh na Gaeilge and others.

Caroline Brogan (Solicitor) (also Irish) noted the larger than average Irish population in the cities of Coventry and Birmingham and said that Irish is spoken on a daily basis in both cities. Coventry is an inclusive city, known across the world as a city of reconciliation. Children there are schooled in the dangers of othering and the dark places it can take us to. Mo Mowlam grew up in Coventry.

Conor McGinn, Labour MP and Chair of the Irish in Britain, spoke about his personal connection with the family and about the unequivocal support he has received from Craig Tracey, the Conservative MP for the Keanes’ Constituency, and the broader cross-party support that exists for the family’s case. He pointed out that the travesty of this decision has shone a light on the Consistory system and suggested that it would be good to use this opportunity to reimagine the relationship between church and state law.

The ecclesiastical court allows organisations to make submissions in the public interest and Conradh na Gaeilge’s London branch have stepped forward as intervenors in the proceedings. We heard their intention to remind the Chancellor of the history of the Christian heritage of his diocese and the role of Lindisfarne in the Christianisation  of England; they also intend to express the pain experienced by lovers of the Irish language as a result of this ruling and its (discriminatory) stated basis.  We heard that since his decision the Chancellor has changed the rules, so that they now purport to apply to all languages, reserving the right to the Chancellor to decide which are acceptable.

Colum Eastwood MP, leader of the SDLP, reminded us that this case goes to the heart of a bigger issue, the right of all citizens to be treated equally. He finds the ruling deeply offensive and reminds us that there is an ongoing struggle for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. He sees hundreds of people learning Irish in East Belfast, and doesn’t understand the fear and prejudice revealed by this ruling. He emphasised the importance of recognising that all traditions need to be equally valued and protected. He believes the Good Friday Agreement will be a driving force behind that process and argued that its principles should be remembered in Britain also.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher said that if the Appeal fails, they will take the unusual route of bringing the case to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council; but they hope the Court of Arches will get it right and make the right decision.

Many speakers during the Q & A were from the Church of England and expressed incomprehension, pain and anger concerning this decision. They expressed solidarity with the family’s right to honour their parents with the wording and in the language of their choosing. Almost universally, speakers commented on the dignity and courage displayed by the Keane family throughout this ordeal. We all wish them well in the Appeal.

For more information on the case:

Fiona Audley in the Irish Post:

Martina Devlin in the Independent:

Owen Bowcott in the Guardian: :

[1] Life iii 85 cited in Samuel Johnson and the Culture of Property by Kevin Hart CUP p 11

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Message To Margaret Campaign (Margaret Keane Gravestone Case)

You may have read about a recent case in England where the Ecclesiastical Court of the Church of England in Coventry refused permission for the family of Margaret Keane to include an inscription in Irish on her gravestone without translation. The stated grounds were that such an inscription could be interpreted as a slogan or a political statement.

The inscription the family want for their mother’s gravestone is in ár gcroíthe go deo (‘in our hearts forever’). They have appealed the decision and will run a campaign from 14th – 24th February (the date of the Appeal) to gain support. Read on to see how you can help the campaign, Message to Margaret / @My_Mums_Voice.

The campaign is supported by Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann and Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge, among others.

For more information on the case:

Fiona Audley in the Irish Post:

Martina Devlin in the Independent:

Suggestions from the family on how you can support Message to Margaret

Social media (14th – 24th Feb)

  • You can post a message on social media – a message of solidarity, a song, poem, or anything you’d like!
  • We’d encourage these from the 14th February to the 24th February
  • Please use the hashtag #MessageToMargaret so people can follow and see the responses, and tag our Twitter handle @My_Mums_Voice
  • Also follow and share any of the posts from @My_Mums_Voice

Tuesday 23rd Feb at 7pm – light a candle with #MessageToMargaret

  • We’re asking as many people as possible to light a candle at 7pm on 23rd Feb, and post a photo of the candle with any message you’d like on social media using the #MessageToMargaret hashtag
  • As an example, if you search #JohnsLight on Twitter you can see similar posts for John Hume from last summer
  • It will be a way for all of us to be together, at a time when we are forced apart

Tuesday 16th Feb at 6.30pm – join a discussion hosted by the Labour Party Irish Society

  • The Labour Party Irish Society are hosting a public discussion at 6.30pm on 16th Feb
  • The panel includes members of our family, our legal teams, Conradh na Gaeilge, as well as the Chair of the Irish in Britain APPG Conor McGinn MP and the leader of the Social Democratic & Labour Party Colum Eastwood MP who was also at the AGM in November discussing the legacy of John Hume.
  • It is open to all, free to join, and the link to register with more information is here which you are welcome to share with anyone who you think might be interested:

Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann Statement in support of the Message to Margaret Appeal

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This week’s grief was that we had to cut down a spruce tree that was thriving but too close to the house. Its roots threatened all kinds of trouble. 

