PEN – Do You Have the Freedom to Write?

English PEN is the founding centre of PEN International. This association of writers, campaigns for the promotion of free speech and literature around the world. It’s slogan is “The freedom to write, the freedom to read.” In the recent newsletter, the following caught my eye.

Bones Will Crow

Burmese poets perform in unique UK tour

This month English PEN supports the promotion of Bones Will Crow, the first anthology of contemporary Burmese poets published in the West. Edited and translated by ko ko thett and James Byrne. Published by Arc Publications.

Bones Will Crow features the work of Burmese poets who have been in exile and in prison. The poems include global references from a culture in which foreign books and the Internet are regarded with suspicion and where censorship is an industry. The poets have been ingenious in their use of metaphor to escape surveillance and censorship, writing post-modern, avant-garde, performance and online poetries.

I’m glad I don’t have to rely on my brilliant use of metaphor to evade censorship! All joking aside, the fact is, many of us reading this blog take for granted the freedom we have in terms of what we write. Can you imagine what life would be like if you were afraid your writing posed a threat to your safety?  I don’t always remember to value the freedom of being able to write whatever I want.

Do You Have The Freedom To Write?

That said, within the freedoms of western society, there are pitfalls. On a much lesser scale than fears of imprisonment or torture, individuals do not always feel free to express themselves. Homophobia, sexism, racial and religious intolerance all plays a part in people feeling threatened, unable to be who they are.

Political oppression works on the same principles as bullying –  intimidation, fear, punishment and isolation. Bullying on on a grand scale you like.  But at a simpler level, bullying in the playground, while in a completely different league from national oppression,  is a horrible phenomenon, often with awful consequences. Most children don’t want to be seen as ‘other’. To avoid being associated with someone who is being picked on, some kids lower their tolerance levels and cave in to peer pressure. Which only increases the number of bullies, and makes the problem worse. This issue has been well highlighted in the TV musical comedy drama series  ‘Glee’.

Being constantly pushed around  by a playground bully is a long way from being put in a Burmese prison. But it can have a devastating effect on the life of an individual. Victims of bullying often feel too scared to speak out, let alone put down their concerns in print.

The Burmese poets whose work is in ‘Bones Will Crow’, did what they could to avoid censorship.  I wonder if I’d have their courage to write, if I found myself living in a society actively preventing freedom of speech. Would I write about my oppression? Or would I want to write a simple story that might be an escape from the harshness of the situation.

The issues in this post are separate, but related. What would you write if you found yourself living in an oppressive society? How important is it that people continue to write, no matter what? Do you know of any children who’ve been bullied and the effect it had on them? How well have they been able to write about what’s important to them?


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Witness, by Antony Gormley (commissioned by En...

Witness, by Antony Gormley (commissioned by English PEN), British Library, London (Photo credit: chrisjohnbeckett)


Related Information:

PEN has published a free PEN Atlas e-book for PEN members and friends to enjoy! The e-book features ten literary dispatches from around the world, taken from their online series. Contributing authors include Yan Lianke, Diego Marani, Samar Yazbek & Dubravka Ugresic. You can download your free copy here. On October 10th one of the members of Pussy Riot had their sentence suspended. Leading up to the court case, PEN organized  Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, an ebook international anthology. Click the link to download.


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  1. Wow… You tackled 2 huge subjects there. Conceptually I can say one thing, in practice I am not sure the answers would be the same. I suspect that you never really know these answers for sure until you are faced with having to make those decisions. My answers today: I am a writer so I would say I would write. I am against bullying of any kind so I would stand up against it.
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  2. Hi A.K.: I feel so fortunate to live in Canada where there is not heavy censorship in the media. However, I have purposefully chosen NOT to write about negative and controversial issues. There are enough writers focusing on the negative of the world! I prefer to write feel-good stories about great people, places and things … like chocolate and travel. Makes me smile, and I hope … makes others smile, too!
    Doreen Pendgracs recently posted..Winnipeg’s artisanal chocolatierMy Profile

