The Day of the Imprisoned Writer is a moment for Scottish PEN and PEN centres from around the world to stand in solidarity with imprisoned and at-risk writers everywhere. Too often writers, including journalists, novelists, playwrights, poets, translators and publishers, are censored, threatened with violence, attacked, imprisoned or murdered, solely for speaking out and speaking up. This year, Scottish PEN has brought together leading Scotland-based writers to pen letters of solidarity to at-risk and imprisoned writers in Turkey, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Uganda, Egypt, India and in detention in Papua New Guinea (as part of Australia’s immigration programme).


Following the failed July 2016 coup, Ahmet Altan, a novelist, essayist and journalist, was arrested and sent to prison pending trial, for allegedly sending subliminal messages to encourage the coup and for attempting to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In November, Altan and Nazli Ilicak were convicted of a lesser charge of "aiding a terrorist organization" and were released under supervision having already served more than three years in prison. However, on 12th November after being free for a week, Ahmet Altan was rearrested.

Poet, novelist, short story writer and editor, James Robertson’s letter to Ahmet Altan

Dear Ahmet Altan,

I write to you, my fellow-writer, from Scotland, on the day when the clocks went back an hour. This means that winter is coming. It will be light earlier in the morning but the dark will descend earlier in the afternoon. Our winter days are very short, but our summer days are gloriously long.

I write those words knowing that for you, when you entered prison, time became something not divided into hours and minutes, but ‘a single gargantuan entity’. And I know that you had to resist the smothering, choking thing that is ‘absolute time’. You discovered why humans invented clocks and broke time into pieces: not to know time but to escape from it. In your cell, you invented new clocks from scraps of paper and from your observations of light and shadow in the prison courtyard. This is one method by which you defeat the forces that seek to crush your spirit and your imagination.

I confess that I knew little about you until recently. I knew your name and that you were one of many thousands imprisoned by the government of your country, but nothing else. I have since learned about your arrest and of your Kafkaesque encounters with prison doctors and judges. This is because I have read your book, I Will Never See the World Again.

It is ironic that the first work of yours I read is not one of your novels but the book you should never have had to write: the book about your incarceration simply for being a writer, and for writing things that made the authorities angry and afraid. ‘If only you had stuck to writing novels,’ one of the judges said to you – as if somehow you could divide yourself in two, a writer of things that are political and a writer of things that are not political; as if fiction is not a reflection of reality; as if truth cannot be imagined.

Well, I will seek out your other books now. I will read your fiction. If people all over the world are reading your books, then those who have locked you up are defeated with every word read, with every page turned, with every story told.

I thought I would find your book depressing, but on the contrary it gives me optimism. Even more astonishingly, it makes me laugh. Even from the dark place that is your life right now, from the life sentence without parole which obliges you to declare, ‘I will never see the world again’, you make me laugh. You point out the absurdity of those who have exercised their power over you. Your writing reveals them to be ridiculous. They think they are important and clever and you show them to be insignificant fools. No wonder they locked you up. The thing that power hates more than anything is to be laughed at.

I want you to know that there are writers all over the world who are with you in spirit every day that you spend in captivity. Many of them stood in solidarity with you long before I did, but now I have joined their ranks, and I look forward to the day when I can write you a letter that says, Welcome to the world again.

Your book is a primer for all writers who have ever thought, What if, one day, they come for me? What if, one day, I am imprisoned for what I have said or written? I don’t believe any serious writer, even if they live in the most liberal, law-abiding, democratic society, has not asked these questions. And these: How, if this happened to me, would I react? How would I withstand the blows against my mind and my body? Even those of us who only ever imagine this, since it seems so unlikely that such a thing would happen in the settled societies in which we live, even we wonder how we would conduct ourselves in such circumstances. You always expected it to happen to you, and it did. Your book is a guide to the rest of us as to how to behave.

