This will be my sixth year of attending the Byron Bay Writer’s Festival. And yes, I do realise how fortunate I am to be saying that. Each year a clutch of us from the Nambucca Valley Writers’ Group make the not quite-but almost- pilgrimage. We book our accommodation early, wait impatiently for the program to come out and generally look forward to the annual fix of ideas and camaraderie that the festival provides.
Last year, as I was anticipating the pleasures to come, the PEN chair and its presence at the festival came sharply to mind, making me re-examine my feelings about it. I recalled how the marquee falls silent while the chair of the session gives an account of an individual writer’s plight, having been imprisoned for his words. I would struggle to imagine the conditions under which the writer was being held and how ironic it is that words, which liberate us, cause them so much suffering. And then, inevitably, the festival would flow on taking us all with it. For words and the ideas that they create, however they are received in some cultures, cannot be contained. I admired such courage and determination but have always been left feeling that, as writers, we could do something more.
PEN is doing a fantastic job in raising our consciousness and providing a voice for imprisoned writers. To support their efforts our writers’ group has begun to raise funds by having a PEN money box at our meetings. Next to it is our own empty chair which gives a visual reminder of those we are seeking to help. At the end of the year we will send a cheque to PEN. We would encourage all writers’ groups to do the same.
And now comes the challenge…can we go a step further?
If I were a writer locked away from family and friends, living in unthinkable deprivation and not knowing when it would end, what would I fear most? I have thought about this with difficulty, being incredibly privileged to live in a free society. This privilege insulates me from imagining such a scenario; however, isolation must be a terrifying companion. That voice in his head day and night “does anyone still know I’m here, or even care?” How comforting it would be to know that there is.
Writers’ groups abound in Australia and could make a difference by doing what they do best. I challenge every member, each month, to write a letter to an individual writer or otherwise to their government. As writers we all understand the power of words and how they can be used to comfort or implore. So let’s earn our right to read, write and communicate at will. Organisations like PEN and Amnesty do mighty work but let’s use our pens to let these writers know they are not alone or forgotten.
More information available at Sydney PEN - http://pen.org.au/
- Gill Chapman, Vice President