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Freedom to Write; A Turkish Student

I last heard from my Turkish student—I’ll call him D—on July 21, just a few days after the attempted coup, but before the arrests of 61 journalists.

In that email, in response to my concerned email, cc’d to his workshop class, D wrote: “Hey everyone, I'm okay & safe now. Still in Istanbul, and working at my office, _____Newspaper. Thanks for your support & messages, Carol. It means a lot. Best, D.”

D came into my workshop at NYU last spring. He had been posted to New York and wanted to improve his reporting and writing in English. My high-powered writing class was not the best place to work on his English, but he was determined. He did very well. He was lively, engaged, perceptive and brave. Yes, brave enough to begin writing about a demonstration he’d participated in as a student in Turkey and the arrest of two friends.

I have had more international students in my class in recent years than ever before. They have come from China, Russia, Thailand, Iran, and other despotic regimes where there is no freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

It’s hard for them, at first.

Learning to write well in English—in America—demands a bold, unfettered voice. I have to assure my students that my workshop is a safe room and that they are not obliged to publish anything they write. But while in my class, I insist that they assume an absolute freedom to write. And they cannot remain quiet; they must participate in discussion.

My American-raised students benefit from this mandate, too. They also carry fears into the classroom, though ending up in jail is not one of them.

I try to stay in touch with my overseas students after the workshop is over. If I hear that someone is in trouble, I do what I can from New York. Both PEN America and Amnesty International advocate for persecuted and incarcerated writers.

I am confident that any students who have tasted the freedom to write in my classroom will never again be able to self-censor their words. I wish them all safe passage and courage in the difficult years ahead.
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