I am not a smoker. I have never smoked. But I hope that if the police ever come for me, and if they offer me a cigarette, I will have the presence of mind to shake my head and say, as you did, ‘I only smoke when I am nervous.’

Then I will know that reality will not conquer me, as it has not conquered you. Then I will know that even if I am physically behind bars I am still free, because my words cannot be contained. My words will be out there, being read by others, and that means that my voice will be heard, as yours is, and can never be silenced, as yours cannot be.

You do not need me to tell you any of this. You know it already. But I did not know it until I read your book. And so this letter is also a message of gratitude. You, from your prison cell, have sent me a gift that I cannot repay.

I thank you, and I send you my warmest wishes as the cold days of winter begin.

James Robertson


Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian/Kurdish journalist who fled Iran due to threats made against him. He was detained in the Australian-run Manus Island detention centre from 2013 until 2017, when the imprisonment was deemed illegal. He was subsequently transferred to Port Moresby. In November 2019, Behrouz left Papua New Guinea, landing in New Zealand for a literature festival. He currently holds a one-month visa to stay in New Zealand, but he is exploring his long-term options.

Writer and Co-chair of the Scottish PEN Writers at Risk Committee, Jane Archer has written to David Coleman MP, Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs in Australia on behalf of Behrouz Boochani

Dear Mr Coleman MP

A letter on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer to protest against the breach of Behropuz Boochani’s human rights.

Imagine, if you will, that you are sailing across the ocean. You have no wealth, no family, no future. Worse still, you have committed crimes, both minor and grave – robbery, theft, acts of violence and depravity. After many months at sea, with sickness, disease and fear washing over port and stern; after months of poor food and days of no food at all, of hearing of those who have leapt overboard or been pushed, of other ships that never made it to land (discarding their cargo in the wide Indian Ocean) you arrive. Gaunt and bruised, you arrive.

Imagine, that you come ashore to a heat so ferocious, it halts the breath and blisters skin before you find shelter. But all the while there is a twist in your stomach, not of bile, but of excitement. The land you see, so far from anything you have ever known, is yours for the taking. With musket, whisky and the bible you can move through the dust of this land and make a new life for yourself. Of course, future generations, your generations, will inherit all that is taken. That makes any man happy.

The whisky does its job with the inhabitants that are viewed as animals (classified as Flora and Fauna until 1967). So much laughter as the guns are drawn on those who don’t imbibe. The women run from you and from their changed men. They too become exhausted and reach for the bottle and then for you. You are a young man and can see time stretching out, matters falling into place, a natural order of things. You have claimed this land. No, not shared it, that would take too much time and you have wasted enough already. This is your second chance. You can’t help but think God sent you here. You are home.

Imagine, if you will, so many years later, a man comes on a ship. Perhaps not a ship, more like a boat, and, really, not much of a boat to speak of. It is the second time he has been on this type of vessel in this same ocean. The first time the sea tries to claim him, and he resists. He holds on to whatever allows his head to stay above water as he chokes and splutters and thinks, this is my end, joining others drifting deep down, in the seaweed, sand and shells. He weeps salt tears into saltwater, knowing the others below are waiting to greet him with waving arms. All of them waiting to be saved.

You pick him up in a massive naval ship, letting the women and children crawl from the wrecked boat, letting them sit crossed legged on the deck while naval officers stare at the grime and filth they are covered in. A baby cries and the mother tries to nurse it, but the piercing wail continues as if in warning that there’s worse to come.

And imagine, if you will, you are in charge. You can make him wish he had never risked his life, make him prefer the prison he had been threatened with so far away. It is hard when he discovers he is no longer human to you. You give him a number, organise long queues for food, filthy sanitation; body upon body in the stench of a place that makes him wonder if he’ll survive. He is the other –an animal of sorts. Linking him to your old original story of Australia.

