Tag Archives: English PEN

International Translation Day 2016

International Translation Day occurs every year on 30th September. It was established to celebrate the work of translators in publishing. In the UK the British Library is hosting a day of seminars on translation-related topics. Wish I could be there.

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We need events that focus on books in translation because they do not form a very large part of our reading diet. Not much is published, not much is read. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation.

In a post in March, on this blog, called Books in Translation I said

Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

When I checked the last 50 books read, ten were translations: that’s 20% and an improvement. Here are some recommendations to encourage you to read more in translation.

  1. The Man I became by Peter Verhelst published by Peirene Press

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer.

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A novella, a fable in which the gradual transition from ape to man brings insight into the human situation. Told in the voice of the main character, it explores how humans treat animals and other people whom they consider inferior. And it looks at how humans treat the world as a whole, and especially the belief that we can remake and exploit it and animals.

  1. Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila published by Jacaranda

Translated from the French by Roland Glasser

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Winner of the Pen Translates Award from English Pen. Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Set in the DCR, kind of, the novel follows the fortunes of the writer Lucien who comes to the city to stay with his old friend Requiem and make his life and living as a writer. Requiem and Lucien are unlikely friends, indeed their relationship falls apart. Requiem is a crook and a wheeler-dealer; Lucien remains true to his wife and to his calling until the end. As he struggles to make his name, he meets a publisher, who sets up a disastrous first reading of his work in the bar called Tram 83, or simply Tram. Lucien has better success when the Diva organises a performance.

The society is hugely corrupt and poverty-stricken. The city is in the dying days of a gold rush. Violence, sex and greed are everywhere. Women appear to play very little part in the action in the city, until it is revealed that they have power (The Diva) and money (Lucien’s admirer Christelle) and promote good things.

The story is told with long sentences, much dialogue, repetition and lists. I liked its power to evoke jazz. It’s vivid, full of vitality and has what publishers like to call ‘edge’.

  1. A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa published by Vintage

Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn.

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Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

As a young girl in Portugal, Ludovica was raped and became reclusive, looked after by her sister. When her sister marries Orlando, Ludo and Odete go to live with him in Angola, but almost immediately the war of liberation breaks out. Orlando and Odete disappear. Ludo barricades herself in their 11th floor flat and does not emerge for 28 years, viewing the changes in Luanda from her balcony. She lives off provisions already in the flat and her own ingenuity. For example, she attracts pigeons with diamonds that Orlando had hidden, but when she finds one with a message she lets it go.

We follow a number of characters whose stories come together with the discovery of Ludo by a young boy, the diamonds and the settlement of old scores. It’s a surreal story.

And more …

286-fathers_daughterHer Father’s Daughter by Marie Sizun published by Peirene

Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

I’m reserving my comments for a themed exploration of post-war novels in November.

Vertigo by WG Sebald published by Vintage

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

Reviewed on this blog: this is the link

The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Portobello

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Reviewed on this blog back in April. Here is the link. This novel went on to win the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

Translated from the German by Basil Creighton, included in a themed review of novels set in hotels.

The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift

Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, featured on a post in August.

The Door by Magda Szabo

Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, the 22nd novel featured in my Older Women in Fiction series.

English PEN has been promoting translated writing for some time. You can find out what they do for writers in translation at the English Pen website.

Twitter-types will have enjoyed #WITMonth, women in translation month, in August, which revealed lots more books in translation by women.

Over to you

Tell us which s novels in translation would you recommend from your recent reading?

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Writing as therapy, despite Zadie Smith

… most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. [Zadie Smith, from  interview on Random House site*].

Really!!? It’s a poor arguments that uses the phrase ‘the kind of people who …’. And that suggests underhandness by the choice of the word ‘moonlight’. I wonder if Zadie Smith has reconsidered this rather sneery comment. She is an excellent writer herself, of course, and one who knows about the craft and skill of writing as art. But she should know that for some people writing is therapeutic.

145 old handsLet us make a distinction between writing for publication (art) and writing as therapy and probably not for publication.

Therapeutic Writing

For people who are hurt, traumatised and perhaps depressed, writing is often part of their recovery. Therapeutic writing has a pioneer: James W Pennebaker. It has 30 years of established research and guide books, such as Gillie Bolton et al’s Writing Works. And it has many, many practitioners, who use writing as part of a therapeutic process, in groups and in individual support. We should not be surprised that writing is beneficial – both art and music therapy are well established.

In addition to individual therapeutic writing we can note that it has also been used to help people in groups.

For survivors of torture

At Freedom From Torture there is a writers’ group called Write to Life. The members are refugees and their mentors. The refugees have experienced violence and torture and writing is part of their healing process. FFT also has a bread-baking group, art therapy and a gardening group. Therapeutic activities are not limited to writing and talking. Some of the benefits come from the social aspects of the group’s activities.

239 The Land Hasani

For people with dementia

In Reading Writing and Dementia I described how people with dementia have benefited from writing therapies. You can listen to a podcast of an event held by English Pen at Free Word Centre in March 2014: Dementia and the Power of Words.

Gemma Seltzer’s article (in 69 Mslexia March/April/May 2016) describes co-writing with older people in a project funded through Age UK. In the project called ‘This is How I see You’, Gemma talked to many of the people in a day centre and returned with a poetry portrait of each of them. She comments that it raised issues about her right to write about someone else’s experience of dementia.

For prisoners

In prisons, reading and writing can make a huge difference to prisoners’ lives. Many prisoners have very limited literacy skills. There are many projects helping prisoners to learn to read and to read more. The Writers in Prison Network uses reading and writing workshops and mentors to achieve their aims. Their strap line is ‘helping you change for the better’. Here’s a link to a Day in the life of a writer in residence.

How does therapeutic writing work?

It is the process of writing that helps in the therapeutic process. Sometimes it the expression of feelings, too dangerous or painful to say out loud, but needing some articulation. Sometimes it is the act of choosing words, metaphors, analogies that opens up thinking and reactions in the writer. Metaphors and imagery are ways into understanding depression, for example. And the metaphors and images we use, unconsciously, to make sense of our lives, can be revealed and new ones tried out through writing.

Sometimes the act of choosing words, in writing clarifies a thought. A writer can then reflect and learn from their insights, rather than being locked in a maddening repetitive cycle of emotions. How do I know what I think until I write it down?

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Sometimes the significance is in being heard – by a group, a therapist or a friend. And sometimes the responses of a group to a writer’s efforts has a therapeutic effect. Having a voice is to have agency and presence in the world.

Publishing therapeutic writing

The projects I’ve described are about the process of writing. This process does not necessarily produce art or even text for sharing. Sometimes writing that began with therapeutic intent emerges to have something to say to others and is worth publiccation.

Related

Not long ago, in January, I wrote a related post called Reading is good for you. Today’s post was conceived as a companion piece, but quickly turned into a post about therapeutic writing.

* I tried to check the source of Zadie Smith’s quotation, but although it is repeated many times on the internet I couldn’t find it.

Over to you

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you have experience of therapeutic writing?

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Books in translation

Reading habits in the UK do not embrace diversity. Notoriously we rely on English being a dominant world language, so books in foreign languages are left to students of languages and those strange bilingual people. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Books by women in translation form a disproportionately small percentage of that 4%.

Gender is only one aspect of this general lack of diversity. Most published fiction is written by men and reviewed by men (see the VIDA statistics for the figures for several prestigious review publications here and in the States over some years). Novels by and about people of colour feature less frequently in our reading. Novels that deal with sexuality, transgender, disability, age and any combination of those are rare.

Fiction in Translation

Let’s praise those who are trying to bring more translated fiction to our attention. Peirene Press champions European literature, specifically novellas. I mention Peirene frequently on my blog because their books are beautiful objects as well as good reads, and subscribers are offered salons, supper club, newsletter and blog as well as three books every year. Their founder, Meike Ziervogel is also a published novelist: Magda, Kauthur.

Loving lists, I don’t hesitate to offer you the top 5 from Peirene’s List of 100 Translated Books Everyone Should Read, from their newsletter last year and chosen by readers.

