Freedom of expression is a noisy, uncomfortable, disorderly business. Emotional and intellectual discomfort is the characteristic of a healthy society. John Ralston Saul, President, PEN International, Write Against Impunity, 2012
The Day of the Dead (El Día de Muertos) is celebrated in Latin America from 31 October to 2 November. At this time, families remember their deceased loved ones by visiting graveyards, erecting and decorating altars in their homes, cooking their favourite food and lighting aromatic candles. PEN, the international association of writers, is using this mortuary festival to commemorate their fallen colleagues, murdered with impunity in countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Brazil.
To highlight and protest against the alarming lack of justice in the region, PEN has published a bi-lingual anthology, Write Against Impunity. A mixture of poems, essays and prose, the collection features the work of writers from all over Latin America, including Homero Aridjis, Gioconda Belli, Lydia Cacho, Ariel Dorfman, Carlos Gamerro, Elena Poniatowska and Sergio Ramírez. Former writers in prison, such as the Cuban journalists Jorge Olivero Castillo and Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso and Peruvian poet Melissa Patino, have also contributed texts.
As the second most dangerous country in the world to work as a writer it is no surprise that most of the contributions either come from or are about Mexico. Since December 2006, at least 48 print and internet journalists and writers have been killed there and at least nine others have disappeared. Many of the Mexican writers focus on the terrible wall of silence surrounding the femicides in the border town of Juárez. Carmen Boullosa dedicates a poem to Susana Chávez Castillo, a fellow poet and activist who led protests against the unsolved murders; her strangled and mutilated corpse was found in the city in early January 2011. Recalling the Greek myth of Philomena, Boullosa writes:
I am the mutilated tongue.
They severed me from a body to torment it,
they wanted to cause pain and leave my accusation of infamy mute.
To provoke fear.
The best pieces are those that tackle impunity head on. Authors from countries where human rights abuses are less endemic still want to offer solidarity to their neighbouring colleagues. Bolivian writer, Gaby Vallejo Canedo, rages against impunity with the lines:
I am the voice of all of them and I can't stand it any longer to have been born with so much beauty in my hands, in my voice, and not to have found anyone to protect me.
Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world and 28 journalists have been assassinated since the June 2009 coup d'état. Erick Tejada Carbajal writes a concise, chilling account, reminiscent of George Orwell's dystopian fiction:
The tentacles of impunity are so plump and numerous that they envelop people and public opinion on a daily basis...perpetual resignation has become our only defence mechanism... death is our daily bread and it travels around in little motorbikes, in big white vans, and along pathways and on noisy police patrols.
The only anomaly is that there is nothing about Brazil, where at least 11 print and internet journalists have been killed since 2010. But Cuban Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso surely speaks for all victims of impunity when he writes of an "association of shame". He goes on to describe the victims: "men and women, some young, some not, that stand up to Power." And concludes "Some time ago I heard someone say: 'bravery is not the absence of fear. It is acting in spite of it.'"
Write Against Impunity makes for a sobering read, but I cannot think of a better way to celebrate the Day of the Dead than buying this testament of writers' courage. You know you are supporting PEN's valuable work in the field of free expression at the same time as remembering those darker parts of the world in which writers are so brutally silenced while trying to expose corruption or effect change.
For further information, to read Write Against Impunity online or to buy a print edition visit International PEN.