Notes from An Alien

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Tag Archives: PEN International

Writers In A Surveillance Society . . .


I wrote about an auction PEN American Center was having of hand-annotated books by famous authors but didn’t stress the reason…

PEN, which is international, “…has two distinct yet complementary aims: to promote a literary culture and to protect freedom of expression.”

A recent article in The New York TimesWriters Say They Feel Censored by Surveillance, begins with:

“A survey of writers around the world by the PEN American Center has found that a significant majority said they were deeply concerned with government surveillance, with many reporting that they have avoided, or have considered avoiding, controversial topics in their work or in personal communications as a result.”

PEN surveyed “…fiction and nonfiction writers and related professionals, including translators and editors, in 50 countries.”

The executive director of the PEN American Center said, “Writers are the ones who experience encroachments on freedom of expression most acutely, or first….The idea that we are seeing some similar patterns in free countries to those we’ve traditionally associated with unfree countries is pretty distressing.”

“The survey found that mass surveillance by the United States government had damaged its reputation as a defender of free expression, with some 36 percent in other ‘free’ countries and 32 percent in ‘less free’ countries saying freedom of expression had less protection in the United States than in their nations.”

Naturally, the results of the survey were roundly criticized and painted as “overblown”

Yet, writers may be serving as the canaries in the mine of surveillance activities

The executive director of PEN also said:

“Just the fact that so many writers say they are deeply concerned and are actually changing their behavior is significant….Whether we consider it justified or not, it isn’t something that should be ignored.”

Perhaps writers’ fertile imaginations see the obvious attacks on their counterparts in totalitarian countries and imagine the “free” countries are watching them

Perhaps most of the world’s governments are watching writers—history shows how dangerous writers can be

What are your thoughts and feelings?

Are writers dangerous to governments?

Is that such a bad thing?

If you live in a relativity “free” country, do you think writers are under surveillance?

If you do think this is happening, do you think all writers respond the same?

Do you have any stories to share about writers who didn’t let surveillance shut them up?

Think there could be more subtle damage to a writer’s life, even if the surveillance hasn’t led to writers being arrested—pulling back on writing about certain topics—writing to please the masters?

You can read PEN’s survey results

You can also watch the trailer of an award-winning movie about surveillance of a writer


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Send An Appeal To Free An Imprisoned Writer


Today is The Day of The Imprisoned Writer

Day of The Imprisoned Writer

Image from PEN International

“Each year PEN Centres and members worldwide commemorate the Day of the Imprisoned Writer to raise awareness of the unjust imprisonment and other forms of attack against writers around the globe, to remember those who have been killed, and stand in solidarity with imprisoned and threatened colleagues. – See more here.”

“In order to demonstrate how freedom of expression is being curtailed, each year PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee highlight five cases of writers currently in prison or being prosecuted from around the world that are emblematic of the type of threats and attacks faced by writers and journalists.

“This year PEN is highlighting the cases of five writers from Cameroon, China, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, and Paraguay and calls for their immediate and unconditional release and for the charges against them to be dropped, along with all other writers similarly threatened. On 15 November, and the days surrounding, PEN Members will be sending appeal letters, raising publicity and staging events in support of their colleagues under attacks around the globe.”

You can help make appeals for these writers:

Nelson Aguilera Paraguay — Writer, teacher and member of PEN Paraguay, Nelson Aguilera was sentenced to 30 months in prison for alleged plagiarism on 4 November 2013.”