235 b of chameleons cover

  1. Jose Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons, translated by Daniel Hahn.
  2. Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, translated by Robin Buss.
  3. Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, translated by Magda Bogin.
  4. Marcel Ayme, The Man who Walked through Walls, translated by Sophie Lewis.
  5. Honore de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Sylvia Raphael.

I’ve only read the second and third on this list and 17 of the whole 100. I haven’t even heard of some of the titles. The list reminds me of how much foreign literature I am missing and don’t know about. Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

235 HofSp cover

Women in Translation

Meytal Radzinski has done a great job reviewing the figures for women in translation. She put up two posts on her blog: Biblibio Life in Letters in January. She looked first at publishers and in part 2 at languages and countries. Whichever way you cut the statistics they tell the same story. Books in translation by women only represent about 30% at best. And the year on year picture does not appear to be improving. People always dispute figures about discrimination and if you want to do this you can look at the figures and her analysis yourself. She is transparent about the figures and how she interrogated them. In a third post she challenges the publishers to publish more women writers in 2016.

So novels in translation in the UK add up to about 4% of the total, and books in translation by women form at most 30% of that 4%. I think that means that novels in translation by women form about 1% of fiction. I notice that only one of Peirene’s top five is by a woman (but three of the translators). In the whole list I could only see 15 by women. Come on readers 15% is too low! The combination of foreign language and female author seems more than many publishers, booksellers and readers can deal with.

235 God dies coverWhat we can do

Read more translated fiction, and more translated fiction by women.

Support the initiative English PEN Writers in Translation.

Seek out more foreign fiction in bookshops and encourage them to stock more.

Look at the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Here’s a list of possible inclusions suggested from the blog Tony’s Reading List.

Take out a subscription to Peirene Press and receive three translated novellas a year.

Bloggers, you can join in #WIT month (Women in Translation) in November, and post recommendations on your blog. Also available is the twitter hashtag #translationThurs.

You don’t have to wait for November to read and post more about books in translation, of course. Join me in April, when I am reviewing An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddie, the next in my older women in fiction series. And I’m extending my tbr list to include another from Peirene readers’ top five.

80 Summer Bk coverOver to you

Any more ways you promote fiction in translation? Any recommendations for readers here and now? What is the best book in translation by a woman that you have read so far in 2016?

 

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Banning Books

Why do people in authority ban a book? They fear the power of the book. They fear the ideas or knowledge within the covers. As so often happens when you ban something it draws attention to it. Remember Mrs Thatcher banning the voices of the IRA on the news. In the recent Banned Books Week some surprising titles were revealed to have appeared on banned lists, especially in US in school districts where they take a different line about things and have different processes.

Banning books to protect children

213 Jenny_Lives_with_Eric_and_MartinFrequently a ban on a book is intended to prevent the corruption of the minds of the young. Or to protect them from ideas that adults believe might be too difficult. Behind the idea of banning books for children is a distrust of their ability to explore their world. I remember schools being banned from using books about living with gay parents. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche (1983) was notorious. Local Governments were also banned in 1988 from promoting a homosexual lifestyle and ‘the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a pretended family relationship’ (the notorious section 28). The world had gone mad.

The Scottish Book Trust noted that these books about or for children had been banned somewhere: 213 1940 AnneFrankSchoolPhoto

  • Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Diaries of Anne Franks
  • Forever Judy Bloom
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Judy Bloom writes about themes that interest young adults, their relationships with their parents, with people of their own age, fractured families, sexuality, strong emotions. She was one of the first to do so and earned a loyal readership as a result. The idea that childhood is a time of innocence is also challenged in different ways by Alice and by Huckleberry Finn.

Young girls with spirit are notoriously dangerous to those with absolutist beliefs. That must be why The Diaries of Anne Frank appears on the list.

Books that challenge social (sexual) norms

Then there are books that shock a little, intended to push the boundaries of what is discussed, what is known.

