Writers at Risk

Today is my last day at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, Ireland, where for the past week I've enjoyed the luxury of lecturing about my work and listening to other authors do the same. To remind us of our extreme good fortune, teenagers enrolled in a Festival writing workshop appeared at the start of each event, to read aloud the plight of some journalist silenced or imprisoned in another country. Amnesty International Ireland had identified a dozen cases of writers in peril, and featured them in a pamphlet providing photos of the individuals with descriptions of their "offenses" and sentenced fates. Each case summary also included the name and address of someone -- the ministers of justice in Greece and Sudan, the presidents of Gambia, China, Azerbaijan and Belarus, the head of the judiciary in Iran, the inspector general of police in Sri Lanka -- with the power to end that writer's suffering. All of us were urged to write letters on behalf of counterparts now prisoners of conscience.

A letter-writing center set up in the Café Organico made such appeals an easy daily routine. Literary Festival Artistic Director Denyse Woods, hoping to revive "the exquisite but dying art form" of getting in touch by letter, had obtained an abundance of stationery and pens from willing sponsors, and also provided a letter box with the promise of free postage to anywhere.

It was my privilege to launch the "Letter Café" campaign on Monday. I spoke about personal letters to connect with dear ones or express condolences, letters to oneself in lieu of journal entries, and collections of letters that illuminated history. But the letters I wrote this week all addressed foreign dignitaries who might not deign to read them. As the Amnesty International representative explained to me, "You just keep sending the letters. You hope it will help."