Follow Dana Wensley at The New Zealand Author, a publication of The New Zealand Society of Authors.
Sample column. First appeared in The New Zealand Author Issue 300 Autumn 2015. Reproduced with permission of The New Zealand Author.
Why Support Courage Day?
Courage Day (also known as The Day of the Imprisoned Writer) recognises writers who defend the right to free speech, and those who suffer oppression and are killed / imprisoned for their work. The beginning of the year was heralded with the deaths of 12 people following a bloody attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hedbo. The editors and employees of Charlie Hedbo were not freelance journalists in war-torn countries. They were people sitting at computer desks near the tourist mecca of Paris’s Bastille monument, churning out satire for public consumption.
Their deaths remind us we should never take the right to freedom of speech for granted.
What is PEN(NZ)?
Dana Wensley is the PEN (NZ) representative for freedom of speech in New Zealand. Established in 1929, PEN has for over 85 years, supported and promoted human rights. Whether its satirical writers such as those at Charlie Hebdo, or human rights activists like Bahraini Nabeel Rajab (imprisoned in January for six months for insulting public institutions via twitter); PEN International seeks to defend the right of writers to express their ideas, unhindered from fear of political or religious repression. You can find out more about PEN (NZ) here. Find out more about PEN International here.
What is the 'Empty Chair' Campaign?
Empty Chairs for three writers were featured at the latest PEN International Congress in Ottawa. Two of the chairs symbolised imprisoned writers Raif Badawai and Amanuel Asrat. The third chair, for Juan Carlos Argenal Medina, stood empty in his honour following his murder outside his home in Honduras in December 2013. PEN International continues to call for justice following his murder. More.
There is something evocative about an empty chair. It can symbolise many things. The solitary life of a writer. The fact that with the revolution in publishing, much writing today is never destined for public consumption.
Or it can symbolise something more powerful; the plight of the estimated 700-900 writers around the world who are imprisoned for their work.
The chairs at PEN’s 80th International Congress last year represented imprisoned writers whose absence from the conference was ‘emblematic of challenges faced by their colleagues.’
Writing is a solitary business.
It is also a dangerous one.
Writing: A Dangerous Business
According to Reporters Without Borders, a total of 720 journalists have been killed since 2005. Last year alone saw 66 killed, 178 imprisoned, and 119 kidnapped. One need look no further for visual reminders that the written word is still powerful than the beheadings by ISIS of freelance journalists James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Japan’s Kenji Goto.
Aron Atabek: The Day of the Imprisoned Writer 2014
Aron Atabek is a poet, journalist and social activist. He has written several books of poetry and prose inspired by Tengriist spirituality and was the founder, in 1992, of the monthly newspaper Khak (The Truth). Atabek was awarded the literary “Almas Kylysh” prize in 2004 and the Freedom to Create “imprisoned” prize in 2010.
Atabek has been in prison since 2007 and has spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. In December 2012, following the online publication of The Heart of Eurasia, a critique of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime (written in prison by Atabek and smuggled out for publication), the poet was sentenced to spend two years in solitary confinement at a high security prison in Arkalyk. Whilst in solitary detention, Atabek was kept in extremely harsh conditions: he was denied access to natural light, communication with other prisoners, writing materials and telephone calls; family visits were severely restricted, resulting in only one successful visit between 2010 and the current date; he was kept under constant video surveillance.
PEN centres campaigned vigorously to have Atabek released from solitary confinement and moved to a prison within reasonable visiting distance for his family.
Atabek’s solitary confinement and the harsh conditions in which he has been held qualify as a cruel and inhuman punishment that violates the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment under international human rights standards and runs contrary to the recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
PEN (NZ) is trying this year to get more libraries on board around New Zealand to create an event to recognise this important day in the literary calendar.
Previous years have seen a number of libraries hold individual events. Last year 16 libraries in Auckland and the main Christchurch branch got involved with a number of events ranging from hosting a simple 'empty chair' to a full display with books of writers imprisoned around the world. An 'empty chair' is used at conferences to remind authors of the importance of freedom of expression / speech. The 'empty chair' represents writers imprisoned for their work, and features a brief bio of one author. Some included eye-catching items like a decorated chair with "Danger-No Trespassing" tape and handcuffs, or 'pop' up readings of work from imprisoned writers. It is a creative endeavour, and to a certain extent it is up to you to think what best fits with the users of your library. PEN (NZ), in association with the New Zealand Society of Authors can assist you with hosting an event.
For further information on PEN or any issues or concerns raised above please contact Dana Wensley, PEN Representative for NZ at PEN@nzauthors.org.nz
Dana Wensley is the PEN(NZ) representative for freedom of speech in New Zealand. She is a professional member of the New Zealand Society of Authors and a Committee Member of the Top of the South Branch of the New Zealand Society of Authors.