Monday, 21 November 2011

Edinburgh Makar Successfully Released on International Day of the Imprisoned Writer

Jean Rafferty and Drew Campbell drove through from Glasgow last week on the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Their first stop was at the Festival Theatre - who had very kindly agreed to lend us  a large and heavy metal cage. This was loaded into the van, assisted by muscle power from other PEN members, and driven to the Scottish parliament.

Ron Butlin, Edinburgh Makar, behind bars

The cage was set up in front of the Parliament after discussion with the policemen as to the best place to put it. At least it was a spacious cage for Ron Butlin, the Edinburgh Makar who soon found himself behind bars.

The event was to draw attention to the plight of writers around the world, imprisoned because of what they have written. Many countries and political regimes do not respect human rights and freedom of expression.

 A small crowd gathered. A couple of well-behaved golden haired dogs added some flashy brightness to the overcast day.  Jean Rafferty had brought along a tartan tarpaulin to put over the cage, to protect the imprisoned writer, should it rain. But it did not rain.

Several Kurdish people turned up and thanked us for making this demonstration particularly as Ragip Zarakolu a Turkish writer and publisher, has recently been arrested again in Turkey. One of them talked about how difficult it is for Kurdish people in Turkey today. He has lived in the UK for 8 years now, and he drives a taxi. He texted his friends when he heard about our event.

A few poems were read out, written by imprisoned writers, one of them Liu Xiaobo, who received the Noble Peace Prize last year but was unable to go to Oslo to receive it. Scottish PEN organized the creation of a special 'imprisoned writer empty chair', which flew to Oslo to be present at the Nobel Prize ceremony, symbolizing those writers unable to attend because of arrest, detention or imprisonment in their own country.

There was coverage of the event by
the Edinburgh Evening News, the BBC's Book Cafe, STV online and BBC Alba, who filmed the event, as part of a programme about Ragip Zarakolu.

Morelle Smith

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Scottish Writers Cage Edinburgh Makar


Tuesday November 15th marks the International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. PEN international, the global movement of writers, will use this important day to highlight cases of writers who resist repression of the basic human right to freedom of expression, and stand up to attacks made against them and their communities. The international PEN Writers in Prison Committee monitors human rights abuses against writers, journalists and editors, and has over 1,000 names on its official case list.

The Scottish branch of PEN will mark this important day with a unique event at the Scottish parliament.
At 14:00 the Edinburgh Makar, Ron Butlin, will be imprisoned in a cage outside the Parliament, in order to highlight cases of writers and journalists who continue to languish in prison. These include the 2010 Nobel Prize winning Chinese author, Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an eleven year jail sentence, and the Iranian writer and human rights lawyer, Nasrine Sotoudeh, who is being held in solitary confinement for 'propaganda against the [Iranian] state.' Writers, editors and journalists around the world also face other forms of repression, including recurring death threats, for continuing their work.

Members of Scottish PEN will be attending this event, doing readings from imprisoned writer's work, and inviting passers-by to sign postcards demanding government interventions on behalf of imprisoned writers. The event will last for one hour.

Louisa Waugh

Monday, 7 November 2011


I first met Ragip Zarakolu six years ago, in Istanbul. I was there as part of a team of international observers to watch his trial - for what? I can't remember the specific charge now, but there are two things the Turkish authorities hate. One is the suggestion that the Kurdish people are an ethnic minority with their own needs and rights; the other is to call the Ottoman Empire's 1915 genocide of over a million Armenian people... well, genocide. (In fact the word was invented for this massacre.) Ragip is a publisher and regularly publishes books saying one thing or the other.

Throughout the six years of knowing him, I have been one of many members of PEN all over the world who write every month on behalf of Ragip. Throughout those six years there has been only one month when he wasn't charged with anything. Now he has been arrested and is being detained in prison, along with his son, Deniz, the prominent academic and writer, Professor Büşra Ersanlı, and 40 other activists.

The charge is new. Up until now Ragip has always been charged under Turkey's Article 31, a catch-all law that seeks to control freedom of expression. But this time he's being held under anti-terror laws - for daring to speak at a public meeting about Kurdish rights.

There are no stockpiles of explosives here, no teams of suicide bombers lining up to claim their celestial date with 72 virgins. All Ragip deals in is words, and ideas. What puzzles me is, why do the authorities care? Why is it so important to dictatorial governments that everyone parrots the party line? Why does it matter so much to them that a middle-aged publisher insists on standing up for human rights?

Ragip Zarakolu is not running Harper Collins; he is not the head of a Murdochian publishing empire or a Waterstonian chain of shops. He operates out of a small, shabby office in an Istanbul side street, where books are stored in boxes, on shelves, in teetering piles on the floor. They are not glossy coffee table books, nor mass market paperbacks - they are modest, unadorned texts, most of them too academic or polemical to reach the mainstream reader. I doubt whether Ragip prints more than a hundred copies of any one book.
 But he clearly threatens a government which requires its citizens to be as zealously on-message as a member of Tony Blair's cabinet.

