Laura McVeigh, Executive Director of PEN International began by explaining the Day of the Dead. In much of Latin America, in particular Mexico, it is the time of year when the dead are remembered by the living, with colourful rituals, altars and festivities. Following the murder or disappearance of 43 Mexican journalists, editors, bloggers and writers in the past 5 years, PEN centres around the world decided to hold their own Days of the Dead.
In the UK, English PEN and PEN International collaborated on an outdoor event that included a traditional altar with candles, photographs, bowls of water, fruit, and paper skulls; the handing out of mementos containing information about individual missing or murdered journalists; and readings of texts in Spanish and English that matched particular real-life case studies.
Laura explained how PEN International had been in correspondence with the Embassy, urging more concerted action to protect journalists – earlier, staff from the Embassy’s human rights programme came out to see the group and give their thanks. She then began the readings with the poem El Altar de los Muertos and was joined by her colleagues Cathal Sheerin and Sara Whyatt for the first case studies.
Translators Tom Bunstead and Rosalind Harvey took turns reading from Spanish texts that they had translated, an extract about unsolved murders from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 by Tom, and by Rosalind the ‘corpse game’ sequence from Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole. Latin America specialist Nick Caistor and professor of literary translation Amanda Hopkinson read the poetry of Felipe Fabre and Rosario Castellanos. Amanda explained her own connection to Mexico and the human rights situation there over the years, recommending the writings of Lydia Cacho, as featured in the magazine Index on Censorship. With their themes of violence, grief and the demand for justice, the texts read or mentioned by the speakers were only too suitable for the occasion.
The speakers, some doing an event like this for the first time, battled against car radios and All Souls’ Day church bells to speak for those who no longer could. People rushing home from work stopped to stand and listen. After closing remarks and thanks from Laura, the crowd joined for a minute’s silence followed by photos, music and food – a reminder that the Day of the Dead is a festival as well as a memorial.
Does it matter to the dead that they’ve been remembered? Maybe that’s the wrong question. Shouldn’t it in fact matter to the living? PEN’s Day of the Dead campaign is, finally, a protest. It’s the symbolic head of various efforts to pressure the Mexican authorities to do more to protect journalists and prosecute those who victimise them. And it’s a way to show writers in Mexico our solidarity with them – that we can’t accept the impunity with which others treat their lives.
In that sense, the Day of the Dead campaign isn’t the living remembering the dead. It’s the dead reminding the living, of what was done, and what now has to be done.
Report by Mazin Saleem
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/dayofthedead/