We bought this tree to brighten the room where my mother was dying, twenty-one years ago next month. The spruce was one of those mini-Christmas trees in a pot. For a week or more we held long vigils in that room, night and day. We threaded the baby tree with coloured lights to soften its bareness and all that raw emotion, trying to create a Christmas atmosphere as the millenium and the predicted dramas of Y2K bore down on us.

She died two weeks short of the new century. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the tree away, as I think you’re probably expected to do. I planted it instead. It grew until it dwarfed the house and threatened the foundations. It had to go. I felt so guilty, not just because of my mother but because of the tree’s own magnificent persistence.  It was so strong and straight and tall – and so very green. It had done all that breathing for us over the years, absorbed so much light and mist, screened us from the street. In the interdependent respiratory cycle of trees and humans, we had exchanged many molecules of air.

Soft guilt. I agreed to its demise. But: Was there any way to save even part of it? I asked. I watched for a while and then I couldn’t watch any more and went back to work.

The light was fading when Darragh came to the door. A seedling tray in his hands held a small forest of tiny cuttings, carefully planted. Not all of them would take but some might, he said, if we’re careful. He told us how to look after them. The sight of those baby trees undid me. He’d taken such care. What he really planted in that tray was hope and human kindness. Good lessons in these Covid days.

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Launch of Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann

On Sunday, 15th November 2020, the new Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann held an event to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer and to launch our new organisation.

Strange to say of an online event but: there was a really friendly atmosphere on the night, thanks to greetings and comments in Chat. Thanks to everyone who came along to support us. Catherine Dunne will write a full report for our next Newsletter.

In brief: There was music from Cormac Breatnach and Eamon Sweeney; there were readings from Board members Kate Ennals, John O’Donnell and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne – the latter having written a new poem for the occasion, which she read in Irish and in English. Brian Keenan sent a pre-recorded reading from An Evil Cradling. I talked about the background to the new organisation, the work we do, why we think it matters.

Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International, spoke and read from a document she wrote with Paul Muldoon, The Democracy of the Imagination.

Finally, Board member June Considine read a message from our Patron, President Michael D Higgins.

Chimengul Awut

Our Empty Chair was awarded to Chimengul Awut, Uyghur poet and editor, currently held in a re-education camp in China.

To join Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann:

Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann promotes literature and defends the right of writers worldwide to responsible freedom of expression as defined in the PEN Charter.

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Stephen Collins & the Peaceful Transfer of Power (mach ii)

Thanks and apologies to the people who pointed out that Stephen Collins’ article in the Irish Times about the peaceful transfer of power in an Irish context (in my previous blog) is subscriber-only.

Here’s the gist of what he said.  He told the story of what he calls probably ‘the defining moment in Irish democtracy’, a test of the State’s legitimacy: In 1932, the Cumann na nGaedhal government was voted out and a Fianna Fáil government was elected in its place. This was within ten years of the civil war. According to Collins, “There was fevered speculation that the government would refuse to hand over power to its victorious opponents.”

Apparently, some members of Fianna Fáil were so convinced there’d be a coup they brought guns to work with them that day. Meanwhile, the defeated government were afraid that once Fianna Fáil came into power they wouldn’t ever let it go – (quiet in the back!) – that there wouldn’t ever be another free and fair election.

Imagine the atmosphere in Leinster House that day. Collins reminds us that the pattern for many post-independence states in the 20th century was that the immediate party to come into power subsequently held on to it by force.  I suggest we take a long hard look at what’s happening around us, right this minute, not just in the US but also in countries like Belarus, to see that the 21st century isn’t immune from that kind of danger either.  But Cosgrave and De Valera acted like proper democrats. Cosgrave accepted defeat and De Valera didn’t give in to pressure to exact retribution for events during the civil war. They accepted the people’s vote.

Collins makes an argument that our own politicians would do well to avoid what he calls ‘ritual bouts of in-fighting and intrigue.’ He warns against ‘the purveyors of anger and hate’ and those who want to undermine our belief in our democratic institutions.

It really is a thought-provoking article, I wish they’d make it open-access.  The good news is that the episode is contained in Saving the State: Fine Gael from Collins to Varadkar by Stephen Collins and Ciara Meehan (Gill Books)

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Stephen Collins: Ireland faces its own threats to faith in democratic institutions

Here’s a link to a thought-provoking article by Stephen Collins in the Irish Times about the peaceful transfer of power in an Irish context. Read it and think how different we might have been. How democracy can rest on restraint and generosity mixed with a healthy dose of idealism and good faith.

Something to think about, for the times that are in it.

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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.



Posted in Freedom of Speech, Freedom to Write, Human Rights, PEN | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments