It was hard to believe that this portly, grandmotherly woman wearing a gray sweater and skirt was considered a threat to the state. It was 1997, and the late Ayse Nur Zarakolu,the only woman publisher in Instanbul, had just returned from a military court. She was pleased that her trial over the Armenian genocide book was over, but she still had an unbelievable twenty-three charges pending. Her defense, she said, always rested on the right to publish, the right to disseminate ideas, and the right of readers to read them.
It was illegal to publish books about the Armenian massacres and about Kurdish guerrilla fighters, and doing so was punishable by imprisonment. Zarakolu had already been imprisoned for publishing a book about the Kurds.
It was a time of great tension between the secularists and the Islamic Welfare party in Turkey. Zarakolu's publishing house, Belge, which she founded with her husband Ragip,had recently been bombed, and I interviewed her in her makeshift office in the Sultanahmet District of Istanbul. She had just received PEN American Center's Freedom to Write Award. PEN was founded in 1922 and one of the oldest literary and human rights organizations working to dispel national, ethnic, and racial hatreds and encourage literary fellowship.
One of PEN's important projects is to maintain contact with writers in foreign countries, particularly those writers under attack. As president of PEN West American Center, I have several times acted as an envoy to embattled writers in Turkey, China, and what was then East Berlin.
Locally, the West Coast branch of PEN American Center, PEN West, sponsors regular literary readings of new work and translations as well as an annual Freedom-to-Writeevent where well-known writers-Robert Hass, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Al Young are a few that spring to mind-read from the works once banned or removed from library shelves in America. PEN West also has letter-writing sessions in which local authors gather to write to foreign governments on behalf of persecuted writers.
Ayse died of cancer in 2002, and her husband has since been put on trial again for similar issues. But in 1997, when I asked Ayse how she felt about getting PEN's Freedom-to-Write award, she said it lifted her spirits and that it was important to send a message to the international community about what was happening and to her government that she will persist despite constant persecution. "If we persist," she added, "we win."
–Brenda Webster, President of PEN West American Center.
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Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
Women Support Women