Monday, 31 October 2011

Publisher and Human Rights Defender Ragip Zarakolu Arrested

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Ragip Zarakolu

Ragip Zarakolu is one of Scottish PEN’s adopted cases

Publisher and Human Rights Defender Ragip Zarakolu ArrestedThe Turkish police detained Ragip Zarakolu, a well-known human rights activist and director of Belge Publishing House, in Turkey. Zarakolu is also the chairman of the Publishers Association Freedom to Publish Committee of Turkey.

Zarakolu was taken into custody on October 28, 2011, during a large-scale manhunt in Istanbul against Kurdish activists.

His son, Deniz Zarakolu, editor of the Belge Publishing House, was arrested on October 4.

Ragip Zarakolu’s Belge Publishing House has published numerous books on the oppression of  national minorities in Turkey as well  as on the Armenian Genocide.

Earlier on the same day, within the same man-hunt, Professor Büsra Ersanli
a constitutional law expert and a member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party's (BDP) intra-party constitutional commission, was detained along with dozens of others.

Maison du Peuple de Geneve

Please go to International PEN's website to find out more about Ragip Zarakolu,the present situation, and how you can take action.

In Wordsworth Country - 'A Leech Gatherer from Outer space'

As part of a remarkable charitable project, Vik Bennett at Wild Women Press has organised a calendar to raise funds for research into type 1 diabetes - her little boy Django suffers from it. Vik and her partner Adam are currently preparing the launch, and a pre-publication offer is available. 
Female poets ranging from Wendy Cope and Penelope Shuttle to Monica Alvi and Pascale Petit have supplied poems for free, and 14 male poets in the buff, combining with professional women photographers (who remained clothed), have supplied images for more than a year's worth of months.

I took part - collaborating with photographer Claire McNamee - and a shot of me (taken just off one of Wordsworth's favourite walks in Grasmere) will appear in the calendar, across from a poem "Porridge" by Angela Readman.

I'm attaching a short account I wrote of going on the shoot in Cumbria.  Also, I promise that although my naked disporting wouldn't exactly set the bracken on fire (though my kids laughed and said it was ok) there are enough aesthetically pleasing and charged images in the other months to suit a variety of tastes. Poems too.

Check it out - and do order one.  It is in a very worthy cause!

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The Grasmere Shoot: Recollected in Tranquillity

Meeting up with Claire McNamee was a pleasure from the start, and a relief – especially when you have never met before and somebody else (however sweet, careful and sympathetic) has arranged the pairings.

Anyway, Claire’s motto at the outset (conveyed by email) was “no fuss, no muss” – and that was fine by me. And so it turned out.  Claire is droll, dry, sharp, professional, with a great sense of humour. The day before the shoot we went to scout out Greta Hall in Keswick, which is splendid and evocative. There was Southey’s desk, and stairs and corridors up and along which everybody – Coleridge, Wordsworth and Dorothy, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Ruskin, de Quincey and Uncle Tom Cobley and all – must have puffed and toddled, in various states of inspiration, confusion or undress.

The opium bed (which takes up half a room, and was intended also as a kind of throne, lounge and office for whatever zonked potentate had originally occupied it) was a temptation, but not really on.  Nor were the other numinous, but interior locations. I was set on being outside, and so was Claire. There was a tree house, and a river right next to the Hall, which came briefly into the reckoning, but with the promise of lots of people (including resident guests) around and about next day we thought to look further afield.

The location we were searching for turned out to be right next door to our hostel in Grasmere.  Claire spotted it after dinner when she was out for a puff and a short walk down the road. Lancrigg, which was also a favourite spot for the Romantics, now features a hotel with a fine vegetarian restaurant. It is surrounded by extensive grounds and gardens, and it was here – when things were a touch wilder and woollier – that Mr Wordsworth would come to ramble, composing as he went. Much of the Prelude apparently was shaped up on these walks along the steep and undulating heavily wooded paths. Claire came back intrigued. Though we didn’t know of the Prelude link at that point, I was soon hooked too. Especially when we took a quick recce in the gloaming, and saw the possibilities.