    • Hi Doreen – thanks so much for your comment. I also feel very fortunate to be able to express myself in print as well. And I think that there is definitely a need for people like yourself who specifically don’t write about things that have negative connotations. There are so many great things in the world. Who can argue with chocolate eh? 🙂
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  3. Both topics are each worth a post of their own. I believe you did an artful job of showing how censorship is a sophisticated form of bullying. Bullying of the nature that we discuss in a non-censored society is just a damaging but in a different way. I’m not sure how I would manage writing in a censored or bullying environment. I would hope I would find the courage to continue you.
    Susan Cooper recently posted..Guest Post by Patrick Huff – Bitches Brew: BeerMy Profile

    • Hey Susan! – good to see you. It really is a tough call on how we’d all act. Being so used to an open society, it’s hard not to overestimate how different it would be in an atmosphere of fear.
      I was pleased to hear your comments on my linking censorship with bullying. I confess I did wonder if in this post I’d linked things that really should be kept separate. But I suppose that’s in part what freedom of speech is about, as well as people discussing differing opinions. 🙂
      A.K.Andrew recently posted..PEN – Do You Have the Freedom to Write?My Profile

  4. Sadly, right now in my neck of the woods, lawmakers are trying ways and means to curtail our freedom of expression.

    If what we write is perceived by the subject as offensive, then we could go to jail as a criminal. The law is at the supreme court still because of several protests from concerned citizens.

    I do hope we would truly have the freedom to write what we want to write eventually.
    Jena Isle recently posted..By: JenaIsleMy Profile

    • Sorry to hear how restricted things are in your country Jena. Even if you don’t want to write anything political, just the threat of it and having to consider subject matters so carefully must be very wearing.
      As you say, hopefully things will change in the future. It can’t come too soon, that’s for sure. Thanks so much for your comment.
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  5. A.K, I don’t think, I would have the curage to write and publish if I were in Burma.
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  6. In one sense, yes we all have the freedom to write, whether it be fiction or otherwise. However, if I were to publish the short stories I am currently working on while still being in the high school classroom, I can imagine the you-know-what would hit the fan if certain parents got wind that an English teacher of their precious, innocent children was publishing LITERARY stories with some sex, violence, and foul language in them. Oppression is often subtle and can lead to shutting off creatvity in many ways. Thank goodness I choose to remove myself from a work environment that left me feeling censored in more ways than one.
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  7. Thanks for your comment Jeri – you made a really good point. I think that’s what I meant regarding people who are not tolerated by others. As you say freedom is a relative term. it doesn’t have to be full on nation wide oppression for things to effect your day to day life. I think in your situation, it may well have been that the pupils parents would have been perturbed by what you wrote about. Even the threat of it must have made it hard, living a ‘dual’ life.
    A.K.Andrew recently posted..PEN – Do You Have the Freedom to Write?My Profile

  8. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live in an oppressive society without the freedom to speak or write. It might be that I would end up on the front page as one being fined or imprisoned for taking a stand against the status quo. Fortunately in the USA, we are free to write and speak.

    On the matter of bullying, I can’t speak to it from experience. Only that when I hear or see acts of it, I feel ashamed for us as people that we act like that.

    Thanks for the post AK.
    Patricia Weber recently posted..How Usain Bolt Can Teach Us To Manage Our Personal Finances BetterMy Profile

    • It really is impossible to know how we would react, but I certainly hope we’re not going to see you on the front pages! Like you though, I hope I would do the right thing.
      Bullying really is an awful thing, and boys probably have it worse than girls. Either way, it is, as you say, shameful.
      Thanks so much for your comments Patricia.
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  9. Here, in good old democratic India, a cartoonist was held on grounds of sedetion – a law dating back to the British era which still exists in our Indian Penal Code — one of the cartoons ‘played around’ with the national emblem. We were all so shocked! Fortunately, the public outcry helped. Here is the url to the news clip. You may have to copy paste it in your browser.
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    • Hi Lubna – thanks so much for your comments and link to this article. It really is awful when people are either hounded, demonized, imprisoned or even killed for what they write, or in this case draw. Freedom of expression is so important, and yet it too, can have consequences. It’s a complex world we live in these days.
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  10. It really is sad when you are unable to express yourself by putting down your thoughts on paper. What a world we live in.
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