Archive for December, 2013

From Nico Hobhouse

It is Wednesday lunchtime. Lattés tottering precariously on saucers, distracted students ascend the stairs of the TSK in a steady trickle, searching for a quiet corner. Not this room. How about that one, through the purple door?

‘I’m afraid we’re having a meeting here… But you’re welcome to join us if you want?!’

Such was the greeting for many a flustered student who stumbled into PEN’s weekly letter-writing sessions. We were there every week, sending letters of appeal to what felt like half of London’s embassies.

Early in the term we focussed on cases in the Arab world, including that of Zaki Cordillo, a Syrian playwright who has been held incommunicado since the summer of 2012, and of Mohammed Al-Ajami, who received a lengthy sentence earlier this year for criticising the Qatari government.

Here we are, writing away...

Here we are, ready to write…

The next couple of weeks saw us shift our focus to China. We protested against the ongoing detention of the dissident poet Zhu Yufu, and also translated It’s Time, the very poem that got him into trouble. Following on from this we took up the case of Tashi Rabten, a Tibetan student who was jailed for his role in editing a controversial magazine, Eastern Snow Mountain, which recorded Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet in 2008.

Towards the end of term we turned our attention to Turkey, where the authorities have in the last year shown a worrying disdain for freedom of expression. In particular we appealed against the continuing imprisonment of the human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey, who worked for many years compiling reports on disappearances and extra-judicial killings among the Kurdish population in eastern Turkey, and also voiced our concerns about the suspended sentence recently handed to the outspoken conductor, pianist and composer, Fazil Say.

A message with season's greetings from Oxford Student PEN, bound for China.

A message with season’s greetings from Oxford Student PEN, bound for China.

Doubtless many of our appeal letters are wilfully ignored, and even when they are not it is hard to quantify what effect they have. But we also write directly to the imprisoned writers, and in PEN’s long experience these letters of solidarity can greatly improve their morale. With that in mind, we made a special effort as the festive season approached to send messages of goodwill to those individuals whose cases we had supported.

Helena and Kevin, PEN president and treasurer, deliver a week's worth of appeals.

Helena and Kevin, PEN president and treasurer, deliver a week’s worth of appeals.

We will back in the New Year, on Wednesdays 12-1pm on the top floor of the TSK. If you’re interested to learn more, here’s a link to the International PEN website, where all of PEN’s cases are listed:


Poets for PEN IV

Posted: December 12, 2013 in 2013-14, Events, Writers

Saturday 30 November saw the return of Poets for PEN. Our fourth poetry night, held at Queen’s College, featured readings from Simon Altmann, David Constantine, and Hannah Sullivan – three very brilliant, very different writers, who were all kind enough to participate in a full and wide-ranging conversation after the reading about the purpose and politics of poetry. Can poetry be a free space, a playing space, where we are not obliged to confront the world we live in? Or should it do precisely that – should it face up to the modern world, be it through registering political injustice or the altogether more banal preoccupations of the Facebook generation? Can we trust words like “beauty” and “truth” when we talk about poetry, or should we be sceptical of those Keatsian virtues? These were but a few of the big and difficult questions which the poets addressed in their discussion, and as they’re the kind of questions we’ve set out to ask ourselves in the past – at our Defence of Poetry event in May 2013, for example – we were delighted that three great minds were willing to share their perspectives with the PEN audience. It was a special night too for our own translation project: during our campaigning sessions every Wednesday lunchtime Oxford Student PEN members have been translating poetry, and at Poets for PEN IV Jennifer Chan and Anna Tankel each read, beautifully, some examples of this work.

Oxford Launch: The Sky Wept Fire

Posted: December 12, 2013 in 2013-14, Events, Writers

On Friday 29 November we were honoured to welcome the author Mikail Eldin and translator Anna Gunin for the Oxford launch of The Sky Wept Fire, Eldin’s powerful first-hand account of the Chechen resistance. Gunin’s English translation earned the book an English PEN Writers in Translation award. Gunin read extracts from the book, and then she and Eldin participated in a discussion brilliantly chaired by Professor Catriona Kelly, Fellow of New College, Oxford, and co-director of the European Humanities Research Centre. Both were extremely generous in conversation, answering questions on subjects as varied as world literature, the process of translation, Eldin’s decision to write in Russian, and his own personal experiences growing up in Chechnya and during the conflict. It was a very moving event, and we are extremely grateful to Portobello Books, publisher of The  Sky Wept Fire, and English PEN, for helping us to arrange it.


You can read more about the book here: