The Uncaged Voice: Stories of Writers in Exile was launched on October 24, 2023, in an event hosted by Ben McNally Books, one of the oldest and most important bookstores in Toronto, Canada. The event included speeches by the publisher and Grace Westcott, president of PEN Canada, as well as Gezahegn M. Demissie, leader of the Writers in Exile Committee, and Arzu Yildiz, a representative of the book’s authors.
The Uncaged Voice book project was supported by PEN Canada and includes the stories of 16 writers from many countries in which they talk about their personal experiences
Syrian-Canadian writer and journalist Abdulrahman Matar was one of 16 professional writers living in exile in Canada who contributed to The Uncaged Voice, a collective book recently launched by Cormorant Books in Toronto, Canada. The Uncaged Voice book project was supported by PEN Canada and includes the stories of 16 writers from many countries in which they talk about their personal experiences as authors and journalists in their homelands, including the tyranny and oppression they faced in their personal struggles for freedom of expression. Although each of their stories is unique, they all share a common vision of the issues of freedom, justice, and truth.
Although there are many Syrians currently living in Canada who arrived there as refugees, Matar is the only one whose story is covered in The Uncaged Voice. He is currently vice president of the Syrian Writers Association and an editorial advisor for Awraq magazine. Matar has also published five books of poetry as well as stories and novels. While living in Syria, he was arrested five times and spent a total of almost 10 years in prison due to his writings. His novel Wild Mirage was written from inside a cell and talks about his experience in an Assad regime prison. As proof that his writing has been far better received in Canada than it was in Syria, Matar was also chosen to be the winner of the Commitment to the Arts Award – Toronto 2021.
“It is a book of our shared stories, so it is the light that illuminates the darkness of exile for us.”Abdulrahman Matar
Matar, whose chapter in the book is entitled “The Road to Freedom: Detention, Fear, and Displacement” was also in attendance. His story is one of political detention, torture, security prosecutions, and confiscation of freedom of expression, not only by the Assad regime and some terrorist organizations in Syria but also of restrictions imposed in various countries of displacement and exile before arriving in Canada.
In commenting about the book, Matar says: “This is a book of crossing over again into another life, after years of detention and asylum. In a new language, and a new homeland, its pages open the windows of writing to an unlimited horizon of freedom of expression. It is the rain of letters, which waters our thirsty souls and takes us to where others can listen to our voices… to touch the fires of the soul… our pains. To know our stories and to participate with us in creating the hope and future that we aspire to: Without prison cells, without torture, freedom without restrictions, until the end of the last dictatorship in the world […]. It is a book of our shared stories, so it is the light that illuminates the darkness of exile for us.”
the aim of the authors is to introduce the issues being faced in their respective communities related to the violence of dictatorship, of confronting tyranny, and the victory achieved through freedom of expression
The authors signed copies of the book in the presence of a wide range of Canadian writers and journalists, supporters of freedom of expression, and businessmen who support cultural work including Mohammad Zaibak, a Syrian-Canadian businessman
The event was considered by many to be highly important given the book’s main themes which are directed towards Canadian and Western readers. Published in English, the aim of the authors is to introduce the issues being faced in their respective communities related to the violence of dictatorship, of confronting tyranny, and the victory achieved through freedom of expression.
A list of other contributing authors:
Aaron Berhane was one of the founders and editor-in-chief of the largest independent newspaper in Eritrea when the government ordered a crackdown on journalists and was forced to escape under a hail of bullets. He passed away in 2021.
Gezahegn Demissie is an award-winning journalist, writer, and filmmaker. When the increasingly oppressive Ethiopian government suspended PEN Ethiopia’s license, he and three other harassed journalists fled into exile in Canada. Demissie is the leader of the Writers in Exile Committee of PEN Canada and currently edits the community journal New Perspectives.
Alexander Duarte is a journalist. He worked for El Nacional, one of the most-read newspapers in Venezuela, and as director of media and public relations with the Attorney General of Venezuela until the new regime came into power, at which time he and his journalist wife received death threats and fled to Canada.
Ava Homa is the award-winning author of Daughters of Smoke and Fire (HarperCollins) which won the 2020 Silver Nautilus Award and was a finalist for the 2022 William Saroyan International Writing Prize. Her book of short stories “Echoes from the Other Land” was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize. Homa’s articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail, BBC, Toronto Star, Literary Review of Canada, and more. She holds a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Windsor.
Dishaly Ilamaran is a dedicated student at Carleton University, pursuing a dual degree in Journalism and Law. Hailing from Canada since 2016, Dishaly is the daughter of Sri Lankan journalist, Ilamaran Nagarasa. With a passion for storytelling and legal advocacy, she is committed to weaving together her cultural roots and academic pursuits in her journey of learning and growth.
Ilamaran Nagarasa, known as Maran, is a freelance journalist, human rights activist, and refugee advocate originally from Sri Lanka who was imprisoned as a Tamil terrorist for more than a year after arriving in Vancouver in 2009.
Luis Najera is an award-winning journalist born in Mexico who has been a refugee in Canada since 2008 after receiving death threats because he reported on drug cartels and corruption along the US-Mexico border.
Kiran Nazish is a former war correspondent, who covered all post-9/11 conflicts around the world, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Turkey, and Pakistan, among other places. After being targeted in her home country Pakistan, Kiran established the Coalition for Women in Journalism, based out of New York. The CFWIJ advocates and supports women and non-binary journalists in 128 countries. CFWIJ established an arm in Canada in 2021.
Pedro A. Restrepo is a writer, journalist, interpreter, and human rights activist who is the author of books of poetry, a novel and works on pedagogy. He left his beloved Colombia when his father was murdered for his political beliefs.
Maria Sabaye is a writer, storyteller, and arts educator originally from Iran. She has published three books and over a hundred articles, interviews, and stories.
Kaziwa Salih is an expelled Kurd and the award-winning author of several fiction and non-fiction books, as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of two journals, Nivar and Newkar.
Mahdi Saremifar is an Iranian journalist. He was a science correspondent for Hamshahri, one of the most-read newspapers in Iran, and editor-in-chief of an Iranian popular science magazine. He was forced to leave Iran when the science he was reporting conflicted with the doctrines of the Supreme Leader.
Bilal Sarwary is an Afghan journalist who has worked extensively with Western media outlets over the last twenty years in Afghanistan including the BBC for 14 years. Knowing his name was on the Taliban execution list, he escaped the country in August 2021 as the Taliban closed in.
Haritha Savithri is a freelance journalist and author with a passion for writing stories about politics and human rights who works as a translator, columnist, and novelist. She grew up in Kerala, India, was forced into an abusive marriage by her family, and left the country in 2010, unable to adapt to the patriarchal tendencies and conservatism of Indian society.
Arzu Yildiz is a Turkish-born award-winning investigative journalist, senior reporter, editor, public speaker, and the author of four books. Yildiz was the recipient of the 2021 PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-in-Exile Scholarship and is currently on a Turkish government terrorist list. She wrote articles on government corruption and left Turkey to escape an arrest warrant, leaving her children behind.