In person Ragip has always made me think of a woodchopper in a fairytale. He is sturdy and powerful, with an intrinsic kindness that means you instantly trust him. But his charisma, humour and charm mask unusual determination. Most people would have given up by now, would have decided that life is too short and that it was time to be happy rather than right. Not Ragip. He doesn't know how long he'll be held, he doesn't know when he'll be tried, but today he cocked a snook at the authorities and released an open letter from prison: My arrest and the accusations of being a member of an illegal organisation are part of a campaign to intimidate all intellectuals and democrats living in Turkey and, more specifically, to isolate Kurds, he said.
A union colleague once asked me why Scottish PEN was campaigning for people like Ragip. 'Turkey's a modern country,' he said. 'People don't go to prison there for stuff like that.' And to a certain extent that was true. People like Ragip were constantly being charged, constantly being put through the mill of the judicial process, but they were no longer shackled or beaten or tortured as writers in more primitive countries were, as they themselves had been in the past. Ragip had been imprisoned; his first wife, Aysenur, had been tortured; their publishing house had been firebombed. Forty days after Aysenur's death from cancer, when the initial period of mourning was traditionally over, the police had arrested Deniz Zarakolu for the emotional speech he made at his mother's graveside.
So no, the authorities were no longer persecuting Ragip in such an extreme way, but his physical and mental health were constantly being eroded by the stress of uncertainty. It took him two hours across the Bosphorus Bridge from the Asian shore of Istanbul to get into the city centre, so the night before his court appearances, he and his wife (the American photographer Katherine Holle) would come in early and stay overnight in a hotel. It was the only way to be in a peaceful frame of mind when the legal proceedings began.

Inevitably there have been consequences for Ragip. He has had heart problems and has been in hospital several times over the last few years. At 63 he is no longer a young man. Yet the authorities have put him in a high security prison where conditions are harsh. I have not been asked a single question regarding the organisation I am accused of being a member of; rather, I have only been pressed on works that I have written or edited, speeches I have given, and free and public meetings I have attended, he wrote from prison. Tyrannical regimes understand guns and explosives, but Ragip deals only in words, and ideas, and that seems to frighten them more.

I'm afraid for him, and angry. I hope others will be too.

For more information and to write on Ragip's behalf, go to:

Jean Rafferty

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Steps to Parnassus

I was quite surprised to get the call - or rather the email - inviting me to act as guest editor of the forthcoming issue of Scottish PEN's online magazine. After all, I'm by some distance the least well-known of the three poetry-writing Rob M(a)ckenzies on the Scottish scene. So it was with a mixture of curiosity and a little trepidation that I made my way down Lady Stair's Close to the Writers' Museum for my meeting with the three permanent editors - Anne Clarke, Linda Cracknell and Lindsey Fraser - to discuss the submissions we'd received for 'PENning Steps'. As I walked over the paving stones inscribed with quotations in the courtyard outside, then climbed the narrow stairway up to the Scottish PEN Centre on the first floor of the museum, I found myself wondering whether the local topography had had some influence on the choice of theme.

I've been involved in quite a few editorial meetings over the years but mostly in an academic context, where the rules of the game are slightly different, so I was a little unsure of what to expect. The one editorial session of a poetry magazine I'd attended had been conducted at breakneck speed, with unsuccessful submissions consigned to poetic oblivion in the twinkling of an eye - understandable, no doubt, given the sheer number of poems to be dealt with, but disconcerting nonetheless.

Our meeting was very different. We looked at the submissions in alphabetical order, with each of us taking turns to offer a first opinion, though an unofficial division of labour did begin to emerge, as Linda or Lindsey usually took the lead on prose fiction and Anne or I on the poems. Our deliberations often centred on the competing claims of relevance and literary quality. Of course there's no reason why they need to compete and in many of the submissions, they didn't. But there were a few poems that some or all of us liked but which we felt had a rather tenuous connection with the theme: a sensitively-evoked woodland scene with the merest hint of animal tracks at the end; a self-portrait focusing, as you might expect it to, on looking and reflecting rather than on walking or climbing or dancing. Clearly, thematic relevance is to some extent in the eye of the beholder: an ingenious enough reader could find allusions to steps, literal or figurative, in the most unlikely places. Not that figurative treatments of the theme were a problem: we were quite ready to follow characters or narrators up metaphorical stairways or into imaginary gardens, with or without real toads in them. But doubts began to arise when they (the steps, not the toads) seemed to appear fortuitously or when we felt they weren't fully integrated into the structure of the poem or story.

Our differences of opinion, about this and other questions, were often resolved by taking into account the overall balance of the issue, the echoes or links we could find between pieces. I was struck by how aware of this the other editors were, how their concern for composition and design extended beyond the boundaries of the individual poem or story. Of the other matters we discussed, two are especially worth mentioning. Linda drew our attention early on to the dearth of submissions, for this issue at least, by refugees and asylum seekers - in fact, there was only one. I don't think any of us felt the story in question was without its flaws, or at least rough edges, but it did explore areas of (largely painful) experience which broadened and deepened the thematic range of the issue. Then there was the language question: we received only one piece written entirely in Scots, though several of the stories used Scots in direct speech, in the time-honoured tradition of Scott and Stevenson. We were all impressed by the skill of that piece, how it managed to be both convincing and accessible. It's probably worth reiterating here that the editors actively encourage submissions that reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of contemporary Scotland.

I came away from the Writers' Museum after the meeting with two things uppermost in my mind. The first was the confirmation of something I already knew but sometimes forget - that it can be a very illuminating experience to talk to other writers and editors and gain an insight into their perspectives and sensibilities, how they respond to a poem or story, what they find in it to commend or criticise. And the second thing? A heightened awareness of steps...

Robin MacKenzie

Click on the link below to read 'PENning Steps':