TASLIMA NASRIN, FOR PEN AND 26
So which idea is strongest? That in ink,
Set naked on the page, and unafraid?
Or that which howls at people not to think,
And for its proof shows gun and stone and blade?
Taslima – cursed, God’s warrant on her head –
Lives out the answer; says what must be said.
2010 was the 50th anniversary of International PEN‘s Writers In Prison Committee. And as part of the Free The Word! Festival, PEN teamed up with 26 to create 26:50, a web–based project pairing 50 members of 26 with PEN–nominated writers from around the world. (You can find out more on 26’s Free The Blog.)
Our brief was to write exactly 50 words in response to the life and work of our ‘twinned’ writer. A pretty daunting task.
As a writer who fears no greater threat than a bounced cheque, one can feel a little unworthy, trying to compose something in response to the work of someone who faces the most terrible consequences, simply for writing the truth as they see it.
I was paired with Taslima Nasrin, a Bangladeshi writer whose fearless defence of feminism and secularism has made her the scourge of Islamic fundamentalists and an exile from her own land.
Ms Nasrin is the subject of at least three fatwas. Muslims have marched in their hundreds to call for her death. People have been reported killed during riots over her work. (See her website for more detail on the campaign against her.)
The frightening moment captured below, during a press conference Ms Nasrin gave in India, shows how careful she is forced to be about public appearances.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the courage required to continue working under that sort of pressure.
Here’s the poem I wrote for her on the project blog.