Imagine, if you will, the life he has left behind. Imagine, his mother’s song when she is outside at dusk, his father’s beard, and his laugh when he sees the cat tapping the window to get in. His brother, his sister – she who is now studying, quietly making her way in a world of books and home. Two cousins have married, one has a child who he might see on WhatsApp. The friends at the newspapers, all of them smoking too much and sipping sweet, strong, coffee, putting the world to rights. He knows some are in prison. Of course, no one really knows, apart from him, who he has left behind. Identification of them may well mean more imprisonment, more death.

Your slate is clean. Your family has grown through the generations. You no longer live with the label of convict. And he comes to taint your newfound purity. The foreigner is terror to you. But remember, if you will, that Australia has a history of immigration, the history you benefited from. Remember, if you will, a time when the foreigner was you.

Yours faithfully

Jane Archer

Co-Chair of the Writers at Risk Committee

Scottish PEN


Lydia Cacho has worked as a journalist, columnist, presenter and editor for over 30 years. Following the publication of her first book, The Demons of Eden: The Power Behind Pornography, Cacho was illegally arrested, detained and ill-treated before being subjected to a criminal defamation lawsuit, of which she was cleared in 2007. After years of threats, in 2019, Lydia’s home was broken into and journalistic materials including hard drives containing information about sexual abuse cases were stolen. The individuals also killed Cacho's dogs and damaged personal belongings. Lydia has left Mexico due to threats against her.

Writer, poet and spoken word artist, Ricky Monahan Brown’s letter to Lydia Cacho

Dear Lydia,

How are you? I suppose that’s the most important question, isn’t it? How are you? I will be sharing this letter at an event attended by other writers, members of Scottish PEN and members of the Scottish Parliament, among others, to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer as we look to raise awareness of writers at risk around the world.

As is the case at many of our events, we will be joined by Scottish PEN’s Empty Chair representing a writer or writers who cannot be present due to persecution because of their work. Your name, of course, features on the chair as one of the writers for whom we have campaigned in light of your journalism and bravery and what you have suffered for telling the world about how things are in Mexico. How the people are, how the children are. How the outspoken students and the writers and the journalists are. How the corrupt politicians and the sex traffickers are. Now, thanks to you and other reporters in Mexico, those of us who will be thinking of you and other writers at risk know more of the truth about organised crime and its links to politicians in Mexico.

Because, that’s what writers do so much of the time, isn’t it? Journalists, poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, writing about how things are, and the extremes of human existence and people living subject to extreme conditions – even when the evil to which they might be subjected is, as Hannah Arendt might have observed, banal. When it is inspired by people doing what they are told, or trying to achieve professional advancement. It is these writings that might inspire us to try to find empathy for our fellow person, and to take action. That might inspire us as writers to tell the truth with an unflinching eye. For in another world, we might be that other person, and they might be us.

So, yes. How are you? I can hardly begin to imagine. I have read of the break-in at your home in July, and the theft of your laptop, audio recorder, cameras, and the records of your investigations. Also, the murder of your dogs and the damage caused to your personal possessions. I am so sorry. I have read, too, of the reports that you have had to leave Mexico due to threats made against you. I am reminded of what was once said of Highlanders here in Scotland – that the greatest hardship for a Highlander is to be obliged to quit the spot where he drew his first breath and to know he will never return. How much worse must that hardship be when you have had to leave your homeland because you are doing such important work for your countryfolk!

We are aware of the ongoing killings of journalists during the incumbency of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, including, by some counts, twelve this year. We are aware, too, of the tens of thousands of murder victims you have written about in Mexico’s drug war. We are also aware of the ongoing attempts by the President and public officials to discredit Mexico’s journalists, and how this puts freedom of expression opinion and information at risk. The members of Scottish PEN join with members of PEN International centres around the world in urging the Mexican state to strengthen protections for freedom of expression in the country, protect its journalists and to break the cycle of impunity that surrounds the perpetrators of such violence.

