Carole Seymour-Jones, former chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, pays tribute to Naomi May, ‘a cornerstone of the WiPC’
When in the 1990s I joined English PEN, at that time happily installed in Dilke Street, Chelsea, over the Sketch Club, Naomi May was already a member of the Writers in Prison Committee. She inspired me to join the WiPC, talking eloquently about the work it did on behalf of imprisoned writers around the world: the demos outside embassies and high commissions, the petitions, the annual St Bride’s Service on the Day of the Imprisoned Writer – but most of all, about the letters (and books) sent to individuals to remind them that, although within prison walls, they were not forgotten by their fellow writers.
I soon learnt that Naomi was a cornerstone of the WiPC. She was a novelist and journalist, incorrigibly modest about her own work, but passionate and committed when it came to our mission to writers at risk. An indefatigable correspondent, she probably took on more cases than any other WiPC member over her service of nearly 25 years. Chairs came and went, William St Clair, David Holman, Joan Smith, Ania Corless and myself, but Naomi’s loyalty to the WiPC never wavered. She supported every campaign, and her warmth and inherent ability to build bridges with persecuted writers enabled her to make lasting friendships which continued long after they reached London, for example with exiled Iranian journalist Yousef Azizi, with whom she regularly lunched.
Her dedication had a flinty core: Naomi was not easily deflected from her path when it came to making a difference to the life of an imprisoned writer. It was largely due to her perseverance that, following his release, Cuban journalist Jorge Olivera Castillo was offered a scholarship at Harvard University. Nor did she give up when it came to publishing the English translation of Jiang Qisheng’s My Life in Prison: Memoirs of a Chinese Political Dissident, which she finally achieved in 2012, with the help of her husband Nigel.
In a period when the WiPC often held its meetings in members’ houses, Naomi and Nigel’s generosity became legendary. Not only the WiPC but the Writers in Translation Committee met at their home in Richmond, with Chair Ros Schwartz and her committee members contributing to the lively discussions which overflowed into the garden on fine evenings, as released writers such as Jean-Louis N’tadi turned up for supper.
It was in Naomi’s garden that I said farewell to her earlier this month. She bore her final illness with the humour and fortitude characteristic of her, refusing my offer of an arm upon which to lean but allowing me to strike a light for her cigarettes. It was a windy day, and the matches kept going out. She urged me to cup my hand and persist, saying with a smile: `The doctors can’t do anything more for me, so I might as well enjoy myself.’
Naomi will be greatly missed by us all.
Carole Seymour-Jones, 17 July 2014