As part of the ongoing Books for Prisoners campaign, English PEN has asked some of the many writers at risk we have supported about the value of reading in detention. Here Belarusian journalist and winner of last year’s PEN/Pinter Prize Iryna Khalip describes the crucial role books play in prisons, for both inmates and guards
In Prison You Cannot Breathe Without Books
When I was arrested and brought to a prison cell I noticed almost automatically that there were books on one of the shelves: Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, Chekhov’s stories, novels by Veller and Nikolai Klimontovich and some books by Sidney Sheldon. ‘It’s possible to live here,’ I thought, ‘there is something to read.’
Inmates told me that first evening that ‘library day’ in prison is on Thursdays. All inmates in the cell had to write a request to the guard on duty – ‘We request to change the books’ – and the same evening they would change old books for new ones.
I was arrested on 19 December 2010 – a Sunday. On Thursday our books were not changed. We were not worried. We thought that the administration had simply forgotten because of the mass arrests and numerous changes in the prison, now filled with opposition activists and political leaders. It was not until two weeks later that we managed to get the new books. It would have been better if we had kept hold of Chekhov’s stories.
On the first Thursday in January a big stack of books appeared in the slot of the cell’s door. Every cover of a book had an obligatory languid beauty embraced by a similar handsome man. And titles like Languish for Lust. We started to read descriptions: ‘An ascetic Norman knight meets a young beauty’, ’Pirates attack a yacht in the Carribean and capture the captain’s daughter’ – they all were the same.
‘Can you give us something else?’ we shouted to the guard.
‘No, not allowed.’
‘Give us some crime stories at least!’
The next day I was summoned by the prison warden who wanted to share his ‘brilliant’ idea.
‘How did you like the books? It was my order to give you only such books.’
‘You are in prison and there cannot be prison without torture. We decided to torture you with romance books.’
The other women’s cell, where my friend and colleague, editor of charter97.org website Natasha Radina, was held, got luckier: once in a stack of romance they found All is Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque and Diderot’s The Nun. Of course The Nun was also in the category of romance but the whole cell enjoyed reading it, commenting, ‘Who would have time to read Diderot in a free life?’ Ladies in other cells were lucky, not to mention the men. My husband, who was in a neighbouring cell during the investigation period, re-read Faulkner, Dickens, Mann, Feichtwanger, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. After he was transfered to another prison following the verdict, he complained in a letter that the library there was worse than in the KGB prison. Then the librarian took a vacation for several weeks and my husband was left with just Thackeray.
And we were deprived of decent books in our cell. And it really was torture. Furthermore we were not allowed to bring or receive books from outside. My cell-mate Nastya suffered without the Bible and I was yearning to re-read Ibsen. When you are free you don’t have such a painful desire to read as you have in prison. You can get any book at home, in the shops or from the internet. In prison books become the air. Your body needs air to breathe. No books — you cannot breathe. And if you cannot breathe there is no life.
Translated by Andrei Sannikov
About the author
Iryna Khalip is a journalist, who was charged with organising protests against President Aleksandr Lukashenko after his re-election in 2010. She was held under house arrest and handed down a two-year suspended prison sentence. Charges against her were dropped last year. Iryna Khalip was awarded the 2013 PEN/Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage by Sir Tom Stoppard in recognition of her vocal criticism of the government in Belarus in spite of intimidation and imprisonment.