Gao Yu People’s Republic of China — Journalist — Beijing-based veteran journalist, Gao Yu, ‘disappeared’ on 23 April 2014 and was held incommunicado for two weeks before the authorities disclosed, in a televised ‘confession’, that she was being held…”

Mahvash Sabet Islamic Republic of Iran — Teacher and poet — ‘Beyond those gates, another world, another race, a people poisoned and oppressed by woe; they stared wearily at us, the prisoners we faced, with sunken eyes, lack-lustre, circled with sorrow…'”

Azimjon Askarov — a journalist and member of Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority who has spent his career exposing corruption. He was arrested during the inter-ethnic conflict that swept Osh and Jalal-Abad…”

Enoh Meyomesse Cameroon — Poet, writer, historian, political activist and president of the National Association of Cameroonian Writers…is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence…”

From an article in The Guardian:

“’November 15 is a day of action and acknowledgment,’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. ‘It is PEN’s way of saying to all of our 900 imprisoned, harassed, murdered and disappeared writers: you are not silenced. You are not forgotten. We stand with you and fight for you.’”
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Imprisoned Writers


The woman in the picture is a poet from Iran, serving her 7th year of a 20-year prison term.

Day of The Imprisoned Writer

Photo from Baha’i World News Service

She is, according to the Bahá’í World News Service: “A teacher and educator…charged with and ultimately sentenced on wholly fabricated charges of ‘espionage’ and ‘propaganda against the Islamic Republic’.

Her name is Mahvash Sabet.

Somehow, verses she’d written while incarcerated made it out and have been adapted from the original Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and published as Prison Poems (free world wide shipping or Kindle)

She’s also been honored by PEN International as the first of five authors recognized with open letters in the run-up to the 33rd Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November.

From an article in The Guardian: “Nine hundred writers around the world were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or ‘disappeared’ last year…”

The open letter to Ms. Sabet was written by award-winning Argentina-born author Alberto Manguel:

Dear Mahvash Sabet,

It’s almost an impertinence, I feel, to write to a poet who is being kept behind bars for her words and beliefs. King Lear, imprisoned at the end of the play with his daughter Cordelia, tells her that they will become “God’s spies”. That is what you as well have become, bearing witness to society’s injustices, prejudices and inability to understand that no matter what society might do to a poet, the poet’s words will still be free in the minds of the readers, and continue to conjure up ideas, engage the mind in conversation. Perhaps there’s consolation in this.

You end one of your poems saying that “You can’t see the sorrow after lights out,” and that you therefore “long for the dark, total black-out.” I hope, for your dear sake, that the end of your sorrow is near but not as that “total black-out” you speak of: instead, as a resolution of freedom, as the free sunlight that is every person’s natural right, a right no one is entitled to take away.

I don’t know if you can find comfort in realising that you have now been welcomed into a vast and honoured company of imprisoned writers, from all centuries and all tongues, from Boethius to Abu Nuwas, Cervantes, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Nazim Hikmet and hundreds of others, and that generations of readers to come will remember your name as they remember theirs, long after the names of your jailers have been swept off the memory of the earth.

I can’t offer you anything in your cell except my devotion as your reader, my trust in better times, and my distant but sincere friendship. I hope that in the very near future we will meet in person, not only on the page.

With very best wishes of hope and courage,

Alberto Manguel

Again, from the article in The Guardian:

“’November 15 is a day of action and acknowledgment,’ said Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. ‘It is PEN’s way of saying to all of our 900 imprisoned, harassed, murdered and disappeared writers: you are not silenced. You are not forgotten. We stand with you and fight for you.’”

And, here is one of Ms. Sabet’s poems:

Lights Out

Weary but wakeful, feverish but still
fixed on the evasive bulb that winks on the wall,
thinking surely it’s time for lights out,
longing for darkness, for the total black-out.

Trapped in distress, caught in this bad dream,
the dust under my feet untouchable as shame,
flat on the cold ground, a span for a bed,
lying side by side, with a blanket on my head.

And the female guards shift, keeping vigil till dawn,
eyes moving everywhere, watching everyone,
sounds of the rosary, the round of muttered words,
fish lips moving, the glance of a preying bird.

Till another hour passes in friendly chat,
in soft talk of secrets or a sudden spat,
with some snoring, others wheezing
some whispering, rustling, sneezing –
filled the space with coughs and groans,
suffocated sobs, incessant moans –
You can’t see the sorrow after lights out.
I long for the dark, total black-out.

Find out how to send an appeal for Ms. Sabet’s release

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