Turkish novelist Ahmet Altan has written an essay, The Writer's Paradox, from his prison cell where he has been imprisoned with his brother Mehmet for a year.
In the specially commissioned article, translated by Yasemin Çongar, Altan describes receiving his meals through a hole in the middle of the door, pacing a courtyard contained by a steel cage, and how he is "forbidden from sending even a two-line letter to my loved ones". It was published by the Society of Authors and English PEN on the eve of his trial, which begins on Tuesday (19th September).
Charges against Altan and his brother, arrested after last July’s attempted coup against president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, include membership of a terrorist organisation and sending "subliminal messages" to overthrow the government following a panel discussion on a local television station. Both deny the charges which English PEN believe to be politically motivated and in violation of their right to freedom of expression.
Scores of prominant authors, including Neil Gaiman, Man Booker shortlisted author Ali Smith, Salman Rushdie, Ian Rankin, Margaret Atwood J M Coetzee, A L Kennedy and Philippe Sands, have shown support for the Altans.
A letter they signed calls for the brothers' release and argues the failed coup "should not be a pretext for a McCarthy-style witch-hunt nor should that state of emergency be conducted with scant regard for basic rights, rules of evidence or even common sense". Another pledge organised by PEN International, signed by over 100 writers earlier this year, has expressed solidarity with Turkey’s imprisoned writers and journalists, saying, "We will raise our global voice against any effort to silence yours."
Author Neil Gaiman said: "I hope that everyone who can read, whatever their politics, reads Ahmet Altan's response to his imprisonment. Repressive regimes hope that if they lock up writers they are also locking up ideas. This will always fail. I hope that Ahmet and Mehmet get a fair trial (although that they are even going to trial is in itself a caricature of the law). I hope that all despots and dictators learn, sooner rather than later, that, as Ahmet tells us, writers are impossible to effectively imprison."
In his essay, Altan writes: "I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. Wherever you lock me up I will travel the world with the wings of my endless mind".
He concluded: "Each eye that reads what I have written, each voice that repeats my name, holds my hand like a little cloud and flies me over the lowlands, the springs, the forests, the seas, the towns and their streets. They host me quietly in their houses, in their halls, in their rooms.
"I travel the whole world in a prison cell.
"As you may well guess, I possess a godly arrogance – one that is not often acknowledged but is unique to writers and has been handed down from one generation to the other for thousands of years. I possess a confidence that grows like a pearl within the hard shells of literature. I possess an immunity protected by the steel armor of my books.
"You can imprison me but you cannot keep me in prison. Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through walls with ease."
Today there are now more writers and journalists imprisoned in Turkey than in China. An ongoing petition, promoted by English PEN in its Speak Out campaign, advocating the pair's release, has garnered over 16,000 signatures and counting.