213 LolitaThe list begins with Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It would be hard to read Lolita without noticing that Herbert Humbold is a self-serving monster. It is a tough read because he sounds so plausible. People behave in bad ways and appear plausible. Those who wanted to ban Lolita mistook the messenger for the message. I suspect that many of them had not read Lolita.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was completed in 1928. Penguin published it in the UK in 1960 and a court case tested both the book and the obscenity laws. Lady Chatterley was notoriously ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’, according to chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones. Lawrence’s particular joyfulness at sex challenged assumptions and made explicit the shocking idea that women enjoyed sex, had sexual desires. And it also offended class sensibilities. It was acquitted under obscenity laws in 1960.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness also from 1928 provoked extreme reactions: ‘I’d rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book’ fulminated James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express. Its subject, lesbians, were seen to challenge the family values that the Express stood for. The Well also suffered under obscenity laws, although the legal battles over the book increased the visibility of lesbians in both British and American society.

Not about sexual norms but more about decency and a fear that it ‘wallowed in repulsiveness’ Barbara Comyns’s 1958 novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead was also banned. There is an interesting article about it on the PEN America website by Matt Bell. He argues that we should rejoice in its lack of moralising which promotes change ‘including an increase in moral complexity, intellectual range and truest empathy’.

And the political ideas

Banning the books with political themes is mystifying to our modern sensibilities, with exception of the Rushdie. Banned titles have included

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Frankenstein by Mark Shelley
  • Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

213 PerseoplisBut again, the powerful do not like challenges to the status quo. Or do not like readers’ minds being exposed to ideas that might challenge their certainties, even if the challenge is itself a critique of the opposing ideas, as is Animal Farm. And they don’t like books that promote girls and women as active and brave and determining their own futures as Persepolis does. It is graphic novel about a young Iranian girl during the period of the fall of the Shah and after. The challenges to the book’s place in schools and on the curriculum in the US is considered on the Banned Books Week website, Case Study: Persepolis by Maggie Jacoby, September 2015.

Books are good for healthy debate and challenge some questionable assumptions. In the forefront of reminding us about banned books are librarians, fighters for freedom of speech. That’s another reason to support libraries and librarians. And so too is the writer’s organisation PEN, and you can find the English PEN website here. Support them too!

What banned books have most grated with you? Is there ever a case for banning a book? What do you think?

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Unlimited Books for Prisoners

Do you know that poem called Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh? It begins

Sometimes things don’t go, after all,

from bad to worse …

Well, this is one of those times. Our best efforts have not gone amiss. Thanks to some good campaigning, a legal challenge and, yes credit is due, Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Justice), all restrictions have been relaxed preventing prisoners from receiving books. The Campaign Books For Prisoners has been successful.

Books for Prisoners

Let’s credit English PEN and The Howard League for Penal Reform for their vigorous and engaging campaign. The Howard League was presented with the Charity Award for its campaign in June 2015.

The judicial review was brought by Barbara Gordon-Jones, a prisoner at HMP Send, and her lawyer, Samuel Genen. As a result in December 2014 the High Court declared unlawful the restrictions introduced by Chris Grayling (previous Secretary of State for Justice). But feet were dragged, information only slowly disseminated and practice took time to change.

And then, following the general Election, the Secretary of State for Justice was replaced. Michael Gove said, when he announced the change in policy,

We have more than 80,000 people in custody. The most important thing we can do once they are in prison is make sure that they are usefully employed and that they get the literacy and numeracy and other skills they need for success in work.

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

Channings Wood, Boundary Fence, by Roger Cornfoot December 2009 via WikiCommons

It is a little sad that the rationale for the new policy is framed in instrumental terms, and all about work. As a good old-fashioned liberal leftie I want books and education to be promoted for their own sakes, not just to improve the work chances of prisoners – or children and young people and students of all ages. But hey-ho, the policy has changed. The statement went on,

One of the big influences on my thinking on social policy is Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.

He believed that we should see all human beings as assets, not liabilities. I agree. Every individual has something to offer, every one of us can earn respect.

People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute. If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain.

From 1st September families and friends will be allowed to send books directly to prisoners and no longer be obliged to go through approved retailers. The limited of 12 books in cells has been lifted, but prisoners must not exceed the limits on the volume of personal possessions permitted.