Once we got back to the hostel I said, “Okay – I’ll knock on your door at six”. So that was it. Next morning we set off just after the hour with Claire’s gear – not a lot beyond her little classic Leica – and quietly skirted the front of the Hotel, hoping they wouldn’t mind our taking this short excursion through their elegant demesne in the interests of art – and charity!

The location, at the top of one of the main long paths was mostly determined by the best available light: cutting through the trees to a little bracken-filled clearing. A few shots, all at F2 for half a second, were taken of me partly obscured in the bracken patch. In the one we chose for the calendar I look like the Old Man of the Woods heading for his breakfast – not all that scary, but not all that attractive either – though it has a kind of bemused intensity about it.  When I stepped out clear of the bracken, and struck a few more obviously primate poses, things went from bizarre to perverse, perhaps; anyway, I laugh to recall Claire’s final words of the shoot: “More gorilla!”

Whether many get to view the actual print to be auctioned at the launch I don’t know.  However, the figure in it may be best described as luminous – extra-terrestrial even – a kind of Leech Gatherer from outer space.  A ghostly premonition or sublime missing link, with its ‘entirety’ (a lovely euphemism in vogue with the younger male conspirators in the project) no more than a wren or sand-martin popping out of a shadowy nest.

The whole process only took us half an hour, and once I got tidied up, and we gathered the gear, we wandered back down the path again, past oaks and beeches and massive conifers: plenty big sequoias and Douglas firs. I scouted around in vain for metaseqoia glyptostroboides, the “Dawn Redwood”, thought lost and only part of the fossil record, but rediscovered in China in 1944 and brought to the UK as a popular ornamental for just such locations as this.  However, there was an old fish pond, filled by a beck trickling down, and a couple of stages below that some lawns and gardens attractively laid out, occupied at that hour only by floppity bunnies out for snacks.

Back into the hostel, having discomposed no-one except ourselves, we found the others down for breakfast and we settled happily in to eggs and bacon, coffee, toast and marmalade, pretty confident that the job was complete to that point, and as a result – “no fuss, no muss” – we could take it nice and easy for the rest of the day, no matter what uncanny images might later be visited on this unsuspecting world.

Alexander Hutchison

Monday, 24 October 2011


Last night, a digital artist, Matt Zanetti, sent me three draft covers for my next eBook: Bird of Passage. They weren’t quite what I’d expected, but I was enchanted by the images which seem to reflect the contents of the novel in a unique and – for me – very emotional way. I’m finding it hard to choose between them. It’s a novel which somebody once described as ‘Wuthering Heights meets the Bridges of Madison County.’ It certainly started out as a homage to Wuthering Heights, which I’ve been obsessed with since my teens. I was named for its heroine, and my Yorkshire mother, married to a tall, dark, handsome stranger, in the shape of my Polish father, (a much nicer proposition than Heathcliff), trundled me over the moors in my push-chair, to the ruined farmhouse called Top Withens  supposedly the inspiration behind the setting of Emily’s novel.
Bird of Passage is set on a remote Scottish island, rather than in Yorkshire. It certainly deals with the intrusion of a stranger and with obsessive love, but at some point during the many drafts, I found I wanted to explore more of the background of the incomer, a young Irishman called Finn, sent over to Scotland for the potato harvest. He’s a damaged individual, and the more I questioned why, the more his story of a brutal childhood in one of Ireland’s industrial schools began to dominate the novel. It’s a tale of cruelty, passionate love and redemption, in a rural setting, all of which seems to be reflected in the cover image created by the artist.
This is not what normally happens with cover art. Usually, (and probably with good reason) it is treated as any other kind of packaging and the imperatives are all commercial. If he or she is lucky or has a kindly publisher, the writer will be consulted, may even get to see and approve the cover, but it’s rare to have any kind of formal veto. With eBooks it’s different and one of the differences is that you can please yourself about the image you want to use to promote the book on the website. This also means that you have to live with the consequences – but isn’t that what creativity is all about?

