Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

When an Empty Chair Speaks Louder than Words

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The International Festival of Authors opens today. It’s time to see the empty chair.

Symbolic in its silence, one sits on stage at every IFOA event in recognition of a writer currently in exile, in danger, or in prison, for his or her beliefs. For me, the empty chair is testament to the fact that all writing is first and foremost a political act. It’s like a poppy for me, a visible remembrance of war, of lives lost for no other reason than exercising rights we take so easily for granted in Canada, or at least until the G20 — free thought, free speech and the exquisite freedom to read and write without fear.

This year PEN recognizes Iranian journalist and human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh. For writing about and defending imprisoned Iranian opposition activists and abused women, she was arrested on August 28, 2010 on charges of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security. In January, she was sentenced to eleven years in prison, has been refused the right to appeal and endured periods of solitary confinement. Even from her cell, she has fought back, choosing to implement a "dry hunger strike," as in no food and no water. Amnesty International has launched an urgent call for her release, calling her “a prisoner of conscience who is at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.”

I cannot emphasize enough how much I respect the work PEN International has done internationally since 1921. PEN Canada is one of the largest of its over 140 national branches. As their website at explains:

“We lobby governments in Canada and internationally; organize petitions; send letters, faxes and postcards for the release of persecuted writers; and conduct public awareness campaigns about freedom of expression. We work for the release of imprisoned writers internationally, against censorship nationally and for networking and professional opportunities for writers living in exile in Canada.”

One of my proudest moments as a newly-published author was the moment where my membership in PEN became a writer’s membership. I urge all of you who respect the freedom of words to join. Because it is far too easy as Canadians to distance ourselves, to pat ourselves on the back thinking that such things only happen in foreign lands.

Please keep the empty chair in mind as you read this bulletin from PEN Canada.

PEN Supports Challenge to G20 Bail Conditions
On July 28, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association joined Mandy Hiscocks and co-accused Alex Hundert in Ontario Superior Court to challenge the legitimacy of a bail condition that would deny certain G20 defendants the freedom to "plan for, assist in planning for, attend or participate in any public demonstrations."
At least 18 people currently face these restrictions as result of the G20. PEN Canada signed a statement supporting the appeal. The statement warns that "such sweeping criminalization of dissent as this bail condition poses is entirely unacceptable... [the] discretionary power afforded to the police and the Crown in pre-trial judicial processes must be challenged as it is far too often used in prejudicial and repressive ways."

This year at the IFOA the empty chair belongs to one Nasrin Sotoudeh of Iran.
Next year?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page