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Wood engraving of Elizabeth Gurney Fry reading to prisoners in Newgate Prison, London, from Bodleian Library, Oxford, via WikiCommons

Why are books important in prisons?

Let’s put aside the views of people who think being economically productive is the main duty of an adult human. Let’s ask for other reasons why books are important in prisons.

This is the view of someone who knows. Chandra Bozelko wrote this post for an American blog, Quartz, on her experiences of prison. She argues for more support for literacy training, not only for Obama’s proposed degree courses, in jail.

I was never an avid fiction reader before being incarcerated. But once inside, the last page of every novel I read arrived with an emotional thud, because I knew I would have to re-submerge myself into prison reality. Real life was never as good as the story I had been reading. To finish a book was often so disheartening that sometimes I wondered if I should even start another one, knowing how I would feel when I finished. …

Reading can save an inmate. A novel is a buoy in prison; it keeps you afloat because you can enter someone else’s life without ever leaving the facility. But not everyone in prison can read a whole book. Because I’ve witnessed that struggle first-hand, perhaps that’s why I’m one of the few who know that reforming the US corrections system means focusing on basic adult literacy—and therefore that providing university-level courses to inmates isn’t as helpful as it sounds.

We need to say this again and again – access to books is important for everyone. Books are good for you! A Report to the Reading Agency by BOP Consulting, funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation, notes that the benefits of reading include:

  • increased empathy,
  • improved relationships,
  • reduced symptoms of depression, and
  • improved wellbeing.

I’d like some of that! That’s why libraries are important. Everyone should be able to access book easily. That’s why literacy activities in prisons are important. That’s why prison libraries are important. That’s why prisoners should have adequate time out of the cells to visit libraries (reduced it appears because of cuts to prison staffing).

Check out the list of benefits again. Not only should prisoners enjoy books for their own sake, but their life chances can be enhanced by reading. Books for prisoners!

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Turning pages of a book by Mummelgrummel, February 2013 via WikiCommons

Two notes

Note 1: American Enterprise Institute is an American conservative think tank. Arthur Brooks might be described as a compassionate conservative. According to Wikipedia, in 2006 he wrote Who Really Cares: the surprising truth about Compassionate Conservatism. And he earned his living for a while as a French Horn player. Hmm …

Note 2: The decision by Gove means that books are no longer part of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme, or to put it another way they become an entitlement rather than a reward.

Related posts

Books for Prisoners November 2014

Books in Prison March 2014

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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Draw the line!

Cartoonists and other staff were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris on 7th January 2015. Twelve people died in the attack and eleven people were wounded, four seriously. The responses were immediate, identifying with the victims – Je suis Charlie – the demonstrations in Paris and a renewed determination not to be cowed by extremist ideas and extreme action.

187 suis ch

One response, in the UK, was Draw the line Here, a collection of more than 100 cartoons by 66 cartoonists, drawn in response to the murders. It was curated by the Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation committee. Funds were raised by CrowdShed crowdfunding. I’m proud to say I took a small part in the crowdfunding.

187 Draw f cover

Dedicated to anyone, anywhere or at any time who has suffered persecution for the crime of expressing their thoughts and opinions.

I wish I could show you some of the cartoons, but I can’t. But better yet, you could buy a copy.

187 je s c pencil

Predictably many of the cartoons utilise the black balaclava, the gun and its similarity in shape to the pen or pencil. Others draw on the absurdity of violence as a means of persuasion. Others simply restate a belief in freedom of expression. Yet others are concerned with the damage to Islam of the Paris attacks.

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie in Kayserberg May 2015

Nous Sommes Tous Charlie in Kayserberg May 2015

In the foreword, Libby Purves refers with admiration to the art of cartoonists:

How do these guys with pencils and weird imaginations suddenly relax your thoughtful news reading frown into a daft grin and make you snort aloud at the memory hours later? … The glory of the art is in its freedom, its courage, its willingness to dance lightfooted over dangerous ground. Not with malice or threat, but in the name of freedom, curiosity, and argument.

