26:50 – writing for freedom

Mike Exon, Independent content editor and journalist

It is 2010. In some parts of the world writers are kept under surveillance, threatened, thrown in prison and even assassinated for their work. For those of us living in the West this is hard to believe and easily forgotten. For those of us who write for a living there is always the lurking thought that it could have been us.

International PEN campaigns for the right to write and for freedom of expression. Once a year they remember the plight of the persecuted at Free the Word! in London.

This year for the 50th anniversary of its Writers in Prison Committee, a group of us from the writers collective 26 took it upon ourselves to mark the occasion with some words of our own. We called the project 26:50.

The idea was to remember some of the writers, poets and scribes who have become targets of repression over the last 50 years. We would write a short sketch inspired by one of PEN’s prolific writers and post them online every day in the run in to the festival. We wanted to create a parade of the literary giants marked by fate and inscribe them into the web.

Constraining ourselves to exactly 50 words a writer, we set to work. Using notes sent from PEN together with whatever information we could find, we each began to form the various fragmented pictures that would shape our own lines. We scrawled, we wrote, we compiled and filed.

Then up on to tumblr went our 26:50 – a rather alternative line up you could say. Perturbing too that while some of our protagonists like Salman Rushdie, Jack Mapanje and Nguyen Chi Thien went on to great futures, others were never given the chance. The final sketch, to the unnamed writer, went up on the opening day of Free the Word! It was a fitting last post for a tremendous project.

We’re hoping to do something again for next year’s festival and are busy planning our next venture with the V&A. So if you’re interested in collaborating with 26 or want to get involved with one of our projects just get in touch via our website.

If you want to know more about our experiences of writing 26:50, have a look at our Free the Blog site here.

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