Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Don’t know Zarganar? Joke's on you.

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From February 26 to March 3 we officially celebrate our freedom to cram our shelves and minds with books of our choosing in a week-long set of readings, conversations, banned-book displays and taking pause. Freedom to Read Week includes events around the country featuring an assortment of academics, novelists, journalists, readers and literary organizers. Tacked on to the end, an independent event but no less in tune with the message, is a chance to meet a man who until very recently had the freedom to read only what was permitted in his jail cell (PG Wodehouse, as it happens), and the freedom to write almost nothing at all.

If you’ve ever been to an event at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors you’ll know that it begins by drawing the audience’s attention to an empty chair at the side of the stage followed by a call to sign to a petition. The Empty Chair represents a writer currently imprisoned for his or her beliefs and can be found at literary events around the world where chapters of PEN International are in operation. In October 2008, IFOA’s Empty Chair carried an image of Burmese comedian, actor and director Maung Thura, more commonly known as Zarganar: “tweezers.” At the time he had been arrested for criticizing Burma’s military government and was awaiting sentencing. A few weeks later, he was handed a 59-year jail term.
Then, on October 11, 2011, just a week before a new IFOA opened with its annual PEN Canada benefit and a different face in the Empty Chair, Zarganar was released.

Though he is out of prison he is not altogether out of the woods. As a recent article notes, “Under current [Burmese] law, you can still receive decades of jail time for reading or writing an email deemed to be subversive by the government.” Zarganar’s sentence has merely been suspended. If he is arrested, he can be sent back to jail to serve the more than 31 years remaining (the original 59-year sentence was subsequently reduced by 24).

But let’s set aside such sombre thoughts for a moment. This coming weekend, instead of seeing Zarganar’s face on a foam-core-backed piece of card propped on a spot-lit chair, you can see the three-dimensional, smiling, joking man himself at a free event at Ryerson University.

A co-presentation by PEN Canada, Amnesty International and Ryerson, “Conversations with Zarganar” features Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage and Burmese Lessons, a True Love Story; Arne Kislenko, Professor of History at Ryerson University and an Adjunct Professor in the International Relations Program at the Munk Centre for International Studies at U of T; and Zaib Shaikh, an actor and director currently best known for his starring role in Little Mosque on the Prairie. On stage with this panel of academics and artists whose work and interests echo his own, Zarganar will discuss what it’s like to be an embattled public intellectual and what he sees in Burma’s future — a future of which we can expect him to be a vocal part. One can assume that despite the cloud of a decades-long jail sentence hanging over his head, he will crack a mischievous joke or two as well.

Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental freedoms that Canadians enjoy (I just got my citizenship study guide in the mail and there it is bullet-pointed on page 8), but nevertheless you might be surprised by the list of books and magazines that have been challenged here in recent years.

Talking about the power of the written word on stage last week at Authors at Harbourfront Centre, Nathan Englander commented: “I feel like books can save your life, can cure cancer, can grow hair back.” So powerful is reading to make us believe in our dreams, he suggested, “[it’s why] in totalitarian regimes they still go after the writers first.” Zarganar’s appearance, and indeed all events under the Freedom to Read Week banner, challenges us to remember that.

Burma’s “most famous opposition figure” — currently in North America where he’s been shaking hands with the likes of Hilary Clinton — will only become more so following his release, so meeting Zarganar at a free event at Ryerson might just be your literary and political “I was there when” equivalent to having caught this year’s arena-filling band when they were last year’s little-known Lee’s Palace opener. A man who was silenced has been given the liberty to speak. On Saturday afternoon, come and listen.


Conversations with Zargana featuring Zargana, Karen Connelly, Arne Kislenko and Zaib Shaikh takes place Saturday, March 3, 2:30 to 4 p.m. at Library Lecture Theatre, Ryerson University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto. 

FREEDOM TO READ WEEK officially runs from February 26 to March 3, 2012

Events in Toronto are:

Tuesday, February 27. 6:30–8:30 p.m. 
Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St W. 
Censored Then and Now: The Politics of News Media from WWII to the Digital Age
Mark Bourrie in conversation with Susan Swan about the past and present of political censorship in the Canadian news media.

I’ll be there, (wo)manning the Type Books book table. Come and say hi!

Friday, March 2, 2012 . 7–9 p.m. (doors at 6:30)
 Toronto Reference Library
Suggested donation $10
Right Angles: Freedom of Expression and the Conservative Mind — PEN Canada Panel Discussion

Does mainstream media have a liberal bias? Does polarized news coverage help or harm the public sphere? Has the rise of conservative media given voice to a silenced group, or made the discussion of general subjects unnecessarily adversarial? Join PEN Canada and panelists David Akin, Barbara Kay, Christopher Hume and Marci McDonald for what will be a lively discussion. Moderated by John Lorinc.

Check for details of Freedom to Read Week events province- and nationwide.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs, and a member of PEN Canada’s Board of Directors, where she serves as Events Chair. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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