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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