“How dangerous writing can be!” exclaims Reza Baraheni in “A Minor Mistake,” the first selection in Writers Under Siege, an invaluable anthology prepared by PEN to commemorate its eightyfifth anniversary. Baraheni’s starkly beautiful and embittered account recalls his near execution in Iran’s Evin prison, where a scribble on the sole of a prisoner’s foot indicates a sentence of capital punishment, transforming the act of writing into a literal harbinger of death. “Do what you can to stay alive,” a fellow inmate pleads, prompting Baraheni to scream at the guards and show them his unmarked feet. His terrifyingly absurd experience reads like an existentialist parable, and its last lines resound as piercingly as the executioner’s gunshot he describes.
Baraheni’s brief chronicle inaugurates themes that weave in and out of the remaining forty-eight selections: the darkly farcical aspects of prison life, detailed in Jiang Qisheng’s diary, in which an April Fools’ Day entry notes how quickly an official visit temporarily converts Chinese prison sweatshops into comfortable dormitories; the vacillation between altruism and indifference when survival trumps all, as Nigerian Chris Abani recounts in his poem “Mango Chutney” (“‘Who did they shoot tonight?’ a cell mate asks. / ‘I don’t care,’ I reply looking away, ‘as long as it’s not / me’”); the hopeful longing for “free, open eyes,” even when one is, like Baraheni, “alone and blind in a hostile world.”
The collection is divided into four sections—“ Prison,” “Death,” “Exile,” and “The Freedom to Write”—and comprises essays, poetry, short stories, and excerpts from novels. The one dramatic work is notable: Jean-Louis N’Tadi’s “Cries of the Cricket,” the Congolese playwright’s biting depiction of applying for asylum in the UK. Letters to PEN officials and members of the Writers in Prison Committee (known as PEN minders) are equally compelling, particularly the energetic correspondence of Hwang Dae-Kwon that inspired his 2002 South Korean best seller, The Wildflower Letters.
More than twenty countries are represented, and some contributors are renowned: the late Anna Politkovskaya, whose alarmingly prescient essay reconfirms the intensity of her commitment to investigating the Kremlin’s anti-Chechen policy despite her “pariah” status; Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose bitterly ironic vision of his own execution and burial is a spiritedly stinging indictment of Nigerian corruption and foreign corporate interests; Abani, whose poem “Concrete Memories” evokes the brutal physical torture used in coercion so vividly that it makes for almost unbearable reading. Orhan Pamuk reiterates the links between human dignity and freedom of speech and argues that the Iraq war is incompatible with PEN ’s core principles of peace, democracy, and reason.
Others, perhaps lesser known to Englishspeaking readers, stand out for the originality of their expression, notably, Syrian journalist Faraj Ahmad Bayrakdar, whose poetry is infused with arrestingly powerful and poignant imagery. Uzbek writer Mamadali Makhmudov, who has been imprisoned for eight years, harrowingly chronicles the torture he has endured, catalogues his numerous illnesses, and concludes with a heartrending explanation: “I wrote this letter to you in one sitting, in a hurry, I was very tired. . . . I apologize for my mistakes. I greet you, miss you, and embrace you, wish you the greatest from God.”
In his last television interview before being executed in 1995, Saro-Wiwa defined his responsibility as a Nigerian writer: “The stories that I tell . . . become so meaningful both to the artist and to the consumers of that art, because you do not just depend on them to read your books, you even have to live a life that they can emulate.” The individuals in this anthology, described by coeditor Carole Seymour-Jones as écrivains engagés, tell stories so vital and impassioned that we are moved to become lecteurs engagés, moved not merely by their writing but by the courage and conviction of their lives.