PEN Canada and Eritrea’s Imprisoned Journalists: The Unbearable Power of Speaking


The tenth anniversary of the imprisonment of twenty Eritrean journalists on Friday, September 23rd 2011, might have passed unremarked and in silence had it not been for the efforts of PEN Canada and Ryerson University. PEN Programs and Communications Coordinator Brendan De Caires chose the most pertinent and yet unexpected words of Salman Rushdie to fuel the imagination and catalyse the conversation of the members of audience and panelists alike at “The Other Side of Silence – Speaking out for Eritrea’s Imprisoned Journalists.” In his novel Shame, Rushdie plays with the idea that each new narrative silences several others. The idea that writing can sometimes censor instead of freeing expressed the theme of the event: (an)other side of silence.

A collection of five Canadian authors each read a letter to five “adopted” Eritrean journalists who were arrested in September 2001 with no justification, and who have remained imprisoned for ten years in shipping containers, with no hope of release. Esayas Isaac, brother of imprisoned Dawit Isaac, animated through words the lives of fellow journalists Temesken Ghebreyesus, Emanuel Esrat, Dawit Habtermichael and Mateo Hebnaab. It was a testament to how, captured by the “big ideas” debates in society, microcosmic issues such as crackdowns on public journalists are dismissed and buried in doubt. Next, authors Sheila Heti, Camilla Gibb, Karen Connolly, Mary Botsford-Fraser (reading for Susan Swan), and Rosemary Sullivan used words to try to capture unimaginable suffering and offered in return images of nature and the normalcy of everyday routine. Their voices filled the room with the unbearable power of speaking, since, even as their letters gave a kind of voice to the imprisoned journalists, their words could never fully convey the horrors that these journalists are going through, and will always fall short.

Each of the authors pressed the continuity of memories through words by ending on a note promising to haunt eternally: “You are not forgotten.” Clearly, these authors feel the weight of words but one cannot help but wonder if this weight is felt by those with the power to change these contemplative words into rectifying action.

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