As part of PEN International’s annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Madeleine Thien writes to imprisoned blogger Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh.
Dear Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh,
It is almost five months since your trial, a one-day trial in which you were sentenced to ten years in prison for "conducting propaganda against the state” under Article 88 of Vietnam's penal code, a law that is being used arbitrarily and brutally to silence dissent.
I do not know if you know that, around the world, your trial and sentencing caused outrage and heartache, and your case was seen as an egregious example of the Vietnamese government using imprisonment (and consequent separation of families) to punish civil and peaceful discourse. The trial lasted only a day. It is now 13 months since you were arrested and detained. In these months, whose great sorrow and hardship I can only imagine, people have been thinking of you, speaking out on your behalf, and courageous bloggers in Vietnam call for your release, and continue the work that you inspired. I want you to know that the efforts of all these individuals and organizations, by loved ones and strangers, will not cease until you are free.
I think of the name you wrote under, Mother Mushroom (Mẹ Nấm), and what a beautiful and powerful gesture this name is towards your children (your daughter is named Nấm who just turned eleven years old). You said you began blogging because you wanted your daughter and two year old son to be able to live in a more just society. You hoped that the Internet might be a place of freedom and openness, where ordinary people could discuss and debate their future outside of a tightly controlled and monitored State media. On your blog and on social media, you wrote about challenges facing your community and your home: social issues, environmental concerns, land rights, police brutality and deaths in custody. These are questions of basic human rights that all of us have the right to contend with, in words and speech, in the political climate you wished for: an environment free from fear. You wrote about the struggles of others, and you advocated for the release of political prisoners, and for this, your freedom was taken away.
Over the last few years, I have been writing about another mother, someone who is now well into her 80s. She is Professor Ding Zilin, a founder of the Tiananmen Mothers, who, for the past 28 years has been harassed, intermittently detained and surveilled by the Chinese government. You are both women who have been fearless, persistent, respectful and brave. And both of you, mothers from different generations, are trying to live as you must, to speak, to cultivate an internal freedom that is necessary for all civic discourse. "I know I am not a very bold mother,” Ding Zilin wrote. “I do not have endurance. I do not speak beautiful, inspiring words. But on the path to fight for human rights, to demand justice, I have kept my endurance and keep on my way. This might be another way of living.”
You wrote, "My father and my grandfathers chose silence for the sake of their own safety. Now is my time, and it has to be different."
I am moved by your courage, your writing, and your willingness to see in a world that prefers that we not see. How much simpler it would be to keep silent, to turn away from the sufferings of others and the inequities around us. Yet you have shown in your writing and life a commitment to all of us – in Vietnam and outside – in your struggle to protect the basic rights on which we all depend. That your rights were denied – a fair trial, due process, and freedom of expression – is a devastating injustice we now have the responsibility to confront.
May you have strength and courage, Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh. Please know that your voice remains clear, resonant and powerful. We will continue to work for your freedom. I have been so inspired by your humanity, by the faith you placed in words, and by your goodness. I hope we may have the chance to meet in person one day soon.
I will continue to write to you and speak out on your behalf until the day your freedom is rightfully returned to you.
With best wishes,
Take action for Nguyễn Ngọc Như Quỳnh here.