This is my second experience of this kind of collaboration within the past six months. My friend, Scottish textile artist Alison Bell  designed an amazing and widely praised cover for my novel, The Curiosity Cabinet, when I reissued it on Kindle, earlier this year. Now, I have two genuine artworks which uniquely reflect so much of what I felt when I was writing these books. It’s just another of the unexpected joys of this form of publishing, one more reason why so many experienced writers are embracing it, even while publishers struggle to find ways of coping with these seismic changes.
Over the past few months, I’ve been considering why the status quo has become so untenable and why I and so many of my colleagues are choosing the eBook option. This is especially noticeable among writers like myself who, a few years ago, suddenly found ourselves in ‘mid-list limbo’ – experienced, well reviewed writers, often middle-aged or older women, who couldn’t find a publishing deal for love nor money. We are not celebrities, we are not stunning debut novelists and although some of us might claim to be ‘literary’ we are not so wildly experimental that the literati will admit us to that exclusive inner circle.
When we or our agents – for many of us have agents – submit work, it will be met with fulsome praise, even from hard-nosed editors. ‘I just love this novel’ an editor will say. ‘But I’m afraid I can’t take my marketing department with me.’  We may have written something beautiful and moving and absorbing but it is never going to sell many thousands of copies in whatever supermarket passes for a bookshop these days. Thirty years ago, it would have been published if an editor truly loved it, and the publication would have been financed by the blockbusters or celebrity bios. Now, your manuscript will come crawling slowly back to you, with editorial regret. Conventional publishing has become a hall of mirrors, a place where people forever admire their own reflections – a place without any obvious entrances or exits.
There are a great many of us mid list writers who – despairing of the way in which we have been relegated to the sidelines – are starting to upload not just our out-of-print back lists to Kindle or other platforms, but also the new work which we and our agents have been struggling to sell. In the olden days, we might have gathered subscriptions from family and friends and patrons, as the poet Robert Burns did, to fund publication. The downside is that there are lots of people who are too inexperienced to know how little they know, and some of the work available online is probably unreadable by all but family and friends. The democratisation of publishing has brought a certain amount of chaos in its wake, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting for those writers who are genuinely prepared to hone their craft.
Most writers these days, however professional, don’t earn enough from their writing to make a living, so you may as well write what you genuinely want to write in the time available to you. Follow your heart. If you are a young, or just starting out, by all means have a go at conventional markets. But if you have a novel or novels which have been well edited and highly praised, but remain unsold, you can at least choose to get them out there yourself and let them take their chances while you get on with the next project. The chances may actually be quite good. Those middle aged and older readers buy lots of books and now they are probably going to be asking for Kindles for Christmas as well.
Catherine Czerkawska

Monday, 17 October 2011

The World's Vanishing Languages

Language is the greatest cultural achievement of the human race. A language, any language, is a creation of immense sophistication which has taken millennia to evolve. Nothing else tells us so much about a culture as its language.

There are about 6,500-7,000 distinct languages in the world today. By the end of this century up to half of these may have disappeared. Most of the world’s threatened languages, having no written form, will completely vanish, unrecorded and undocumented. The rate of disappearance is accelerating. At present more than 500 languages are spoken by fewer than 10 people and 1,800 languages are moribund, that is to say, children are no longer speaking them, and a large proportion of them are only spoken regularly by people over sixty. 80 major languages are between them the first language of about 85% of the world’s population. Nearly all the other thousands of languages are spoken by small groups, the large majority of whom are still hunter-gatherers or have retained some connection to the hunter-gatherer culture -  North American Indians, forest tribes in South America and SE Asia, Arctic and sub-Arctic communities, Australian Aborigines, African hunters and herders. New Guinea alone has five times as many languages as the whole of Europe – separate languages, not just different dialects. Most of these groups belong to what is sometimes termed The Fourth World - minority groups within a nation with a different, more dominant culture and language.

