At Home Everywhere: Writers in Prison Committee / ICORN Conference 2019

Scottish PEN joined PEN centres, PEN International and ICORN at the At Home Everywhere: Writers in Prison Committee / ICORN Conference held in Rotterdam at the end of May 2019. Jane Archer of the Scottish PEN Writers At Risk Committee shares her thoughts about the event and why working to protect at-risk writers is a […]

July 2, 2019

Scottish PEN joined PEN centres, PEN International and ICORN at the At Home Everywhere: Writers in Prison Committee / ICORN Conference held in Rotterdam at the end of May 2019. Jane Archer of the Scottish PEN Writers At Risk Committee shares her thoughts about the event and why working to protect at-risk writers is a global effort. Please note. to protect the anonymity and security of writers, many of the writers mentioned in this piece are left unnamed.

The title of the conference led to many questions. Can people be at home everywhere? What makes us feel at home – in the place of our birth or in another village, town, country, continent? How can we/others make a place our home? Does the place of our birth remain home, no matter where we live? At home everywhere – is that a state of mind rather than a state of being – and if so, is that too much to ask from people who have been in hiding, tortured, near drowned and/or much worse. What is being asked of people in order to stay safe, to stay alive?

PEN International works closely with ICORN (the International City of Refuge Network) carefully selecting and reviewing applications from writers who are at risk and who may have to leave their home country for safety and, hopefully, the ability to continue to write. Many ICORN residents attending the conference shared the experience of leaving their homes to create a new one for one or two years. Many of their stories were harrowing, where staying and leaving were acts of danger; and many struggled to create new homes in their ICORN cities. It takes time, support, perseverance when, so often, people are already physically and emotionally exhausted. There is varying success on whether or not people feel at home during their residency. As Scottish PEN works towards Scotland having its first city of refuge, I hoped Glasgow’s hospitality and warmth lives up to its reputation.

Several writers spoke of being in prison and how prisoners attempt to make a home. A renowned Bangladeshi photographer, writer and activist, who was imprisoned for over 100 days for covering a protest in Dhaka, spoke of how other prisoners helped him to build a tray for sparrows to feed on; and how they painted murals of different places on the walls of the prison, their work spaces or other meaningful spaces. A Cameroonian writer currently living in exile stated that home is the ability to think and talk freely. She is an investigative journalist and has had threats to her life and threats against her family. She wants to return to Cameroon and be a role model for so many girls. She wants to keep writing about important issues yet, as she pointed out, a dead writer can’t write. The award-winning writer Yiyun Li spoke eloquently on immigration and home, mentioning a friend in China who has had certain material published but her ‘real’ writing, the stuff she really values, will never be published – No home truths allowed. Salil Tripathi (chair of the Writers in Prison Committee) summarised this with the statement ‘the stories not said, the stories never told’. Scottish PEN’s manager, Nik Williams, led several workshops on censorship, including self-censorship, and digital rights/freedoms. Many writers at risk want to know how they can write what they want to write in such dangerous times.

One significant experience of the conference was meeting Asli Erdogan from Turkey. I told her of how I remembered one of her stories from prison and the lengths to which prisoners went to grow a plant: how this tiny seedling offered hope and how women came together in prison to build a home for the seedling so that it might thrive (I believe it was a basil plant, hidden in the toilet, and eventually destroyed by the guards). I started to tremble when I spoke. She said it was one of her favourite stories, a treasured memory. A fellow Turkish novelist (and journalist) Ahmet Altan, in one of the most profound pieces of writing on being in prison, stated he could find a place anywhere and everywhere in his mind: ‘I am writing this from a prison cell. But I am not in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. You can imprison me, but you cannot keep me in prison. Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease.’ Home is his imagination. Ahmet Altan was given a life sentence in February 2018. At the age of sixty-six, he doesn’t know if he will ever get out alive. I hope his imagination gives him respite and keeps allowing him to be at home everywhere.