November 15 is marked around the world as The International Day of the Imprisoned Writer. This was started in 1981 by PEN, the international writers' organisation, to acknowledge those who are subject to political, economic or other forms of repression.
Here in New Zealand we call it Courage Day. Dr Nelson Wattie, the New Zealand Society of Authors (NZSA) PEN representative, introduced the recent Courage Day meeting in Wellington. He pointed out that the name refers to the courage that such writers display, but also recalls NZ writers James Courage and his mother Sarah Courage, who both faced opposition because of their writing - in James' case, because he dared to write about homosexuality at a time when such writing was discouraged and could be banned.
This year the NZSA Wellington branch decided to focus on courage shown by writers in a situation close to home, and we invited Dr Jeffrey Paparoa Holman to address us about the courage of people, including writers, in Christchurch, and more generally on writers' courage to speak in stressful and dangerous situations.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is a prolific poet, whose books include As Big as a Father (2002), The Late Great Blackball Bridge Sonnets (2004) and Land Very Fertile (2008). This year he published Shaken Down 6.3, a collection of poems, photographs and an essay focusing on the Christchurch earthquake.
He delivered a riveting and moving talk, despite still getting over the effects of jet lag, having only returned last week from the Iowa Residency.
Jeffrey first talked about the courage shown by his family during the war: his father who was in the Navy, and his mother and grandmother who used to talk to him about being bombed in Liverpool during the Blitz. He told us about some of the writers he met at Iowa, in particular a man from Myanmar who in his imprisonment refused to let his art or his work be confined, and treated every item in his cell as a possible art object
Lastly, he read a number of poems from Shaken down 6.3 and talked about the situation in Christchurch: the lingering after-effects - both physical and emotional, the grief over loss of places and buildings around which you had built your memories - but also the greater community spirit, and a creative flowering with initiatives such as Gap filler:
This was the first time that we included the "empty chair" at our Courage Day event. The chair is placed to symbolise a writer or writers who cannot be present because they are imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed. It added an extra poignancy to the occasion and to Jeffrey’s wise and moving words about the situation in Christchurch.
Since the meeting, I've been reading through Shaken down 6.3 and have found it a very moving collection. Jeffrey's description of what his parents and grandmother had experienced during the war added more depth to my reading of his poem living with heroes. The book also includes some poems from Japan, April-May 2011, including Densinya rice haiku which uses a frog and an egret in one small ricefield to tell the story of a terrible and enormous tragedy.