Noo Saro-Wiwa and Drew Campbell in Edinburgh

Where can you find Irvine Welsh, Elif Shafak, Carlos Gamerro and Don Paterson together in one yurt? Well, at Edinburgh International Book Festival of course. PEN International saw all these writers gathered around the breakfast buffet in the Authors’ Tent on Sunday morning, and suspects it will not see the likes again.

PEN International was in Edinburgh to join with Scottish PEN and the Book Festival to assist with their Free the Word! event the same day. Scottish PEN President Drew Campbell was in conversation with Nigerian author Noo Saro-Wiwa, daughter of executed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa read from her wonderful travelogue Looking for Transwonderland, in which she returns to Nigeria and writes about such varying issues as corruption, the publishing industry and male prostitution.

Also on stage was Scottish PEN’s Empty Chair, created – under Drew Campbell’s supervision – by art students from Lomond School, Helensburgh, on the west coast of Scotland. This beautiful work features the names of writers on whose behalf Scottish PEN has campaigned, including Ken Saro-Wiwa and Lydia Cacho; on the back is a mounted a plaque carrying a proclamation of Human Rights and Freedom of Expression. The Chair has been exhibited at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, and has also been sent around the country and abroad to promote Scottish PEN’s important campaigns. A miniature version of the Empty Chair is housed at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The Empty Chair

Since the 1980s PEN International has used the Empty Chair at events or in public spaces to symbolise a writer who could not be present because they were imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed. The Empty Chair often represents a specific case, rather than all writers at risk, and regularly takes centre stage at such venues as the Sydney Writers’ Festival, International Festival of Authors in Toronto; a permanent Empty Chair, created by Antony Gormley, was unveiled outside the British Library in 2011 to mark the 90th anniversary of English PEN. PEN Centres worldwide traditionally exhibit an Empty Chair on November 15 – the Day of the Imprisoned Writer.