Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Freedom to write

Thinking today about the freedom that most of us in the UK have to write (and to read); and about the many people all over the world who don’t enjoy that freedom.

For example, the Syrian author Samar Yazbek was prevented from appearing at the Ways with Words literary festival in Devon last week.

According a story in the Bookseller she was held at the Gare du Nord in Paris, despite assurances from the British Embassy that she would be able to make the journey.

Samar Yazbek is a refugee, whose book A Woman In The Crossfire (Haus Publishing) is a diary of the first 100 days of the violent struggle in Syria. She finally managed to make her way to Britain over the weekend. But her publisher Barbara Schwepcke said the process was “a bureaucratic nightmare”.

“We had been planning the visit for a while, and had worked hard with groups like PEN who are experts with helping writers travel. They had assurances from the Home Office and the embassy in Paris that she would be able to come here with her current status and visa. However, when she got up to Gare du Nord, they said ‘no’.”

Schwepcke added that although she understood security concerns were prevalent, there had to be space for artists to travel freely. She said: “Perhaps with the Olympics there is extra concern, but someone like Ms Yazbek has a very important story to tell. She has seen things in Syria first-hand and escaped to talk about them, and support the brave people who are still there on the streets fighting for their human rights.”

Heather Norman Somerlind, acting director at English PEN, said: “We have run a campaign to improve the rights of visiting artists. Things have got a lot better but there are still cases which surprise us. We will always need to do more to ensure that writers with legitimate reasons to travel can do so.”

This episode brings to mind a conversation held at the Dinefwr Literature Festival at the start of July with writer Gilian Slovo, who is president of English PEN. The discussion, with Dr Tom Cheesman, of Swansea University, was based around the possibility of starting such a group in Wales.

Dr Cheesman, with Eric Ngalle Charles and Sylvie Hoffmann, established the non-profit Hafan Books in 2003, to publish literary texts by refugees in Wales, alongside work by other writers.  He is also involved with the  Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group.

English PEN is the founding centre of PEN International, the worldwide fellowship of writers promoting free expression and the literature across frontiers.  There are 140 PEN centres in more than 100 countries, providing an active and supportive community for writers and readers around the world.
Through campaigns and programmes, English PEN promotes the freedom to write and the freedom to read.  Internationally, the organisation campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers, editors and publishers.  In the UK there are campaigns to reform laws that curb free expression, and for greater access to literature. 

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