A note on: English PEN event at Greenwich Book Festival

Sara Upstone nearly made me cry. I felt my voice quivver a tiny bit as I wrapped up this event, giving props to the remarkable Cat Lucas, whom everyday sees, hears and gets emailed about writers suffering for principle and freedom across the world everyday. I said I felt we were all visitors in her world, and she was a visitor in theirs. But Sara, her piece for Dawit Isaak, it did exactly what I hoped this mini-fest event would do when I conceived of it a few years back. It neither collapsed on itself with self-referential guilt nor swung past the truth of Dawit’s life and struggle. It was something entirely new, complex, dense, celebratory and powerful sad. It was poignant and beautiful but in no way sentimental (the thing I dislike the most in these contexts, just after the endless apologies people make for their own lack of suffering, a kind of ungratefulness to my ears).

The whole event was like this. It was considered and serious, and yet playful and mindful. The environment, thanks to Sam Jordison, whose own piece was powerful and personal and brilliant, was a busy literary festival on a warm summer saturday, and we were in a lecture theatre. But all the context drifted away for an hour as Ellen Wiles, James Miller, Paul Ewen, Sam himself and Sara read pieces for authors around the world.

You can find more about the fest and all the videos from the event (https://greenwichbookfest.com/event/english-pen-writers-at-risk/ ) here on the Enemies Project website www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen

For my own performance I nailed fruit and then ate it nailed with a black bag on my head while improvising some words about what Oleg Sentsov’s gesture of resistance, and life in general means to me. The principle that we might not be brave when called, and that even if, at first flush we may feel courage, it normally dissipates as reality sets in. This is an idea I have thought about my whole life. That it is easy to be what you hope to be when the weather is fair, but character is what happens when you realise days in you will be forgotten and your suffering, no matter how representative, symbolic or important, if yours alone. The man, Oleg Sentsov, is a giant. He has a giant soul. He embarrasses me into gratitude for my life, and that there seems no question on the horizon for my own principles like the one he has quite unbelievably answered.