NEW YORK (AP) - Maina Wa Kinyatti remembers the day he was dragged from his
solitary cell in a Kenyan jail to the prison warden's office. The warden, baffled
and furious, showed him piles of letters and postcards from around the world, calling
for Kinyatti's release.
"He was so angry, picking up letters, asking why these people cared about me,"
said the soft-spoken Kinyatti, a prominent historian who spent six years in jail
for sedition after his teaching and writing angered the Kenyan government.
"To see these letters, so many of them"-he paused and wiped his eyes-"It
gave me hope. It gave me hope that someone was fighting for my freedom."
Kinyatti's cause had been adopted by the international literary organization Pen,
which waged a letter-writing campaign on his behalf. Over the years, the group has
aided hundreds of writers around the world when their trade lands them in trouble.
Pen-whose name stands for Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors, and Novelists-has
its headquarters in London. The non-profit group, with a worldwide membership of
10,000 elected members, sponsors a variety of literary events, awards and anti-censorship
campaigns, but many members believe its work on behalf of imprisoned and imperiled
writers is especially vital.
At Pen's New York offices in a sunny Soho loft, Siobhan Dowd, administrator of the
group's Freedom to Write Committee, leafed through case sheets-an Egyptian novelist
accused of blasphemy, a South Korean poet sentenced to life in prison under national
"In many parts of the world, writing is a dangerous profession-very, very dangerous,"
Pen's principal tactic on behalf of imprisoned writers is to send cables to the governments
involved. About 200 such messages were sent last year, Dowd said. The cables are
generally nonconfrontational in tone, expressing concern and citing international
Pen members, many of them internationally known authors, also write letters directly
to jailed writers. Even though many do not get through, they tend to get governments'
attention. When Kenyatti was in prison, Norman Mailer was among those who wrote to
"When someone so famous gets involved, I think it makes the authorities afraid,"
said Kinyatti's wife, Mumbi Wa Maina.
Pen works closely with human rights groups, sometimes coordinating strategies with
them. Amnesty International also worked on Kinyatti's behalf, for example, and the
Committee to Protect Journalists takes on some of the same cases as Pen, those involving
reporters and editors.
Some of the writers Pen assists are well-known at home but have little audience outside
their own countries. The group will sometimes try to raise a writer's profile by
arranging translations of their work.
While dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya was in prison in the former Soviet Union,
Pen helped arrange the publication in French and English of a collection of her poems,
increasing her visibility. Ratushinskaya, freed in 1986 after three years in prison,
credited western pressure for her release.
More recently, Pen helped arrange the publication in English of a novel by Vietnamese
writer Duong Thu Huong, who was jailed for seven months last year. The book is due
out early next year from William Morrow and Co. Pen hoped wider readership in the
west would discourage the Vietnamese government from jailing Duong Thu Huong again.