'Don’t let your ink run out, neither your hope' – Irish poets giving voice to imprisoned writers from across the world

A group of Irish authors is working to give voice to fellow writers across the globe who have been imprisoned as a result of their work.

The Irish arm of The Freedom to Write Campaign is hosting an evening of poetry and music at the Irish Writers Centre to highlight the desperate plight of their colleagues who are serving prison sentences of varying lengths.

Irish poets Celia de Fréine, Colm Keegan, Chris Murray and Maria McManus will read the poetry of Egyptian writer Galal el-Behairy, Chimengul Awut from China, Dawit Isaac, who is imprisoned in Eritrea, and Turkish writer Nedim Türfent.

Isaak, an award-winning Swedish-Eritrean journalist and writer, has been held incommunicado in Eritrea  for over 17 years while Egyptian poet Galal El-Behairy is currently detained and faces charges in the Military Court related to his latest book of poetry, ‘The Finest Women on Earth’,  published in 2018.   He also faces additional charges for writing the lyrics of a song and was arrested, beaten and tortured after its release.

News editor, reporter and poet, Nedim Türfent, has been sentenced to eight years and nine months in a Turkish prison on terrorism charges following a trial in which witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him. 

Chimengul Awut is a well-known Uyghur (female) poet who worked as a senior editor for a publishing house before she was taken to the China’s Concentration Camps in July 2018.

Author June Considine, who writes under the pen name Laura Elliot, is one of the Irish writers spearheading the campaign which aims to promote freedom of expression by raising public awareness about the issue of writers who are at risk, in prison, or who have been murdered because of their work.  The group has been hosting events and campaigns and sending signatures and letters of protest to various governments for the past three years.

“In the course of doing various events I discovered a lot about the poetry of writers who have been imprisoned,” says June.  “Quite a lot of them are not poets when they enter prison.  They’re journalists, bloggers, editors, but quite often they start writing poetry when they’re imprisoned.  It just seems to release the creative spirit in them possibly.  You can be very passionate in a poem.”

The group is affiliated to PEN International, which also works to highlight the plight of imprisoned writers and often translates the work of the writers into English and shares that work with the global community.

“I also found from my own research that [poetry] was a very powerful medium and so I thought for this year’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer I would get Irish poets to actually speak the words and give voice to those who can’t be heard,” reveals June.

“It just puts a very human presence on it because in a lot of their cases there’s not a lot of information there.  Obviously there’s very factual information available but poetry is a freer expression and you just feel it’s quite intimate, it’s their innermost thoughts, and quite often the poetry is written under extremely difficult circumstances and that’s perhaps why I find it so moving.”

Most of the poetry is quite personal and revolves around missing loved ones, being forcefully removed from them, and trying to re-engage with them.

“One is called, ‘I have a date with tomorrow’ and again you have a sense of somebody whose life has just changed utterly and trying to come to terms with that experience, those feelings of what they’ve left behind in the context of what country they’re imprisoned within,” says June.

In a letter written from his prison cell in Turkey to the Freedom to Write Campaign (Ireland), Nedim Türfent wrote, “…the government claims that ‘there are no journalists in prisons’. However, the court who convicted me declared the opposite. In the justification of my sentence, I am accused of ‘making disturbing news’.”

He was arrested in 2016 after covering clashes between the Turkish army and the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and is currently serving a sentence of eight years and nine months.

He ends his letter on a note of hope, however; “Are you asking about justice? Well, maybe years later. Please underline the word ‘maybe’. Even only for this maybe, it is worth hoping. If you hear my voice now, I wish you all a sunny and smiling future. To Ireland, to you… Don’t let your ink run out, neither your hope.”

At the event, Imprisoned Voices – A Hearing, on Thursday June and fellow writers Catherine Dunne, Kate Ennals, Anthony Glavin, Liz McManus and Lia Mills will contribute to the stories of the evening, which takes place on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on Thursday, November 15.

Eamonn Sweeney and Cormac Breatnach will be performing on classical guitar and flute.

Imprisoned Voices – A Hearing has been organised in conjunction with Irish PEN and Poetry Ireland and will take place at Poetry Ireland, 11 Parnell Square E, Rotunda, Dublin 1 at 6.30pm on Thursday, November 14, 2019. Admission is free but booking via: https://www.poetryireland.ie/whats-on/giving-voice-to-imprisoned-writers

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