Night of the Imprisoned Writer

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer falls on the 15 November, and this year English PEN marked its thirtieth year by hosting a performance evening entitled ‘Night of the Imprisoned Writer’. The event, which was organised in conjunction with ice&fire theatre, took place at the beautiful Tabernacle in Notting Hill, and took the form of a play followed by some stand up comedy.

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer was established by PEN International in 1981 to recognise writers around the world who have been imprisoned for trying to claim their right to free expression. It is also a time for remembering those writers who have been killed in the pursuit of their work. This year PEN commemorated the 33 writers and journalists who had been killed since 15 November 2010.

Tuesday evening’s event was well attended by an engaged audience, which made for a convivial and inspiring atmosphere. English PEN’s campaigns officer, Cat Lucas, worked with award-winning playwright Sonja Linden to create a moving tribute to the plight of these writers, entitled “Hello Mr Miller, Hello Mr Pinter.” As Cat explained, the piece “weaves together the words of writers we have campaigned for during the last three decades.”

The play was performed by Actors for Human Rights, who read movingly from the letters of writers who have been imprisoned around the world. English PEN produced a very informative programme to accompany the event, which details the stories of each of the featured writers, who were: Liu Xiaobo, Dae Kwon Hwang, Lewis Medjo, Ali Taygun (from whose letter the title was derived), Abdellatif Laabi, Eynulla Fatullayev, Lydia Cacho, Ayat al Gormezi, Philo Ikonya, Alicia Partnoy, Tran Khai Than Thuy and Zargana.

This impressive selection gave a flavour of the cruel punishment being inflicted on writers today, and the host of reasons its perpetrators offer as justification. It also showed the difference that letter writing can make to the lives of imprisoned writers, and English PEN used this to inspire action amongst the audience. Each guest was given a postcard from Penguin books, on which they were encouraged to write a message of support to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo who is serving an 11 year prison sentence over his public calls for political reform.

The interval provided the perfect opportunity to discuss this thought-provoking material over a glass of wine before the stand up comedy began. This part of the evening seemed particularly poignant given that Zargana, a Burmese comedian who appeared in the play and Honorary Member of English PEN, had been released only a month before. The audience were entertained by two comedians – Nick Doody and UK-based French comedian Marcel Lucont.

The evening was an ideal opportunity for interested individuals who wished to discuss the issues and devise potential solutions. The relaxed atmosphere also made it an excellent choice for a fundraising event, and the audience certainly seemed inspired to support the cause. I hope to be able to attend a similar occasion next year.

Originally published on English PEN’s website on 18 November 2011:


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