Andrew McMillan supports fellow poet Ashraf Fayadh

Writers and artists around the world are being encouraged to produce new poems and artworks in support of Ashraf Fayadh as part of a Day of Creativity on 28 July. English PEN is delighted to take part in helping to raise and maintain awareness of Fayadh’s case by publishing the following piece by British poet Andrew McMillan.

Andrew McMillan’s poem ‘a week of living blasphemously’ was written and performed for the English PEN Modern Literature Festival, curated by Steven J Fowler, and also featured on a Lunar Poetry podcast highlighting writers at risk around the world and PEN’s efforts to support them. Andrew McMillan is also among a number of writers continuing to support Ashraf Fayadh, most recently by reading his poems at the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

We hope that many of you will consider writing pieces in support of Ashraf Fayadh and, if you’re in London, please do join our regular vigil at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia on Friday 29 July, 9-10am. More details here.

Andrew McMillan on Ashraf Fayadh

The world is so much smaller than we imagine it to be, and we can’t ignore the plight of those suffering for simply using their voice or their pen – to write or tell stories is the very bedrock of a civilisation; civilisation itself cannot be imprisoned, we must keep saying their names aloud.

Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death, which was later commuted to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes which are to be given in 16 separate punishment sessions. I took the number 50 from one of those sessions and considered everything I’d done, taken for granted, this week, that would have landed me in trouble in another country. I took the structure of ten sections from Ashraf’s great ‘Disputed’ poems. The reference to ‘four times’ comes from something I read about LGBT rights in certain countries, and that a ‘sus-pect’ is asked to admit they are homosexual four times before being put to death.

a week of living blasphemously 

‘I directed my face at the warmth of your arms, I got no love but you, you alone, and am the first of your seekers’ – Ashraf Fayadh, from the ‘disputed’ poems


forgive me   I am in love with a Catholic
I myself have no religion   whilst my boyfriend
was at church I had two glasses of wine in my
underwear   when he came home I pretended
I’d been polishing the door fronts of the cupboards


forgive me I do not call my mother enough
I got into the car and let my mother drive
me to the station yesterday      when we go shopping
I am always trying to get her to try
on nice things   accept her wants    as well as her needs


I encouraged a friend to leave her husband
I told her that being safe or being free
were not two different handles on the same jug
that there was a choice and what of the vow
we make to the self   to always be honest


I just finished a new novel about a man
who picks up a rent boy in a toilet  falls in
love with him  leaves him   and ends up with syphilis
I leant it to a friend   and wrote a review of it
encouraging others to read it as well


on Wednesday night by boyfriend came home from spin class
and hadn’t been bothered to change out of his shorts
he spent the evening reading fashion magazines
where often naked women are draped in expensive
fabric for the purposes of consumerism


I took my boyfriend out for a meal   held his
hand as we walked passed a group of football-charged blokes
bought the third most expensive bottle of wine
to feel extravagant    let’s get dressed up  I’d said
the food was that kind that’s all deconstructed


my boyfriend chose some black cropped trousers and a kilt
or skirt over the top to emulate a look
he’d seen at Paris Fashion Week   back at the flat
he deconstructed the outfit   turned each piece
inside out   built a dirty-washing pyre


I was too much of a coward to keep watching
the TV   sometimes in bed   at night   I wonder
what it would be like to be someone who did not
officially exist   from a country which did
not have the right to call itself a country


sometimes   in bed   at night   I list the things that would
make me illegal   my ink   which I would not cover
white wine   men   my lack of faith   my book collection
I am circumcised though   that inch of cut-off flesh
means I am clean   and could be   potentially   good


Ben   I would declare my love for you four times if asked
but do not think I am a martyr to my heart
I am weak from privilege   I have not endured
I am impulsive   sweating shame and doubt
I could renounce you in an instant to save myself


PEN Atlas: Marta Dziurosz reflects on #EURef and Brexit

The Polish–English literary translator Marta Dziurosz reflects on the UK’s EU membership referendum – its tone and its aftermath – and considers the role of literary translators in this brave new world.

Read this week’s PEN Atlas

Discover PEN-supported European writers on the World Bookshelf.

Tickets are on sale for International Translation Day 2016, the biggest annual UK gathering of literary translators – taking place in London on Friday 30 September.

Find out about London mayor Sadiq Khan’s post-Brexit #LondonIsOpen campaign.

Read about English PEN’s work with multilingual young people in London: Brave New Voices.

PEN Atlas: Anjan Sundaram on the last journalists in Rwanda

In 2009, journalist Anjan Sundaram went to Rwanda to write his first book, and to run training courses for fellow reporters. During his time in the country he witnessed the extinction of independent media in the country, and saw how a lack of free speech enables fear and oppression.

Read more about Anjan’s experiences and listen to an exclusive English PEN podcast in this week’s PEN Atlas.

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Catch up: 2016 PEN Ackerley Prize

On 12 July English PEN hosted the 2016 PEN Ackerley prizegiving event at the Free Word Centre in London.

Nominees Adam Mars-Jones, author of Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father, and Alice Jolly, author of Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, discussed the challenges of memoir writing with Peter Parker, chair of the PEN Ackerley Prize judges. Both authors read extracts from their nominated books.

Publisher Alan Sampson read from Pour Me: A Life by AA Gill.

Read all the tweets tagged #PENAckerley, or listen to the entire discussion via the audio player below, or on the English PEN SoundCloud page.

The 2016 PEN Ackerley Prize was awarded to Alice Jolly. You can watch her acceptance speech below or on the English PEN YouTube channel.

Alice Jolly awarded 2016 PEN Ackerley Prize

Alice Jolly has this evening been announced as the winner of the 2016 PEN Ackerley Prize for her memoir Dead Babies and Seaside Towns (Unbound).  The book chronicles the author and her husband’s quest for a baby after their second child was stillborn.

Accepting the cheque for £3,000 at a prizegiving event in London, Jolly said:

In a world where it’s all about book sales, literary prizes are one of the few ways in which we can say ‘actually a book didn’t sell so well but its an important book so we need it’, so literary prizes are incredibly important for that reason. …

Unbound published this book when nobody else would … they stuck by this book all the way and believed in it when other people didn’t.

Jolly also thanked those who subscribed to the book

It isn’t just my book, [it’s the book for all those people] who had the nerve to come forward with their money to say ‘yes we believe in this book’ … People ask: ‘is crowdfunding a serious way to fund a book’? Well, clearly, it is a serious way to publish a book so I’m very pleased about that.

Finally, she paid tribute to those who have suffered the loss of a child:

Over the years I have had so many conversations with bereaved parents and I feel that this book belongs to all the people who, so tirelessly campaign on that issue and who, sadly, really really aren’t heard.

Two other books were shortlisted for the prize: Pour Me: A Life by AA Gill (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) and Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father (Particular Books) by Adam Mars-Jones.

Peter Parker, chair of the judges, said:

Although this year’s shortlist was indeed short – only three books –  it was also very strong. These three books stood out, not only because they are exceptionally well written but because they tell compelling stories that hold the reader’s attention throughout. It  was very difficult to decide between three such fine but very different books.

The PEN Ackerley Prize is the UK’s only literary prize dedicated to memoir and autobiography. It was established in memory of J R Ackerley, the author and literary editor. The prize is judged by the trustees of the J R Ackerley Trust: biographer and historian Peter Parker (chair), historian and biographer Richard Davenport-Hines, author Georgina Hammick, and writer and painter Colin Spencer. Previous winners have included Alan Bennett, Jenny Diski, Michael Frayn, Germaine Greer and Henry Marsh.