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South African Writers Stand In for Jailed Peers on International Day of the Imprisoned Writer

Emma Rycroft, Tom Eaton, Margie Orford, Tim Butcher, Lauren Beukes, Michael Morris, Beatrice Willoughby, Gus Ferguson, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Jacques Coetzee and Finuala Dowling

The low summer light of late afternoon filtered in through the long windows of Kalk Bay Books last Thursday. The occasion was the 31st International Day of the Imprisoned Writer and many arrived early to secure a precious seat. It was to be a long evening, filled with words that were haunting and beautiful, harrowing and sublime.
Emma RycroftMargie Orford, popular author and Vice President of South African PEN, welcomed the large gathering. She said that in light of the Secrecy Bill set to be finalised in the National Council of Provinces shortly, it was prescient to be gathering to remember writers who were currently in prisons around the world.

It brought home the grave threat to freedom of expression in South Africa. She said, “Most of us grew up under apartheid where the one thing you could not do was say what you thought, and if you did, you were punished.”

Tom Eaton, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Lauren Beukes, Tim Butcher, Michael Morris and Gus Ferguson read from the works of their imprisoned counterparts, Tal al-Mallouhi (Syria), Ericson Acosta (Philippines), Muharrem Erbey (Turkey), Dolwa Kyab (Tibet), Eskinder Nega (Ethiopia), Liu Xiaobo (China) and Mamadali Makhmudov (Uzbekistan).

Popular radio talk show host, John Maytham, emceed the event. He commenced with an extract from a piece by Nadine Gordimer, written in 1984: “What writer of any worth defends fascism, totalitarianism, racism? … In South Africa, where are the writers who produce brilliant defences of apartheid? …Art is on the side of the oppressed…”

At that time, writers in prison included Breyten Breytenbach, Jeremy Cronin, Alex la Guma, Dennis Brutus, Albie Sachs, Dikobe Wa Mogale, Emma Mashinini, Caesarina Makhoere, James Matthews, Indres Naidoo. Maytham pointed out that many of these people first became writers while in prison.

“We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too much that our days of imprisoning writers are in the past,” he said. “Even as we gather here tonight to show solidarity to writers imprisoned in Turkey, Syria, Tibet, Uzbekistan, China, Ethiopia and the Philippines, the enemies of truth are gathering again on our own threshold – thanks to the pending Information Bill, those who tell the truth in South Africa in the future will face prison sentences of five years or more.”

Tim Butcher, Gus Ferguson, Michael Morris, Lauren Beukes, Tom Eaton, Henrietta Rose-Innes and John MaythamCiting Solzhenitsyn, he continued, “‘For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.’ Or, as Shelley said many years before: ‘Poets…are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting; they are the instituters of laws, and the founders of civil society…’ In short, Shelley famously concluded: ‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’.” Maytham pointed out that people around the world were marking the day by paying tribute to the unacknowledged – imprisoned – “legislators of the world”.

The readings started with Kalk Bay poet and blogger, Beatrice Willoughby, aged 19. She read her Syrian agemate, Tal al-Mallouhi’s poem:

I will walk with all walking people
And no
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
In which
I have
A palm tree
A drop in a cloud
And a grave to protect me
This is more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise me
My master:
I would like to have power
Even for one day
To build the “republic of feelings.”
(Translated by Ghias al-Jundi)

Red Earth and Rust vocalist, Jacques Coetzee, opened the event with Johann Kotze on guitar, in an exquisite rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”. The evening concluded with high school musician, Emma Rycroft, singing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”. The stark purity of her voice and its tender sweetness brought home the enormous vulnerability of all who courageously take on the might of repressive regimes in order to speak truth to power.

No Enemies, No HatredLiu XiaoboHolding PatternApartheid
Chasing the DevilZoo City (SA edition)NinevehThe Wading
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Liesl Jobson tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:

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