Free Speech Needs Free Space

PEN Atlas

English PEN’s Literary dispatches from Turkey

by Florence Holmes

It’s been eight months since the Taksim Square protests, and with the release of the PEN Atlas: Literary dispatches from Turkey ebook (which you can download for free here), there’s the opportunity for gaining a new perspective. It’s easy when campaigning to see ‘Turkey’ as one entity, but the multiplicity of contributors of all ages and experience, each with their own point to make and way of voicing it, is evidence of the rich diversity of a single nation. The dispatches also demonstrates the stereotypes which we are liable to pin on to a country when our knowledge of it is fragmentary – the number of Turkish books with cover pictures of mosques, for example – and helps place last’s years events and the people who experienced them into a global context. Literature students are continually encouraged to read texts from other countries, and considering the Turkish population in York and Britain’s relative proximity geographically, the dispatches are some of the most relevant pieces of literature we could read at this time.

One piece that struck me particularly was Egin’s ‘Taking a Stand’, which explores why the protests started where they did and the significance of Gezi Park as one of the last green spaces in the Beyoğlu area of Istanbul. The government were planning to replace it with a shopping mall and the first protestors were environmental ones aiming to protect a tree from being bulldozed. Egin makes the point that this small space held memories for almost all Istanbulians and was used by a diversity of people, day and night. Of course, the government’s environmental policies were only a small reason behind the subsequent unrest, but it is arguable that, once parks in urban areas are lost, freedom of expression is at risk. The city park is a physical expression of democracy, an inclusive space without the need for an entrance fee or a swipe card, a space shared by every echelon of society.

In London, workers who spend the day six stories up in air conditioned offices, residents and tourists, all flock to the parks and squares when the sun comes out, and they’re also quite possibly the best places for people watching. It’s true that, at least in England, many people are in their own bubble – on the phone, plugged into music, or deep in a book. But it’s the opportunity that free spaces offer for people to mix, even if all that means is a wry smile exchanged over the lycra-clad lunchtime runner, which matters. Build over Soho Square, scene of the making and consumption of the world’s largest Eton mess last summer, or, more significantly, Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, which provides the opportunity for anyone to talk on any subject, and I think there would be a justifiable uproar. Reading the dispatches is a reminder of the importance of such places.

English PEN and PEN international are publishing a joint report ‘The Gezi Park Protest: the impact on freedom of expression in Turkey’ in February 2014. 

Florence Holmes is an English and Related Literature student at the University of York, Opinion Editor and committee member of York PEN.

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