And as if to endorse these words, without malice or vengeance this was the Charlie Hebdo cover on 14th January 2015 …

187 Ch hebdo

You can buy a copy of Draw the Line Here (£14.72) from English Pen, the publisher, by clicking here. Funds raised from the sale of Draw the Line Here will be shared between the families of the victims of the Charlie Hebdo atrocity and English Pen’s Writers at Risk Programme.

And as you do, remember the importance of asserting freedom of expression. And remember the victims of those who believe that some things should not be thought or expressed in words or cartoons.

Back cover of Draw the Line Here

Back cover of Draw the Line Here

Draw the Line Here by Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation, published by English PEN in June 2015. 90pp

 

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Victory for Books for Prisoners

Just announced today (5th December 2014):  the High Court today ruled that the ban on books for prisoners is unlawful. In addition, Mr Justice Collins said that access to libraries in prisons is inadequate. He commented that it was ‘strange’ to refer to books as a privilege

Some days there is good news. Some days justice and good sense prevail.

For more on this see the Howard League’s website.

EnglishPEN and many writers have also been involved in this campaign.

See previous post on Bookword on November 8th for more on this.

 

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Books for Prisoners

I saw that every night that I read I was being cleansed of my sins, and that if I didn’t read I would rove the narrow, basalt-stoned, dank streets of the Castle of Sinners. I learned that not reading was to summon one’s sins. I learned that reading was the thing that tied me to life and rendered me sinless. As I read I saw that six-square-metre cell transformed into the world’s biggest centre for hermetic seclusion: a sanctuary, a colossal temple, a school where wise sages sat and debated.

As I read in prison I became myself, I returned to being myself, I added colour and harmony to my stagnant life. As I read I became myself.

(From Reading in Gaol, by Muharrem Erbey, translated from the Turkish by Erda Halisdemir. Published in The Author in Autumn 2014.)

Why does the Minister of Justice in the UK, Chris Grayling ignore the impact of the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme (IEP), which limits prisoners’ access to books. And why does he ignore the effects of staffing cuts on prisoners’ access to prison libraries? Access to books in prisons is part of a dubious behaviour control policy. I have written about this before, in March 2014, see Books in Prison.

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

Dartmoor Prison. Photo by Steve Daniels, from Wikimedia

And why do Conservative MPs (my MP anyway) not engage with the issues? Actually I know the answer to that question, but it’s still frustrating! And why is Simon Hughes, Lib Dem minister at the Justice Department openly challenging Chris Grayling about so much of his prisons policy, including limiting books to prisoners (reported in the Independent on 7th November 2014).

Why does it matter?

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

Cover of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Russian, from Wikimedia

I care passionately about books and education. In Norah Colvin’s phrase I am a meliorist. They are civilising influences in a world where powerful forces seem to want to revert to the worst of human nature. This government seems to represent the view that a prisoner forfeits all rights to be treated decently, as if the person is the crime.

I do not believe it is wise to make prisoners resent their treatment. Rather we should provide all possible opportunities for them to read and learn and reflect on life, their own as well as their victims, and the lives of others – in short to return to their best selves. Everyone can benefit from reading about the world, how it is, how it could be and how people live in this world.

Muharrem Erbey kept his best self alive and provides the eloquent vindication of reading in prison quoted above. He was in Diyarbakir High Security Prison for more than four years as a result of his Human Rights activities in Turkey. He determined to turn his situation to advantage by reading.

In the new worlds open to me by the books there was beauty beyond my wildest fantasies. I was free in that world. And everyone was equal. There were no walls. There were no doors that shut on people.

I wrote to my MP

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

Channing Woods Prison, Denbury. Photo by Roger Cornfoot, from Wikimedia

I try to take action when I adopt a strong position on an issue. In this case I did what active British citizens can do – I wrote to my MP – Anne Marie Morris. I complained about the reduced access by prisoners to books and libraries as a result of staffing cuts to the prison service. And I asked some pertinent questions about my local prison – Channing Woods.

