by Bernadette Burke
The 2012 PEN Annual General Meeting, held on April 10, was a significant one, with long time member Dr Rosie Scott awarded the honour of Life Membership. President Michael Fraser said it was “a great occasion.” And indeed it was. Dr Scott was offered the award in recognition of her outstanding work helping to free writers in Australian detention centres, and for her role as a co-founder of the Writers in Detention Committee.
Dr Scott received the Sydney PEN Award in 2006, a nomination for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Human Rights Medal in 2004 and, as a member of PEN, a Community Human Rights Award in 2004.
She accepted Life Membership with great humility, saying she was honoured, and thanking the committee and members who voted in favour of it. In praising the work of PEN and its volunteers, she said such a commitment was needed more than ever now.“These days, human rights are being trampled everywhere, and writers are being goaled, exiled and treated terribly. Often PEN is their only lifeline,” she said.
Dr Scott said her work with PEN was one of the things that had made her most proud in her life. In an interview afterwards, she spoke about the experience of liaising with refugee Tony Zandavar as one of the most profound, having seen him go from “nearly dying of depression” in detention, to finally seeing his release after some five years both at Baxter and Villawood detention centres. He had found his confidence again after Dr Scott wrote saying one of his poems had deeply moved her.
“It was a beautiful poem, so I wrote and said this is wonderful, I’ll publish it,” she said. The tireless lobbying of Dr Scott and the Writers in Detention Committee eventually resulted in Mr Zandavar’s release, and today he is happily married and living with his family in Tasmania.
She said that many of the writers published in the anthology of refugee stories, Another Country, compiled by the Writers in Detention Committee, had experienced their darkest days in detention, but the opportunity to communicate with someone on the outside had a huge effect on their “sense of themselves”.
“We can do positive things in a very direct way through PEN. We belong to an organisation that’s part of a long tradition that we can be very proud of,” she said.
Denise Leith, also a long standing member of PEN and the Writers in Detention Committee, described the anthology Another Country as Dr Scott’s “crowning glory” in her tireless, long fight to “challenge Australia’s definition of itself as an humanitarian nation,” work she did voluntarily without any form of recompense for eight years.
Though focused on the issues at home in Australia, Dr Scott inspired and also took part in international lobbying to raise the asylum seeker issue within the Australian consciousness and to free the incarcerated.
Dr Leith says of Rosie Scott, “In her work she offered hope, solace and friendship; freedom for some, a voice for others, and a bridge to link those of us who are free with those of us who wish to be. It was Noam Chomsky, Rosie reminded me once, who said that educated people, intellectuals and writers, have a duty to speak out against injustice because of their position.”
Dr Scott has always been passionate about activism, being inspired at an early age by her parents. She said of PEN,“It’s an important rite of passage for writers, especially when we’re in democracies where we can write what we like. This is what we can do to help our fellow writers, in places that are very scary, and it’s the smallest thing you can do.”