Opening Night – Free the Word


Free the Word – Oxfam Novib PEN Awards 2019 on 17th January

Literature and freedom have always been friends.  This year marks the 24th Winternachten Festival in the Hague. What better place to hold the 2019  Award for Freedom of Expression. Given in recognition of writers who have made a significant contribution to freedom of expression around the world often at risk to their own lives, last night three writers from three different continents were celebrated: Roberto Saviano from Italy, Gioconda Belli of Nicaragua and Palestinian poet, Dareen Tatour.  

‘Every day of our lives, we are working for the bravest people in the world.’ – Jennifer Clement, Director of PEN International.

All three winners risk their lives daily in order to seek out and publish the truth. Roberto Saviano has lived under armed protection in Italy for over a decade after publishing Gomorrah, a book exposing the secrets of the Naples mafia. He travels everywhere with seven trained bodyguards in two bullet-proof cars and rarely spends more than a few nights in the same place. ‘ I travel around the world leaping from country to country as though it was a checker board, searching for any tattered remains of freedom.’ More recently, Saviano’s outspoken criticism of the current Italian government’s anti-immigration policies earned him a threat by interior minister to lift his police protection. Is the price of life under armed guard too much for a writer to pay or is it better than no life at all?

‘I keep believing, against all odds, in the power of the word.’ – Gioconda Belli

Bestselling writer, poet and political activist, Gioconda Belli was involved in the Nicaraguan Revolution from a young age and has occupied positions in the Sandinista Party and the revolutionary government. She has also won literary awards and prizes, with bestselling novel The Inhabited Woman (1988), marking her international debut. Widely known and respected in her native country, she tells us  how she has been let off traffic fines by local police once they recognise her. However her vocal criticism of the Ortega government which has forced over fifty journalists into exile, has placed her own life at risk. Since April last year, Belli tells us, more than 325 people, mostly students involved in anti-government protests, have been killed in Nicaragua. ‘I keep believing, against all odds, in the power of the word.’ she tells us.   

‘Poetry is not a crime.’ – Dareen Tatour

A Palestinian born and living in Jerusalem, Dareen Tatour was put under house arrest for three years (2015 – 2018) for posting a video on Facebook and YouTube. In the video she reads a poem titled ‘Resist my people, resist them’ accompanied by photos of Palestinian confrontations with Israeli troops. More recently, in 2018, Tatour was sentenced to five months in prison for ‘online incitement of terrorism’ by an Israeli court. Her first poetry collection, The last invasion, was published in 2010. She speaks to us in her native Arabic and although most of us do not understand her words, we are all understand the call to arms that her angry tone conveys.

Perhaps most moving of all, was Canadian writer, Madeleine Thien’s keynote speech in which she paid tribute to the life and works of a variety of writers, spanning from Spinoza’s seventeenth century Tractatus Theologico-Politicus to Zhang Xianling, co-founder of the Tiananmen Mothers group and mostly recently to the memory of murdered Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The right to mourn, either publicly or privately, the loved ones lost at Tiananmen Square is still illegal in China. If, as Spinoza argued hundreds of years ago, the ultimate purpose of the state is freedom, than all of these brave writers who dedicate their lives to this goal are indeed worthy of recognition and support. As Thien says, ‘If we are not free to hear divergent points of view, we are not free.’   Souwie Buis  17th January, 2019.

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