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#2 2011
4 min read


“Prison literature is a dynamic genre of our time”

Credits Text: Ola Larsmo September 23 2011

Having for some years been the director of a PEN-centre it is easy to get the impression that all important literature is being written in a prison cell or by a writer in forced exile. This is of course an illusion—literature is being written everywhere. The prison cell is then no exception. But over the years a great many books by writers writing—or attempting to write—in a prison cell have had a great impact on world literature. It ought to be possible to write a literary history of prison writing, and a few of the obvious candidates would be Ovid and Dostoevsky. Prison literature, tragically, is a dynamic genre of our time.

In this second edition of PEN/Opp prison literature is highly present. The short story writer and human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey, honorary member of Swedish PEN, has since Christmas 2009 been imprisoned in Turkey without a trial. One of the charges against him is that he held a lecture in the Swedish Parliament where he discussed the current situation of the Kurdish people in Turkey. This is all it takes to be imprisoned indefinitely in Turkey—a country that calls itself a democracy. Erbey has sent us a letter from prison, which we hereby present to an international audience. In addition, a member of the Swedish Parliament, Mats Johansson, who is committed to Erbey’s case, has supplied us with a commentary.

Zhang Jianhong, the Chinese poet who wrote under the pseudonym “Li Hong”, recently died in hospital. Li Hong was known as an outspoken critic who pointed out several negative aspects of contemporary China at the time of his detainment 2007 during the preparations for the Olympic games in Beijing. During his years in prison he was refused medical attention for a serious muscular disease which led to his death in december."We here publish one of his poems. The internationally most acclaimed dissident in China, Liu Xiaobo, is now in prison for having tried to create the kind of open debate that Li Hong died for. In this issue of PEN/Opp you can read an extract from his essay “Behind the Rise of the Great Powers”, in Swedish and Chinese. Due to the present copyright holders at Harvard University, we're unfortunately not allowed to publish the English translation.

Dawit Isaak is Sweden’s most well-known political prisoner. For ten years he has been in prison without a trial in Eritrea—now he is being held in the “death camp” of Eira Eiro. A long time has passed since we had any news about his condition; Swedish diplomacy has failed to get him out of prison and the only thing that can help him now is the international community’s engagement in his cause. As a reminder of Isaak’s predicament and as a manifestation of solidarity, two Swedish poets—Ida Börjel and Lars Mikael Raattamaa—have each contributed a poem to commemorate his imprisonment.

In this edition we also want to draw attention to the struggle to defend the freedom of speech in two of Africa’s largest countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa. We also have a diary entry from the fight for freedom in Syria, signed Samar Yazbek. The first edition of PEN/Opp won international acclaim, so, all of you who are free to write, write to us and give us your opinions.

Ola Larsmo
Editor in Chief and Chairman Swedish PEN

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