As I write this letter, I am revisiting your article, I Don’t Want to Lose my Head. I am reading once again of how your pen is your lance, your tool; of how your notebook is your port in a storm; of your desire to write to record that life counts. I read once again of your fear and your bravery, and I am reminded once again that I can’t begin to imagine how you are. Nevertheless, I am grateful that you have written your words to tell us more of how things are in Mexico. I read once again your words when you write, I am not alone as long as I can reveal those dreams or pressures, nightmares or ideas, and the words of others.

I hope that you are as well as could be hoped, Lydia. We here are better for the existence of your work and that of your colleagues. I hope that as we mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, and remember writers at risk in Mexico and around the world, that you do not feel alone.

Sending the very best of thoughts to you, Lydia,

Ricky Monahan Brown


Galal El-Behairy is an Egyptian writer, poet and lyricist who was arrested in March 2018. The High State Security charges against him include joining a terrorist organization, spreading false news, abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion, and insulting the military. In July, Galal was sentenced to three years in prison and fined for ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news’. Galal has already served 150 days in detention waiting for his sentencing.

Novelist, Chris McQueer’s letter to Galal El-Behairy

Dear Galal,

At the time of me writing this letter, it has been 611 days since you were arrested. Hearing your story and reading your poetry, it breaks my heart that I could not have been introduced to you through your work and your immeasurable talent, rather than this nightmarish ordeal which you are going through.

In those 611 days, the world has seemed to descend further into violence and anger and chaos. Your own world too, I imagine, has descended into this maelstrom of hate in a more direct and disastrous fashion.

It is only the last couple of months I have become familiar with your work and I am ashamed it had to be handed to me on a plate. Your writing is the kind everyone should seek out with great vigour. Fearless and triumphant. Words laden with great power that simultaneously hold down the pages and yet fly through the air, words brought out into the world by anger at a government, at a system, that isn’t working for its people. I don’t think it is unfair to say that those who have imprisoned you, punished you for daring to express your malaise at those in power, have little understanding at what it is you are really trying to do with your writing. Perhaps one day, hopefully before it’s not too late, they will wake up and see their errors.

It is hard to comprehend that what has happened to you ever happening here in Scotland. It is hard to imagine such draconian reactions to those who speak out against those in power ever happening to writers here. It is hard to take in, think about and accept that this even happening at all anywhere in the world.

You were arrested for penning lyrics to a song. A song which spoke out against the Egyptian government and its policies. Less than a week after the release of the song, you were arrested and your whereabouts were not disclosed to your family or lawyer until another week later, where you appeared the High State Security Prosecution where your body appeared beaten with evidence pointing towards torture. Arrested, imprisoned and tortured, simply for exercising your right to express yourself.

The fact the government took offence to, and subsequently arrested, you for calling your book, ‘The Finest Women on Earth,’ claiming it was a dig at the army, shows their fragility, their ridiculousness and their fear that their own people may not see them as these tyrants see themselves. A book focusing on the strength and perseverance of women in Egypt, who you say you feel, ‘feel unique pressures, while ultimately being responsible for the success of the men who make up the majority of the country’s workforce.’ A book which is, you say, a testament to, ‘the value of women and of their good deeds in this world.’ A book which is timely, a book which is necessary.

A book of which all copies are now in the hands of the Egyptian government. Imprisoned, like you. Maybe they’ve been pulped or burned. Maybe one day though, like you, those words contained within their pages will be freed. One day those words will find themselves coalescing into book form once again.

It is tragic that those in power, see it fit to attack those who peacefully and non-confrontationally express their views, their disagreement and their discomfort with force and with violence. Silencing those who dare grumble. Imprisoning those who dare to speak out. Punishing those who have the audacity to disagree.

You remain in detention under the High State Security’s charges of terrorist affiliation, the dissemination of false news, abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion, and insulting the military. Yet, you continue to write. You show that you will not be cowed. You will not be broken. You keep writing, you keep your words flowing and allow them to traverse the world. They cannot contain that.

The charges you are held under are ridiculous, false, flimsy and weak. They violate the universal declaration of human rights. They violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, to each of which Egypt is a party.