It is a misconception that the so-called ‘primitive’ or undeveloped societies have primitive, undeveloped languages.   All research shows these languages to be highly sophisticated instruments of expression, often more complex than our own languages. To give just one example:  whereas English divides the world into singular and plural, Murrinh-Patha, spoken by a small group of Aborigines in  northern Australia, has four categories, single, dual, paucal (for groups of 3-15 people) and plural (for groups of over 15 people).  Since a pronoun is spoken differently according to whether the person is male, female,  a sibling,  married or unmarried, the word ‘you’ in a sentence such as ‘ You are welcome to my home,’ might be said in twenty different ways.

Hunter-gatherer cultures relate to the landscape and to nature much more closely than we do. They see themselves as part of it, not something separate from it, or with the right to have dominion over it.  This, too, is reflected in the language, which makes nature the centre of attention before placing a person in its midst.
The disappearance of a language is a tragedy on many levels. It might happen as a result of the extinction or near extinction of a remote group of people, or through the pressure of a more dominant culture or language, sometimes accompanied by enforced schooling which outlaws the minority language. Being forced off the land and dispersed (e.g. because of commercial mining, logging or clearance for palm-oil plantations), or mass deportation can also contribute to the disintegration of a culture. Whatever the cause, there is human suffering, alienation, loss of identity and mental anguish.

Languages reveal different thought processes and values, different ways of seeing the world, of organising experience, different realities. They provide deep insights into other cultures and open a window into the minds of their speakers. Our global heritage, with its fascinating diversity, is impoverished each time a language dies. The loss of any language is a loss for us all. In 1996 the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was signed by UNESCO, PEN International and several other NGOs. It’s a start, but there is a long way to go and in all too many cases it is too late.

Robin Lloyd-Jones, October 2011

Monday, 3 October 2011

National Poetry Day - and in Translation

Hugh MacDiarmid declared in 1923 that if there was ‘to be a Scottish literary revival, the first essential is to get rid of our provinciality of outlook and to avail ourselves of Continental experience.’ There’s no shortage of Scottish PEN members doing just that, of course, but we at the Scottish Poetry Library suspect that readers don’t appreciate how much of the ‘Continental experience’ is encapsulated in the wealth of bilingual and translated collections on our shelves.

 This summer we’ve been involved in celebrating the centenaries of two grand old men of European literature:  Sorley MacLean and Czesław Miłosz. Breaking with the tradition of featuring only Scottish poems on our National Poetry Day cards (distributed all over Scotland around 6 October), we’ve included a poem by Miłosz: ‘The Porch’, from his idyllic sequence
The World, published in 1945. Boldly (I think), the front of the postcard gives the Polish and the back carries an English translation; similarly with the Gaelic poem for NPD, by Angus Peter Campbell, the original Gaelic faces out and the English translation is on the back of the postcard.

We’re relying on the attractive designs and familiarity of the format, I suppose, to carry casual readers across the language barrier; we hope their curiosity will be piqued by these languages, which after all have thousands of speakers and readers in Scotland. They’re both immediately appealing poems, taking us back to scenes of childhood: the brother and sister bent over their game of battleships – on a porch in Poland; the children converting a cart into a vehicle for their dreams – in a field in South Uist. Maybe the languages are the grit, for most of us, and the pearl of the experience lies in the translation.

One of the events about Sorley MacLean at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was a large reading group, looking at two of his poems in the original, and in translations by MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith. It was great to hear people argue over the merits of ‘the mild furious dogs of poetry’ compared to ‘the mild mad dogs of poetry’ (and to hear from someone who had asked Sorley about his dog imagery, from a vet’s perspective), to have that intense engagement with language/s.

I hate to think that this will disappear from our schools and universities, as it seems set to do. Our postcards are small flags waved in the direction of more translations and more international relationships.  One of the activities of PEN, itself an international organisation, is to promote translations from and into English, with the most recent projects of Scottish PEN involving Finnish, Macedonian, French and Romanian writing.

Robyn Marsack

You can find specific information about the poetry postcards on the Scottish Poetry Library website.
[If you can’t find National Poetry Day cards at your local library or arts venue, you can send a SAE to: NPD 2011, Scottish Poetry Library, 5 Crichton’s Close, Edinburgh EH8 8DT and we’ll send you the set of 8.  - Ed.]