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Margie Orford

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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

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’.


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Working on Fifteen Men, an Article for the UK’s Observer

Fifteen MenI wrote this article for a special South Africa feature in the UK’s Observer

In 1990 Nelson Mandela emerged, like a genie from a bottle, from Victor Verster prison. He went on to work his political magic, fashioning a rainbow nation that arcs, at times, above the murk of South Africa’s history. Seventeen years after Mandela’s release, years that I had spent trying to fathom the criminal violence that blights our democracy, I returned to that same prison. I was one of a group of writers invited by the Franschhoek literary festival to attend a prize-giving ceremony for poetry written by inmates and to spend an hour with them. At the end of the event, a shy young murderer asked me if I would come back. I said I would. It was quickly organised and I did, returning every Friday to teach creative writing to a group of 15 maximum-security prisoners.

The first time I drive out to the prison I am afraid. Afraid of what it will mean to work so intimately with the men who fill our newspapers with broken bodies and turn our dreams into nightmares. The guard waves me through the prison gates and I drive past the lawns, the beds of roses; the public face of the prison.

It is only when I turn past a stand of blue gums that I see the prison itself. It is made of mesh, a giant aviary, three storeys suspended between metal poles. There is bedding hanging from the steel bars. Thin brown hands extend through the bars rattling spoons against the mesh.

A gate opens and a group of men in orange surge towards me through a tunnel of razor wire.

“Your guys from maximum,” says the education officer who has made this mad scheme possible. They are tattooed and hard-bodied, bigger and tougher than the denim-clad juveniles coming towards me from the opposite direction.

I follow them into the gym. There are weights at one end, basketball hoops at the other. I have been allocated a corner and the 15 men I will be working with cluster desks around me. Other men – 50 or more, all in orange – file in after me. They pick up weights, watch me, ask the men with me what we are doing; only drifting off when the wardens insist.

Where to start unravelling the threads that twinned these men with me?

Childhood seems like the time in their lives that we can manage together. Glimpses of the boys they once were emerge in anecdotes of casual deprivation. A beating with a belt; a fishing trip on a boat with a father briefly sober; angry mothers with blackened eyes and too many children; school attempted and failed. For one man, though, there was a blue-and-yellow bike for his ninth birthday.

It is hard not to touch an arm here, a hand. Touch is a language that comes easily to me, but how does one speak it in a men’s prison? A headache pulses, twisting and lumping the muscles on my scalp, knotting my shoulders. I do not have a way to integrate the humanity of these men, what we share, with what they did that brought them to this place.

We take a break halfway through the three hours. I need the loo but there are no facilities for women. An armed warder leads me to a bathroom. He searches it. There is nobody hiding, but the door does not lock so he stands guard outside. In that moment, silence falls in the gym.

The workshops settle into a rhythm. I go out every Friday, we talk, we work, we write. We read poetry together. “My Papa’s Waltz”, a clean-lined beauty by Theodore Roethke, is about fatherhood and fear and yearning. For these men, there is an umbilical connection of form and subject matter. For the first time most of the men read their poems about absent, or feared, or longed-for fathers.

Then a tattooed gangster stands up and reads aloud for the first time. I suggest that he sends his poem home. Some weeks later, he tells me, his ex-girlfriend brought his six-year-old son to visit.

“I held him,” he points to his chest. “I can feel him in my heart.”

I think of that little boy who has a poem from his father telling him how he wanted to be a father to him, even if he failed; telling him that he loved him even if he did not know how. It is more than many boys have. It was more than the 15 men I worked with had.

Book details


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Fifteen Men to be launched in Parliament tomorrow

Fifteen Men & Margie Orford

Fifteen MenI’ve just heard the news that Fifteen Men will feature as part of Minister of Prisons Nconde Balfour’s budget speech in Parliament tomorrow.

One of the book’s contributors, Michael Dakets, will be transported from the Groot Drakenstein Prison to Parliament to read from the book. I’m trying to wangle an official invite to the speech, so I can present the minister with a copy of the book.

Media will apparently be out in force – watch for coverage!


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The Sunday Times Covers Fifteen Men

Boebie SamodienAndrew Donaldson of the Sunday Times covered the launch of Fifteen Men – prison writing generated during a 9-month workshop that I facilitated at Groot Drakenstein Prison last year.

It’s called “Broken voices from the inside” and here’s an excerpt, below.

Details of how and where to buy the book coming soon.
(more…)


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