Flying west 15 hours I never saw the sun set, but in the evening, between the skyscrapers of Tokyo, I glimpsed the full moon I’d left the night before shimmering on the Potomac, the same full moon beaming down over China, Myanmar, and Vietnam. I found myself contemplating whether the writers in prison in those countries could also glimpse the luminous golden light from a corner of their prison cells. I was in Tokyo for PEN International’s 76th Congress.

Writers from 90 centers of PEN gathered to discuss “The Environment and Literature—What can words do?” and to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, that particular group of writers who advocate on behalf of colleagues imprisoned, threatened or killed for the expression of their ideas.

In its history, PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee has been instrumental in getting the releases of such well known writers as Arthur Koestler, Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel as well as thousands of others in countries on every continent and from every political condition, from fascist regimes, communist regimes, marginal and faux democracies, wherever words were considered subversive and powerful enough to threaten. At the moment the most cases and the longest prison sentences for writers are in China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Iran, but writers are under threat in over 60 countries with the internet offering a new frontier for protection of free expression.

At the keynote ceremony of the PEN International Congress a play, Water Letters by Hisashi Inoue, dramatized the theme of the earth’s and mankind’s connectedness, especially through water. Human beings are largely made of water, and water—rivers, streams, oceans—links us all, the characters intoned. If the source of water is threatened in one area, there are repercussions in another. There is one earth, one people; the environment is in our hands.

The same can be said of freedom of expression. The 11-year imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo for urging democratic reform in China not only imprisons the man but the possibility of his next ideas. The imprisonment of writers in Myanmar and Vietnam, the more than 60 imprisoned writers, journalists, and bloggers in Iran affect the flow of ideas worldwide. The more than 50 journalists killed in Mexico chills freedom and undermines the rule of law beyond Mexico’s borders.

Yet ideas, like water, have a way of flowing around barriers and through bars and seep into the stream of thought if passed from one person to the other. And so writers outside prison pass on the work and writing of their colleagues.

Looking up at the moon, we contemplate the universe from the same point of focus and glimpse for a moment our connectedness.

7 Comments

  1. Ronny Stoddart on October 1, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    This beautiful post on freedom of expression reminded me of something I learned on a visit to Poland a few years ago. When my guide explained that Poland was that rare example of an independent country that ceased to exist for 125 years (1795-1918, when it was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and the Hapsburg Monarchy) and then managed to re-emerge as a country again, I asked him how the national identity was kept alive. Polish literature, was his response, and especially poetry (Poland boasts four Nobel Laureates for literature). Such is the power of expression and the written word, despite political subjugation! Ronny

  2. Susan Stockdale on October 3, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Just read Full Moon Over Tokyo, which is powerful and affecting, as well as some of your older blogs. Congrats on the birth of your granddaughter!   –Susan Stockdale

  3. Ruiko Oda on October 3, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    I’m a internship of HRW Tokyo.
    I joined a symposium about Liu Xiaubo on Sep.25th.I hope that people of all over the world can enjoy freedom of expression!

  4. Mary L on October 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Good report on Tokyo.  PEN has been indispensable in pursuing freedom of expression, and ever more so now.
    –Mary L

  5. Maryann Macdonald on October 8, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    Lovely thoughts, Joanne. You continue to inspire me. Keep on keeping on.

  6. Gail Osherenko on October 14, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Yes! Especially pertinent to be reminded that the ideas and information will find a way around all obstacles…not just prison but also the “no disclosure” forms that scientists studying the Gulf of Mexico are required to sign to get money from the government (originating with BP) for researching impacts on humans and the environment.
    Despite the declaration by all the top folks in EPA, NOAA, DOI that the Deepwater Horizon crisis is over, word is out. It’s not. Sending millions of gallons of dispersants into the water to make the oil sink out of sight didn’t end the crisis. Stories of sick clean up workers (forbidden to wear gas masks), beachgoers, residents breathing the still toxin filled air seep out.
    Thank you for Full Moon Over Tokyo – Same moon over the Gulf.

  7. HRW Tokyo intern on October 15, 2010 at 4:01 am

    I’m an intern at Human Rights Watch Tokyo office.
    This post is so beautiful and I was touched. It made me think again about the meaning of Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Prize. I strongly fell the world needs to change.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Joanne. Next time when I look up the sky and see the moon in Tokyo, I will remember this post and the people who are suffering from lack of freedom of expression.

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