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Edinburgh Book Festival review: Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers: Families Forced Apart


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As part of the Edinburgh Book festival, Amnesty International organises a programme known as the Imprisoned Writers Series. This year, topics include women’s rights, immigration, writers at risk, and the #blacklivesmatter movement.

According to the host, Dr Kasey McCall-Smith (an International Law Lecturer at Edinburgh University), the shows aim “to challenge, move, and inspire.” These performances are “giving voice” to those who cannot speak, comprising of established authors reading aloud the writings of those who are not often heard.

On Monday 13th August, the show was entitled “Families Forced Apart”. Both the authors' emotive readings, and the extracts themselves, were heartbreaking, eloquent, and inspiring.

First to read was Stella Duffy, a writer with sixteen novels to her name and an LGBTQ and women’s rights campaigner. Duffy spoke the words of Valeria Luiselli, an interpreter for an immigration court based in New York City. Luiselli often struggles to translate the emotionally charged, horrifying stories told by the people she meets, but her job requires her to reduce these tales into “barren” terms for easy assessment. She refers to some of these stories, describing children in a desperate “chase for life” – young people wishing for safety and stability.

Next up was Karen Lord, a multi award winning science fiction author. Before beginning, Lord mentioned how “uncomfortably close” these stories of vulnerability came to echoing her own home of Barbados, and her emotional connection soon became clear as she read aloud the words of Eddy. Just a few months ago, Eddy was caught fleeing the horrific (and under-reported) violence in Guatemala and  was separated from the rest of his family. The conditions he describes – the lack of windows and clocks, and becoming “tired of crying” – led to tears from the audience and Lord herself. The powerful words of this child had travelled from across the Atlantic all the way to Edinburgh.

Poet Sasha Dugdale read aloud a poem by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist who was sent to be imprisoned on Manus Island as a result of Australia’s harsh border protection policy. The poem focused on the helplessness of Boochani, and his desperation to be forgiven by his loved ones.

Sally Gardner, illustrator and novelist, concluded with a heart wrenching testimony from Jewher Ilham. She recalls the day that her father was detained at Beijing airport, later sentencd to life in prison after being accused of separatism in China. Ilham's story is one that is becoming far too common – a vulnerable, frightened child in the midst of a political battle.

While many events at the Book Festival examine fictitious tales, these readings are current and urgent. Using the power of writing to stimulate political awareness, Amnesty’s events are a must-see for any Book Festival attendee.

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