‘Poetry is almost the only thing that has no monetary value’, yet poets and activists all over the world, are in prison for writing. These were the words of President of PEN International, Jennifer Clements, at last night’s Free the Word event here in the Hague. The event forms part of the Winternachten festival, which takes place each year in January time, here in the City of Peace and Justice. The theme this year is decolonisation, specifically decolonization of language and writing.
Over the course of the evening we heard from writers and activists hailing from all corners of the globe, from Turkey to Uganda, the Netherlands to Syria. Divided by distance, language and oppression, they all nevertheless share a passion for the pen, a determination to free the word. Their bravery and determination is an inspiration, both for humanity and for the power of literature to transform and create in the face of violence and destruction. Since 1992, 1600 journalists and activists have been murdered, according to PEN International records. Clements tells us that PEN currently has 47 writers on its case list. These are people who are being prosecuted for writing against the regimes under which they live. Although deeply disturbing, such violent reactions to these ‘freerers of the word’, ironically, highlight its power.
Winner of the 2020 Oxfam Novib PEN Award, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, shared her thoughts with us in her acceptance speech, written from prison in Kampala, Uganda. She is currently serving an 18 month sentence for ‘cyber harassment’. Nyanzi explains that she is in prison because she wrote a birthday poem for current Ugandan President, Musefini, whom she describes as a dictator. Using a typically Ugandan technique called ‘radical rudeness’, Nyanzi is known for raising a range of little-spoken-about issues via social media. She focuses particularly on the rights of women, lesbian, gay and transgender people.
Currently held in a maximum security prison from which she is escorted for court appearances by 7 armed guards, two machine guns and a military vehicle she asks, ‘Will the soldiers shoot bullets from their AK47s, through my poems?’ The medical anthropologist has spent time in solitary confinement because she has defied the writing ban in prison. ‘The surveillance is hyper, the snitches numerous’ she writes, but this does not stop her penning the acceptance speech we heard last night here in the Hague.
A similar indomitability of spirit is found in Syrian novelist, journalist and activist, Samar Yazbek. Recipient of the 2013 Oxfam Novib PEN Award, Yazbek has twice been deported from her native Syria since the outbreak of war in 2011. Now living in exile in France, she has crossed back into her country from Turkey many times in order to ‘write from the centre of the revolutionary movement’. Author of numerous books and poems including, The Crossing (2015) and The Blue Pen (2019), Yazbek says, ‘We counter terrorism through freedom of expression’. In spite of encountering, ‘unbelievable evil and madness’, she continues to work with women in Syria to build networks that provide education and training for those who want to learn. She dreams of a day when Syria will be an independent and democratic country. Until such time Samar Yazbek continues her struggle. ‘One day when the war is over, I will have time to be tired’ she tells us. Souwie Buis 17th January 2020
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