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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

World Day of the Imprisoned Writer: PEN South Africa supports ‘each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail’

A report by Finuala Dowling:

In a moving and rousing event to mark the World Day of the Imprisoned Writer last Thursday, seven South African writers ranging in age from a nineteen-year-old beginner blogger to a distinguished seventy-two-year old poet paid tribute to their imprisoned peers around the world.

Over a hundred people crowded into Kalk Bay Books to hear Beatrice Willoughby, Tom Eaton, Lauren Beukes, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Tim Butcher, Michael Morris and Gus Ferguson lend their voices to silenced writers with whom, in most cases, they shared an exact birth year: Tal al-Mallouhi of Syria, Ericson Acosta of the Philippines, Eskinder Nega of Ethiopia, Dolma Kyab of Tibet, Muharrem Erbey of Turkey, Mamadali Makhmudov of Uzbekistan and Chinese Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiaobo.

The local writers read poetry, prose and prison letters by the imprisoned writers, offering in turn words of reflection, consolation and support.

As always at PEN events, an empty chair symbolised the jailed writer.

‘Freedom of expression underlies all other freedoms,’ said Margie Orford, executive vice-president of PEN South Africa, in her opening remarks.

John Maytham, MC for the evening, reminded the audience of the many South African writers who were detained under apartheid, and echoed Orford’s warning that writers here could soon risk imprisonment again for telling the truth under the new ‘Secrecy Bill’.

Before describing the circumstances of each writer’s arrest and detention, Maytham quoted Nadine Gordimer (‘Art is on the side of the oppressed’) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn: ‘For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.’

Commenting on the fact that Ericson Acosta was arrested for being in possession of hand grenades when all he had on him at the time was his laptop, Tom Eaton said ‘This is a very telling detail, because to a regime, a laptop is a hand grenade.’

Michael Morris returned to this fear of the incendiary power of words when he read a list of items confiscated from Liu Xiaobo when the Chinese poet was taken into custody:

1. Notebook computer (IBM model T43), one
2. Notebook computer (Lianxiang model Chaoyang 700 CFe), one
3. Desktop computer (Lianxiang model Jiayue), one
4. Charter 08 request for comments draft (sealed together with the court papers), 7 pages+ .

‘We are lucky that we live in South Africa and can write what we like,’ said Lauren Beukes, before reading Chris van Wyk’s poem ‘In detention’ as a reminder of how this has not always been true.

Henrietta Rose-Innes too, chose a South African prison poem, Hugh Lewin’s ‘Wagon Wheels’, with its haunting memory of Eli Weinberg singing for the condemned men on their way to the gallows:

And if you stopped a moment
on your way up Hospital Hill
into the rising hum of Hillbrow
you’d have heard it -
only an echo perhaps
behind the walls and the double doors
hiding the nation’s underbelly.

Tim Butcher responded to Eskinder Nega’s moving fortitude during his continued imprisonment, and Gus Ferguson poignantly contrasted his life to that of his tortured ‘doppelganger’ Mamadali Makhmudov.

Beatrice Willoughby offered this simple, line-by-line response to her age-twin, Tal al-Mallouhi of Syria:

You will remain an example by Tal al-Mallouhi

I will walk with all walking people
And no
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
In which
I have
A palm tree
A drop in a cloud
And a grave to protect me

This is more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise me
My master:
I would like to have power
Even for one day
To build the “republic of feelings.”

(Translated by Ghias al-Jundi)

Dear Tal al-

by Beatrice Willoughby

May you run with all running people
And yes
You will never be still
Never just watch the passers by
I know because in my homeland
I have
A spekboom
A cloud on the mountain

And an old man’s promise to protect me

Our homelands are more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise us
Listen masters, to 19-year old girls
We too would like power
Even just for one day
To build our “republic of feelings.”

The evening was framed by song. Jacques Coetzee and Johann Kotze set the tone for the evening with an unplugged version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a wire’, and Emma Rycroft sent everyone home with the feeling that the gathering had, indeed, ‘gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing’.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://kelwynsole.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    November 21st, 2012 @17:29 #
     
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    You needed a honk'imbongi.

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