Egypt, under President el-Sisi may seek to show itself to the world as strong, as being not afraid, but the prosecution of prominent artists such as yourself projects an image of fear and weakness. A government’s desire to punish self-expression only serves to demonstrate its instability.

You said, ‘Each one of us loves their country and each one of us fears for their country. However, each one of us has a personal vision that does not contradict the country’s interest.’

I hope to one day read writing of yours which can run rampant without the fear of prosecution hanging over it. I hope one day that we may cross paths. I hope one day you get to see the Egypt in your personal vision.

With love and solidarity,

Chris McQueer


Writer, academic, feminist activist and campaigner for LGBTQI rights, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, was charged with “cyber harassment” and “offensive communication”. This followed poems she posted on Facebook about President Yoweri Museveni’s mother. In August 2019, Stella was convicted of ‘cyber harassment’, but acquitted of the charge of ‘offensive communication.’ The Ugandan state has appealed the acquittal and the appeal is ongoing.

Novelist and short story writer, Kirsty Logan’s letter to Dr Stella Nyanzi

Dear Dr. Nyanzi,

I would like to say 'Dear Stella', but I haven't earned that informality. I don't know you and you don't know me. So rather than ignore that we're strangers, I'll spend a moment on it: I'm finding it hard to get around the impossibility of writing something intimate and personal directly to a stranger. Even more impossible, writing it knowing that it will be read by many other strangers. That perhaps the whole point is for those other strangers to read it. A performative eavesdropping.

I have also been a stranger eavesdropping on your words. I read your poem on the birthday of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni – the poem for which you're currently spending 18 months in prison. The poem amused and disgusted me. It delighted and devastated me. Ultimately it doesn't matter what I think as the poem isn't aimed at me, I know.

But here we have something in common: I have often written about cunts. Usually not for political reasons and usually not hoping for them to be diseased. I have written about cunts used in pleasure, used in display, used in work, used as threat, used as a doorway for new life, used as a doorway for recent death. I had never before considered the use of a cunt for political means. I appreciate the opportunity to know this new use of cunts.

I don't use this word as an attempt to shock and offend, though I know that some do find it offensive. I appreciate and admire the value and boldness of your use of 'radical rudeness'. But that is not my intent here. I simply want to say things as they are. I won't sugar-coat a cunt, because I don't see the point, and more importantly I don't need to. I can use the word cunt wherever and whenever I want, and the worst thing that will happen is that I may be considered crude or inappropriate. That said, I have not written a poem about the genitals of the political leaders who control my world (or the genitals of their mothers). But I could try. I imagine that if I wrote about the genitals of, for example, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, the mother of the current UK prime minister Boris Johnson, not much would happen. Some people would be amused or disgusted. They might even be delighted or devastated – but that seems unlikely, as I wouldn't be able to pack as much vitriol, humour and complexity into the poem as you did. Perhaps I am not angry enough. Perhaps I am not wronged enough. Perhaps it is too easy for me to feel safe.

I don't know if you imagined the same for yourself, or if you knew exactly what the consequences could be, and you wrote the poem anyway. Admiration and respect don't seem enough for me to express, but they're all I have to give at such a distance – geographically, culturally, politically, personally.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the phrase 'they go low, we go high'. It's nice to go high. I like it. I like to feel smug. It's a pleasant feeling to have the moral high ground. But while I (and others around me) are up on our perches, the people with power are grubbing around on the low ground, digging up our foundations, shaping the landscape to suit themselves. The ground is getting unsteady and so our high perches are getting rather shaky – and when we topple off, it'll be into a world shaped by people who don't give the slightest shit what's good for me, or for you, or for that person over there, or for anyone, really, who isn't rich and white and heterosexual and old and male. If they're getting everything they want by going low, what use it is for us to go high?

