Imprisoned philantrophe businessperson Osman Kavala has written a letter for Wales PEN Cymru’s and Scottish PEN’s event to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer which took place on November 15, 2020 online.
I am not a writer, but I have carried out a variety of projects with writers and publishers. One of the most exciting of these for me, and one which comes to mind very often these days is a project we carried out in the early 2000s called ‘Rising Over Prison Walls’. In this particular project we ran a series of writing and art workshops in prisons, where we also showed films and held seminars.. As part of this project, in conjunction with PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, and the publishing houses Metis and Kanat, we published the short stories and poems of many prisoners who had not formerly thought of themselves, or been thought of as writers.
Writing, of course, is an activity that frees a person, and to publish writing is a vehicle for sharing life with other people. Both of these are hugely important for those who are in prison. Literature, as well as enhancing and developing our thinking, also allows us to enter other people’s worlds and in turn literature increases our feelings of empathy. We need this capacity for empathy in order to internalise legal norms. A lack of the capacity for empathy can be seen in the actions of those members of the judiciary who deprive innocent people of their liberty, despite the fact that they themselves are very well versed indeed in legal protocols. We can say the same thing for a wider section of people who remain silent in the face of injustices and who tell themselves that such injustices are normal.
Of course, it would not be very realistic of us to put all our faith in literature and hope that it would be able to iron out the problems in the legal system. That is the job of political actors.
However, in order for us to live together in a civilised manner as individuals who listen to one another, understand one another and who react in unison against injustices, we need to protect and develop our capacity for empathy.
In this new world of ours with its own reality of internet-based information that muddies our relationships, in which artifical intelligence and the manipultion of algorithms come further to the foreground, I believe we need writers and literature more than ever.
I do not see the Writers in Prison campaigns of the PEN family in its varied corners of the world as merely a manifestation of empathy and justice, but as an excercise in the education of humankind.
I am extremely happy that you are remembering me today, along with my prison neighbour Ahmet Altan, with Nedim Türfent and with the poet Ilhan Sami Çomak who has spent so many long years in prison. I would like to thank Wales PEN Cymru and Scottish PEN.
–Osman Kavala, 2020