In early 2010, 26 teamed up with International PEN to mark 50 years of the PEN Writers in Prison committee. 50 writers from 26 were paired with a writer whose cause PEN had championed over the years, and asked to write 50 words as a response. The resulting submissions were published in the run-up to the 2010 Free The Word festival.

Murder in the margins
A review of Free the Word 2010 and 26:50, by Elise Valmorbida

Wednesday 14 April 2010 saw the opening of International PEN’s Free the Word! literary festival at London’s Southbank. In a packed Purcell Room, we heard the rich readings and musings of James Kelman, Margaret Busby and Olive Senior.

First, though, an intro by PEN president John Ralston Saul, rousing yet sobering: this festival can bring us 40 writers from 20 countries, but right now we know of 900 writers in danger or in prison somewhere in the world.

And now is a significant moment: 2010 is the 50th year since PEN launched its Writers in Prison Committee, the campaigning part of this global organisation dedicated to literature. The two sides have become inseparable. As Ralston Saul put it: “there’s no such thing as freedom of speech without literature, just as there’s no such thing as literature without freedom of speech.”

The discussion that followed was about art and agitation. All eyes on English, the language I love for its borderless sprawl, its impurity. English, the language of one or two of the world’s empires. English, described by Chinua Achebe as “the world language which history has forced down our throats”.

Oh yes, this first festival event was called ‘The Ex-Empire Strikes Back’… Over five days we were exposed to Zapotec poetry, Somali Italian, South African history and New Jersey suburbia. The very last event was a line-up of ‘Reading Revolutionaries’ from Africa, Jamaica, Turkey and India.

More murder in the margins.

‘Busted Scotch’ James Kelman railed at the tyranny of English and the loss of indigenous languages through proscription. Margaret Busby spoke of writing as rebellion against the official form of English which cannot be divorced from imperialism.

Olive Senior does not feel anger towards English. She loves it. But she had a breakthrough when she found herself writing in the Jamaican vernacular, having always felt “uncomfortable” in fiction with the models of English literature. Her education had taught her that English was the language of Culture, the assumption being that those on the margins of English had no culture. At high school, Jamaican kids were punished if they were caught not speaking ‘proper English’. On the streets, police issued on-the-spot fines to anybody cursing in patois – known as a 40-shilling word. It took Olive Senior ten years to get published, by which time she was used to the response: “We love your work but why don’t you write it in English?”

That was then. Notions of culture and empire have changed, and so has the publishing industry, but something hasn’t changed: writers all over the world still feel compelled to create change through words. Even if this urge is met with the iron crush of authority. Funny how the word authority contains the word author. Most of the authors who appeared at Free the Word would not be contained by authority at all.

An 80-year-old Egyptian woman (in conversation with Lisa Appignanesi) was for me the most inspiring rebel-writer of all. Despite unpromising beginnings as a poor village girl, Nawal El Saadawi managed to get educated, become a doctor, write more than 40 books, and overturn national laws that violated women and children in the name of religion or tradition. She now teaches ‘creativity and dissidence’. A few personal sacrifices she endured on the way: prison, exile, her name on the death-list. And years of legal battles – one of which was to defend her right not to be forcibly divorced from her loving husband on account of her secularist views. In this context, the banning of her books seems almost inconsequential.

No wonder that this extraordinary person features on the 50:50 list compiled by PEN to mark 50 campaigning years. PEN fought for her when she was arrested for ‘crimes against the state’ in 1981. Others on the international 50:50 list did not survive, but their books do. Others were permanently silenced: their lives were erased, and their writings were erased. PEN remembers them too.

Here, in the safer suburbs of 26, we joined the campaign. We amplified its voice with articles, blogs, tweets and talk. We wrote 50 free words inspired by those 50 suppressed writers. Rishi Dastidar released our 50 words online each day for 50 days, through to the end of the festival. Mike Exon got the PR going. Our ‘26 Exchanges’ typo-animation, designed by Sanky (All of Us) book-ended the festival’s closing event. A poster by Harry Pearce (Pentagram) featured John Simmons’ poem about Indonesian writer Mochtar Lubis. John and I ran the 26:50 project from start to finish, and edited our share of stories with Martin Lee, Tom Lynham and Tim Rich.

The last 50 words were dedicated to the unnamed writer. This is the most prolific author of all: Anonymous. This person may have fought and failed. Or is fighting now for the right to write. Or this is the person who, tomorrow, somewhere, noiselessly, will be silenced.

We know of 900 writers, right now, who are in danger. What about all those whose names have been erased?

2010: The Unnamed Writer By Elise Valmorbida

Here is a mind
caught in the elision
between personal, political.

Here is a nib
charged with invisible ink
that under iron heat
turns blood-brown.

Here is a silence.

(Death happens in brackets)
but still you can hear
the bell of the voice,
chiming, tolling,
the scratching of the pen.

“The 26:50 project is just the kind of imaginative response that PEN has come to expect from 26. Every project that we undertake together – from Free the Blog! and 26 Exchanges as part of Free the Word! to the creation of a new identity for PEN, to the most recent, 26:50, marking 50 years of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee – has further cemented a wonderful partnership. The 50 poems, prose pieces, musings and reflections that came out of 26:50 highlight how words can have such powerful impact to inspire and continue important stories beyond their original telling. PEN feels very privileged and fortunate to have the ongoing support of 26, especially in 2010 as it’s a very significant year for us.”

Emily Bromfield, Communications Director, International PEN

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