In February 2013 an inspection report suggested that some prisoners were spending up to 20 hours a day confined to their cells. Since then there has been unrest among the prisoners. And this summer staff voiced their own worries about staffing levels.

I would like answers to the following questions:

How often can prisoners visit the library at Channings Wood Prison?

Who runs the library at Channings Wood Prison, and what is its budget?

From which outlets can prisoners buy books in the prison?

Can prisoners get specialist books from the library if they have a hobby or are doing a course?

I received no answer to these questions, no reference to Channings Wood at all in her letter. Rather my MP responded to some points I had not made, including this statement.

There has been a considerable amount of misinformation on this issue recently. Books are not banned [this I know] – indeed all prisoners have access to the professionally run prison library service.

That’s why I was asking about access to the library at Channings Wood, especially in the light of the prison staff’s own concerns about staffing levels.

I shall have to write again.

Can you take some action?

See what writers and others concerned about this issue have been doing:

  • Salman Rushdie, Jacqueline Wilson, Monica Ali, Mark Haddon, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Maureen Freely and Joanne Harris have called for the justice select committee to consider the impact of the IEP scheme in November 2014 (details from English Pen here);
  • There was a silent protest during a House of Commons justice select committee hearing in June 2014;
  • Leading writers (Mark Haddon, AL Kennedy, Rachel Billington), protested at Downing Street, also in June 2014;
  • Publishers led by Pavilion Books organised a fundraiser event called A Night in the Cells in May 2014.
Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Bedford Prison. Photo by Dennis Simpson, from Wikimedia

Campaigning has brought a small concession: prisoners will not in future be limited to 12 books per cell.

See also The Howard League for Penal Reform and English Pen for details about the campaign activities.

Follow the hashtags on twitter #BooksForPrisoners and #noreadingingaol.

 

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Reading, Writing and Dementia

Dementia haunts us as we age, more than almost any other affliction. Losing the ability to be coherent, to read books, to tell the story of your life, these things make us fearful. But as we pass those milestones, 50, 60, 70 and on, which of us has not thought of what might happen? And as we experience those so-called senior moments, who has not wondered if they are increasing in frequency? At the moment I am fortunate that no one I am close to is suffering. Words, reading and writing them, have therapeutic effects I know. So I did a little research and quickly found that words can change lives for those suffering from dementia.

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Reading and dementia

Get into Reading, organised by The Reader Organisation, is a nationally acclaimed project, a positive health and social care intervention that has been adapted for dementia groups. Two key features of the intervention are the emphasis on serious, ‘classic’ literature, and reading aloud followed by open-ended discussion. I like the determination not to dumb down the material.

Short poems work well for people with dementia it has been found. This is probably because the language is more compressed and striking than prose; they are often contained on one page. Many of the participants in the groups studied were of the generation that learned poetry by heart in schools and even those with the most severe dementia could recite poems they learned at school.

The Reader Organisation has researched the effects of Get into Reading with people suffering from dementia and found

  • improved mood for 86% of readers
  • greater concentration for 87% of readers
  • increased social interaction for 73%
  • less agitation for 86% of readers

‘Isn’t it funny? We come in with nothing and go out with all these thoughts,’ said a reading group member, living with dementia, from Devon.

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Writing and dementia

I came across two projects.

Dementia Authors’ website in our own words was established in 2006 but I couldn’t find out if the project is still active. The process involved Anthea McKinlay, writer-in-residence, assisting the authors to write their care home story book. The gradual approach appears to allow the dementia sufferers to build up their contributions.

A second project is Living Words, run in association with English PEN. The link takes you to a video on the website, showing how the project encourages individuals to develop their own poems. ‘There is a goldmine of words to stir something up’.

You can read a poem written by a participant on the English PEN website here called I’m not used to anything like this.

The therapeutic power of words seems to be without limits. For prisoners asylum seekers and refugees, for individuals …

 

An event

Dementia and the Power of Words at Free Word Centre, London EC1R 3GA on Wednesday 12th March 6.30 – 8pm. Details on the English PEN website here. I wish I could go and hear about the experiences presented on that day.

 

 

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Filed under Reading, Writing