LIFETIME MEMBERSHIP AWARD
AWARDED TO ROSIE SCOTT BY SYDNEY PEN PRESIDENT
MICHAEL FRAZER ON 10 APRIL
CITATION BY DENISE LEITH
about May 2001 Rosie first heard about asylum seekers being locked up
in detention centres in Australia. Incredulous that this could be
happening here, and furious that restrictions being placed on visitors
and the press meant that the issue was not being publicly discussed,
she became committed to somehow raising the issue within the Australian
electorate. As a member of the Sydney PEN committee it was soon obvious
to Rosie that she could do this best by focusing on the issue of
‘Freedom of Speech’, which came under the Sydney PEN mandate.
While discussing the possibility of placing an ad in the national press to highlight these issues with Nicholas Jose, the then president of Sydney PEN, the ‘Tampa’ incident occurred. Similarly outraged other PEN committee members including Mary Cunnane, Chip Rolley and Anne Summers, joined with Rose, Nick and the Refugee Council of Australia to call for public donations so they could place a one page ad in a weekend newspaper protesting Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and calling for changes to its policy of mandatory detention. The response to Rosie’s initiative was overwhelming. Soon the Sydney PEN post office box was overflowing with donations. Eventually Sydney PEN and the Refugee Council had to take out a two-page ad in The Australian in order to accommodate most of the 3000 signatures received. The $40,000 in donations Sydney PEN received over and above the cost of the add was given to the Refugee Council of Australia.
The asylum seeker issue was now firmly on the Sydney PEN agenda.
Three months later, in January 2002, Rosie, along with Tom Keneally, organised a demonstration in support of detainees in the camps who were sewing their lips together. This mid week event saw 600 people turned up outside the Immigration Department to protest, and received wide media coverage both here and overseas.
Determined to personalize and strengthen PEN’s involvement in the asylum seeker issue, Rosie worked through a network of refugee advocates to identify writers of any creed being held and silenced in detention. With a list of names she not only succeeded in personalizing the issue, but was now succeeding in raising the asylum seeker issue within the wider Australian public. At the same time she was also raising Sydney PEN’s profile so that the calls upon its time and resources began to escalated exponentially.
To try to deal with the workload coming into PEN the Sydney PEN Writers in Detention Committee was formed with Rosie as its chair. She then invited Tom and Annette Hughs to come on board. It was the first Writers in Detention Centre in the history of International PEN and when the idea of such a committee was taken to the International PEN Congress that year it was adopted by many countries, who quickly recognized that they too had similar ‘invisible’ problems with refugees in their own states.
The work of Sydney PEN’s Writers in Detention Committee meant it soon became a member of the International Detention Coalition with Rosie making a submission to that organisation. The committee supplied copies of Another Country to the UN Committee on Refugees and to International PEN. Rosie also made a submission to the National Peoples’ Inquiry into Immigration Detention.
Rosie and the committee were now able to use International PEN as a powerful tool in the campaign to bring pressure to bear on the Federal Government. Through International PEN they drew upon a committed cadre of international writers and organisations within the associated international human rights community, including the United Nations, Reporters Without Borders, The Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International.
Cheikh Kone, a writer from the Ivory Coast, who was being held in Port Hedland, became the first refugee writer to have his case ‘internationalised’ by Rosie’s committee as PEN centres around the world began contacting John Howard to register their concerns over his fate.
The committee and Sydney PEN were also beginning to focus events around the writers in detention. Rosie organized the first empty chair at the Sydney Writers Festival that year for Cheikh at the John Ralston Saul’s lecture in Sydney Town Hall. Rosie also gave the ‘Day of the Imprisoned Writer’ event that year was also given a refugee theme with speakers including Ariel Dorfman, Ruth Cracknell, David Malouf and Paula Aboud.
In 2002 Rosie then began working on the idea that would eventually become the PEN publication, Another Country - an anthology of writing from asylum seekers edited by her and Tom Keneally.
Putting the book together proved a complicated task requiring not only energy and commitment from many individuals, but courage and trust from many of the contributors. Initially the writers in Australian detention centres had to be identified and contacted. Often they had to be encouraged to submit their writing, or to take up writing again, for some had abandoned their craft under the weight of despair. Their work then needed careful editing and in some cases, translations. At times this was a painful process for Rosie who had to immerse herself in the raw emotion and pain of the writing day after day. Yet, the hardest part she said, was writing back to those whose work would not be included without increasing their trauma.
The following year, 2003, Rosie was elected Vice President of Sydney PEN and while working on Another Country and looking for a publisher she continued to work on a number of events highlighting the plight of writers in detention. There was a PEN market forum at UTS where Cheikh Kone (now released) was present. The Day of the Imprisoned writer that year focused on the plight of Lam Khi Try who was in Villawood. His case was successfully concluded the follow year and he received a Lillian Hellman/Hamnet grant from New York after a successful application made by Rosie and Tom.
And then in May 2004 Another Country was finally released. A passionately moving and often harrowing book it includes the work of thirty detainees, refugees and former asylum seekers.
The anthology’s success was highlighted by the immediate sell out of the first print run and the releases of second and third editions. Not only did Another Country receive wide literary acclaim, but shortly after publication the sessions on Another Country at the Sydney, Bennelong and Melbourne Writer’s Festivals were sell outs with over 100 people being turned away from the Sydney venue. A moving eight minute film titled, 'Another Country' was shown on the ABC’s Sunday arts program. Poetry from, and information about, Aîother Country has been posted on national and international web sites and featured in Internatéonal PEN newsletters. A group of NGOs and researchers at University of NSW took Another Country to Geneva to present their case against Australia’s mandatory detention policy to the UNHCR, and the book has been offered as a prize in an Amnesty Essay competition on Human Rights.
On a personal level the hand of friendship and compassion that Rosie and Tom offered in Another Country proved to be a much needed salve to the open wounds of incarceration and abandonment, with many of the contributors claiming that the anthology changed their view of themselves and the world. While on a practical level, after its publication Rosie and Tom, were able to write letters of support for the contributors still in detention. Eventually all would be released.
Perhaps Sydney PEN’s crowning achievement came in November of 2004 when it was honoured with HREOCs Community Human Rights Award. In presenting the award Another Country and the work of Rosie’s Writers in Detention committee was singled out by the judges as a signficant contributor to human rights for refugees. Tom and Rosie were also nominated for the Human Rights medal.
Through her years on the PEN committee Rosie lobbied extensively, both singularly, together with Melbourne and Canberra PEN and with many dedicated refugee advocates on behalf of those silenced in Australian detention centres. She wrote innumerable letters to the Minister, and other government and judicial bodies in support of numerous individuals. There would continue readings, writer’s festivals and even an overnight hunger strike outside the Immigration Department.
Than finally, after more panels and festivals and advocacy on behalf of refugee, in 2006 an exhausted Rosie resigned from the committee. Later that year she would be honoured with the Sydney PEN Award.
While Another Country is perhaps the crowning glory in Rosie Scott’s continuing fight against mandatory detention and a challenge to Australia’s proud definition of itself as an humanitarian nation, she voluntarily and without any form of recompense, sustained a national and international lobbying campaign to raise the asylum seeker issue within the Australian conscience and free those incarcerated. 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. It is through her life and her work that she continues to challenge all of us the question of , “How can you not?”