I'm currently in Sweden, over 6,000 miles away from you in Uganda. We're separated by more than just geography, but I think the important things we have in common are that we are women, that we believe in the fight for LGBTQI rights, and that we are writers. Beyond that, things are very different. I'm here to finish a novel, set in the medieval north, about witch trials and methods used to silence women. It would be nice to say that it's pure fantasy. It would be nice to say that things are different now. But many women still do experience these things; many women are still silenced for saying the things that they're told not to say.

My favourite reclaimed phrase of late is 'nasty woman', said by then-candidate for the US presidential election, Donald Trump, to his opponent Hillary Clinton during a debate. He said it because he thought that something she said about him – a mild, and many would say justified, barb about his intelligence. He wanted to shut her up; she would not shut up. The phrase now appears on t-shirts, pin badges and coffee mugs. It's titled songs and theatre shows and books. It's a card game. It's a hashtag. A phrase initially meant to silence and shame is now shouted out loud, celebrated with pride.

You show us all that women do not always have to go high. Women do not have to be polite and sweet. Women do not have to use only approved language. Women can be brave and crude and rude. Women can be nasty. Women can say whatever they like in order to gain, for themselves and for others, the freedoms that should be beyond debate. Women can talk about cunts – and they don't have to be clean.

Please know that we see you and we hear you.

Please know that you have challenged and enriched the world with your work.

Please know that it matters.

With much respect and nastiness,

Kirsty Logan


Varavara Rao is a Telugu revolutionary poet, public speaker, literary critic, journalist and political activist. In 2018, Varavara attended a conference organised by Dalit and Bahujan groups to combat communalism and the rise in violence by Hindutva groups. Later that year, the Pune police arrested five activists, including Varavara Rao. He is currently in prison awaiting charge, prevented from writing or reading anything in Telugu.

Journalist and author, Chitra Ramaswamy’s letter to Varavara Rao

Dear Varavara Rao (or, as many know you, VV),

It has been more than a year since the Karnataka police arrested you - and four other activists - in Pune over an alleged conspiracy to assassinate Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister. You were placed first under house arrest, and then jailed despite your defence counsel, and many other supporters, claiming that not a shred of evidence exists against you. This is not the first time, I have come to discover. In your long, courageous life the days you have spent in prison have over decades mounted up to six years. You have been implicated in eighteen cases, and acquitted in all but one, which has been pending since 1986. As the son of a fellow activist detained alongside you put it, “the process is becoming the punishment”.

I do not know you, Varavara Rao. And until I sat down to pen this letter, the first one like it I have ever written, I am ashamed to say I had never heard of you. You, a revolutionary poet, journalist, critic, public intellectual, and one of the finest Marxist critics in Telugu literature. You, a man in his late seventies, the same age as my own father, who grew up in the same southern state as you, then known as Mysore. You, a prisoner of conscience who was first arrested in 1973, six years before I, the daughter of south Indian immigrants, was born in another country. The one, in fact, that colonised your country, our country, for two centuries.

Our lives have nothing in common. The truth is, I feel self-conscious and a bit silly writing this letter to you at all because what could I possibly have to say that might offer a sliver of solace and hope to you? I, a British Indian journalist and author who has had the lifelong privilege of being able to think, write, and live as I choose? And you, a man who has also lived and written according to his beliefs, but for this fundamental human right has had his freedom seized time and time again. When I meditate on this, I am silenced. The words will not come. But then I read the generous and humane words that you, yourself, wrote when you were jailed in the 1980s and penned a prison diary - apparently with tooth-brushing sticks! - and I realise that reaching out, for whatever reason, is a mark of respect. A hand extended, across troubled waters, from another country. My country. The country where I type these words in the freedom of my own home, but also one in which democracy, in the so-called mother of parliaments, is under threat.

So if you don’t object to me quoting your own words back at you, here they are…

“A man’s death perturbs me

I may not have any acquaintance

Or I might not have the heard the name.

But when you know that he is a man

How can it be

That he is not related to you or me.”

