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PEN’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer: Albie Sachs Reads from His Jail Diary (Videos)

Albie Sachs

Alert! Today, November 15 2010, marks the 50th year that writers’ organisation PEN has observed a Day of the Imprisoned Writer, an initiative of its Writers in Prison committee.

The Jail Diary of Albie SachsThe Soft Vengeance of the Freedom FighterThe Free Diary of Albie SachsThe Strange Alchemy of Life and Law“On 15 November we draw attention to current urgent situations, while recalling hundreds and hundreds of cases of individuals who have been imprisoned, harassed, physically assaulted or even murdered, simply because they have exercised their right to freely express their thoughts and ideas”, said Marian Botsford-Fraser, chair of the committee, in a PEN press release.

The statement goes on to point out that, following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned poet and essayist Liu Xiaobo, this year’s anniversary holds a special pertinence – particularly given that the award has prompted a crackdown, in China, on other writer-dissidents.

To commemorate the day this year, SA PEN and BOOK SA asked former Constitutional Court justice Albie Sachs – who was placed in solitary confinement in the 1960s after being arrested for his anti-apartheid work – to reflect on and read from The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, his exceptional first contribution to South African letters. The book, written in 1964 – immediately after Sachs was released, while the events were still fresh in his mind – details, in clear and piercing prose, the mental and physical trials that a person undergoes when alone in a cell, day after day after day. It is without doubt one of the most affecting and informative works on the experiences of a prisoner of conscience in world literature; and its artistic power is comparable to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Earlier this year, Sachs won South Africa’s top award for non-fiction, the Alan Paton Award, for his latest book, The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law – the second time he’s won the award.

Here are four clips from our afternoon with Albie Sachs and his Jail Diary. The author chose to focus, in his readings and remarks, on moments of hope: court judgments beyond his prison bars eventually granted him access to books and writing material, which were crucial in helping him keep his resolve not to break and turn informant. Reading restored to him his sense of his own humanity, he said; suddenly, he wasn’t alone any longer. “I probably wouldn’t be former justice Albie Sachs, talking to you today, if it wasn’t for the books I read during that period when I was in prison.”

Videos: The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs

On revisiting the Jail Diary; a message for PEN; and the books that comprised Sachs’ reading list while in prison:

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On receiving library books in solitary confinement:

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Don Quixote: the book that meant the most to Sachs, in prison:

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On receiving a piece of paper and a pencil on solitary confinement:

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One of the five writers-in-prisons cases that International PEN is highlighting today is that of Robert Mintya of Cameroon, a newspaper editor who has been in prison since February 2010. Read more about his situation:

PEN’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer: Robert Mintya of Cameroon

The other writers highlighted by International PEN today are:

Hossein Derakshan, a blogger sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment in Iran; Tal Al-Mallouhi, a 19 year-old Syrian blogger, poet and high school student, who is said to be facing charges of espionage and who has been held incommunicado in Damascus since 27 December 2009; Dilmurod Saidov, an independent Uzbekistani journalist, who is serving 12 years in prison on extortion charges widely thought to have been fabricated, and who has not received medical treatment for tuberculosis; and José Bladimir Antuna García, a journalist murdered in Mexico in November 2009, whose killers have never been identified or prosecuted.

Margie Orford, executive Vice President of SA PEN, attended the 76th PEN International Congress in Tokyo in September and was tasked by Botsford-Fraser to look at establishing a Writers in Prison Committee in South Africa. “This will enable us, among other things, to take up cases of imprisoned writers, particularly on our own continent, and to continue the work South African PEN has been doing championing freedom of expression in South Africa, a principle which is fundamental to our democracy,” said Orford.

If you’d like to get involved, contact SA PEN.

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Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    November 15th, 2010 @09:26 #
     
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    This is so moving. Take a minute's typing and talking silence to think of those who write the truth to power. They are special and brave people. And there are so many writers around the world imprisoned or exiled or persecuted because of it. Freedom of speech is a fragile and precious thing that should be defended fiercely.

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    November 15th, 2010 @15:46 #
     
  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    November 15th, 2010 @18:07 #
     
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    Thanks for the link, Margie.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 15th, 2010 @21:45 #
     
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    Thank you Ben, thank you Margie. For remembering, for reminding us to remember.

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  • ChrisG
    ChrisG
    November 15th, 2010 @22:08 #
     
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    The piece about starting to write in detention is so evocative. I wasn’t a writer imprisoned, but I was imprisoned, writing. I too remember getting a pen when I was in solitary confinement. Two Security Policemen, without the knowledge of the other, each gave me a pen to write my “biography” and the names of people I recognised on their 1200 photograph mugshot album of ANC underground operatives and exiles. I managed to return only one, and so had the use of an illicit pen throughout 80 days of a 90 day period in solitary in Milnerton Police Station. Unlike Albie Sachs, I knew immediately what I wanted to do with it: I wrote “For my support group and friends” as a heading in my bible, and recorded 300 words a day of my experiences, in very tiny script, never knowing if it would be discovered. It never was, and I now know that on 30 December 1987, I mused about whether I would do the same as Albie did, once released, and run immediately to the sea for a swim, as he described in his prison diary which I had read a couple of years before. As it happened I didn’t, as 2 years later, I was driven to my new home in Observatory where I drank a couple of beers instead. In retrospect, a swim would have been good. I still have my diary bible. And the pen.

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  • <a href="http://margieorford.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Margie</a>
    Margie
    November 16th, 2010 @07:46 #
     
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    Writing provides a life line to the imagination and to the heart. And it counters the brutality of incarceration.

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  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    November 16th, 2010 @10:01 #
     
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    Thanks very much for your comment, ChrisG.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 16th, 2010 @12:15 #
     
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    ChrisG, you didn't perhaps happen to write about cricket in that bible, did you? :))

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  • ChrisG
    ChrisG
    November 16th, 2010 @13:14 #
     
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    Actually I did Helen, just a bit. I wrote a silly piece when I was feeling ridiculous called "Marxism and cricket", which was not part of the diary, but a kind of addendum, along with dreams, my exercise programme and possible UNISA study courses. And my cell window had a view of one half of a club cricket pitch: so on Saturday afternoons, I could watch either someone batting or someone bowling, and would have to imagine the other half.

    And Margie is right: the act of writing when you have little control over your surroundings is a powerful counter to the alienation.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    November 16th, 2010 @21:11 #
     
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    ChrisG, I remember it well! You sent me a photocopy, years ago. I still have it somewhere, and I remember getting rather emotional about the tiny, cramped (clearly illicit) handwriting, the cell with a view, the notion of cricket as comfort, carefully hedged by ideological earnestness.

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