So VV, we are not related but we are connected. I thank you for your daily resistance. You are in my thoughts. I sincerely hope our countries, and all others where there are people fighting for their rights, find their way soon.

Oh, and by the way, did you know my mother’s maiden name is Rao?

Small world.

Best wishes,

Chitra Ramaswamy


Shakthika Sathkumara is the author of numerous short story collections, poetry anthologies, a novel and at least 17 non-fiction books. In 2019, Sathkumara was arrested in connection to a short story, ‘Ardha’ (‘Half’), which Buddhist groups allege is derogatory and defamatory to Buddhism. 75 days after his arrest, the police are yet to bring charges against him but he has been released on bail.

Writer and Emeritus professor, Zoë Wicomb’s letter to Shakthika Sathkumara

Dear Shakthika Sathkumara,

I am so sorry that you have unjustly suffered 130 days in remand custody and, in spite of the remaining danger of indictment in the High Court, am relieved, as you and your family must be, to hear that you are now on bail.

It is particularly shocking that the Sri Lankan authorities should have prosecuted you under the ICCPR Act which, instead of protecting human rights as is its stated purpose, has been used against you to stifle free speech. The question that this raises of how incitement to hostility can be interpreted seems to be foreshadowed in your short story ‘Ardha’, deemed guilty of flouting the Act. Your nuanced narrative speaks volumes about a cultural climate that produces a story revolving around the very notions of reading, writing, and interpretation. I, for one, have not only found it a rewarding and thought-provoking read, but realise how courageously and delicately you have tackled the issues of sexuality and suppression within Buddhist monasteries.

How telling that the story that provoked your imprisonment should have been titled ‘Ardha’. The title (I understand it to mean ‘half’) has indeed encouraged your critics to supply another half to its meaning by exploiting the nuances and ambiguities to fix what is clearly a story of multiple meanings into a single one that incites hostility and is defamatory to Buddhism. Ironically, the story has as a result of their actions achieved wide distribution: in other words, the Buddhist establishment has not only unwittingly brought about its own exposure; it also testifies to the power of narrative fiction.

Your imprisonment within a tradition hitherto known as secular and liberal has driven me to read ‘Ardha’ more closely and thus to appreciate the economy with which it self-reflexively explores narrative, interpretation and freedom of expression. Please forgive this iteration: not only does the story refer, in passing, to a monk who is reading a text that he wants banned as a work of fundamentalist propaganda; in ‘Ardha’ is also embedded another narrative, written by a character who radically departs from the orthodox Siddhartha story to give the point of view of the Buddha’s wife. Her version tells of his inadequate sexual performance that led to her infidelity. We as readers are thus reminded that there are many versions from which canonical stories are derived, and that they therefore could be told from other perspectives, such as that of the Buddha’s abandoned wife. Your narrator recognises this tale as dangerous and inimical to the given version, even if it does exist in another Buddhist tradition. In other words, through the different versions and interpretations of the story of the Buddha, ‘Arda’ promotes pluralism and tolerance of other points of view.

For all its inclusion of a nightmare of a bloodied, castrated monk, I am struck by the delicacy of your story. Exemplary in its resistance to a single meaning, its enigma ––achieved also through the ambivalence of its narrator –– offers readers the freedom to supply readings from their own knowledge and experience. That certain monks should have abused such freedom is disheartening. On the other hand, I have been encouraged by the voluble responses of your fellow writers and commentators in Sri Lanka itself. Such messages of support for you and your cause, of analysis and critique of the law are courageous, and testify to the spirit of freedom in your country that cannot be stifled by acts of oppression.

My very best wishes for your further hearing on 10 December. I hope that you take courage from the very many within your own country as well as those abroad who are thinking of you and support your cause. Let us hope that the Sri Lankan literary festival in January will be a place of celebration of the freedom of the writer and indeed also of your own physical freedom.

With congratulations on your work,

Yours sincerely,

Zoë Wicomb