Class Oils Door to Writers' Freedom
by Todd Murphy, Portland Tribune, December 10, 2004
The letter, neatly handwritten in Spanish, came in late March.
And just like that, Portlander Jennifer Wiandt learned how easy it could be to "turn the cogs of the world," as she says now.
The letter came from Peruvian journalist Juan de la Mata Jara Berrospi, who had spent the previous nine years in prison -- unjustly, most who knew of his case believed -- until Wiandt and an unusual class at Lewis & Clark College's Northwest Writing Institute entered his life. From thousands of miles away.
"I send you this letter . . (to give) you my sincere thanks for your decisive and supportive help that achieved my complete liberty," he wrote. Juan Jara was writing as a free man, finally. And he was thanking a writing class at a small private college in Portland for it.
Fourteen months before the letter, Wiandt had known nothing of the obscure Juan Jara.
But she had heard about a graduate-level class taught by an adjunct faculty member at the Northwest Writing Institute. The class is called Writers in Danger.
Portland writer and writing institute instructor Martha Gies gathers information from international human rights groups about writers unjustly imprisoned throughout the world for their writing.
Then, through the 10-week class, she leads her students through the process of understanding, investigating and advocating for the writers' releases.
No class like it
Gies, who proposed he class to the writing institute and has been teaching it since 2000, models it after a course developed in the 1990s by Roger King at San Francisco State University. King has since retired, but shared with her many of the materials he used to teach the class, Gies said.
Neither Gies nor writing institute Director Kim Stafford knows of another college class like it in the United States.
The class opens students up "to what price writers pay for their vocation in other cultures," Gies said. "This is a huge eye-opener about what people pay (for) truth-telling."
On the night Wiandt first heard Juan Jara's name -- the first night of her Writers in Danger class in January 2003 -- Jara had been in a Peruvian prison for more than eight years.
The government of Alberto Fujimori had arrested Jara in 1993, charging him with "collaborating" with the Peruvian terrorist group known as the Shining Path.
Like members of many international human rights groups, Wiandt came to believe through her class research that Jara had nothing to do with the terrorist group. But he was found with copies of maps of the burial sites of nine students and professors who had been killed -- by the Peruvian military, many believed -- at a university in Peru. Jara had said he was planning to write an article about the killings.
Jara was tried by a military tribunal and imprisoned in September 1994.
After Fujimori, implicated in a bribery scandal, fled Peru for Japan in November 2000, the new Peruvian government freed many of his political prisoners.
But Jara remained in prison.
"Power had shifted," Wiandt said. "And he was still in jail."
That's when Wiandt got interested in the case.
A lot of research
Gies gets basic files on imprisoned writers from PEN, a national and international literary writers and editors association. Her students then use those files, often comprising only a few newspaper clippings and other basic information on the writer and his or her imprisonment, to begin their research.
Using the Internet primarily, they learn as much as they can about the writers -- the details and questionable government assertions in their cases, and the political and historical background of the countries that imprisoned them. They write all of that in class reports.
"It's a lot of detective work," Gies said.
Eventually, students begin crafting letters and e-mails to be directed to people who might be in a position to help secure a writer's release.
They send them and then get others to send identical or similar ones.
Wiandt, for five years an English teacher at Cleveland High School, wrote a letter to Alejandro Toledo, the man who succeeded Fujimori as president of Peru and who had released many of the people Fujimori's government had imprisoned. And she got some of the students in Cleveland's Activist Club to send letters.
"It was really a matter of trying to advocate and rattle cages," Wiandt said. "I felt like I had a job to do. and I was very passionate about the release of Juan Jara."
Gies said students become passionate and are among the few people in the world who are actively advocating for the writers -- often imprisoned with little public attention and largely forgotten in their own countries outside of their families.
Gies remembered one of her students calling her at midnight one night, telling her she had just learned authorities were sending the writer she was advocating for to court the next morning. "What do I do? What do I do?" Gies remembers the student frantically asking her. Her replay: Stay up all night and email all of her contacts who might be able to influence what happens in court.
The court hearing ended up not being especially consequential. But letting authorities know someone is watching can make all the difference, Gies said.
"If they can do it in darkness, they'll do it," she said. "And if someone is shining a flashlight, it's less likely to happen."
'A wonderful feeling'
Gies's classes since the fall of 2000 have advocated on behalf of seven writers. Every one of them is now free.
Gies is guarded about taking credit for most of them; a range of humans rights groups advocate for many of the prisoners.
But she comes closest in Jara's case to saying that Wiandt's work might have helped bring about his release. And Jara indicated he believed that in his March thank-you letter to Gies.
"What you achieved defeated the fabricated lies that unjustly kept me 10 years in prison," Jara wrote, asking that Gies relay a message to her students. "To them, a big long-distance embrace. I'll always keep them in my heart."
After her classwork ended in March 2003, Wiandt continued making a few more contacts on Jara's behalf. But eventually, "I just kind of let it go," she says.
Then came an e-mail from Gies last February saying that Jara had been released on the last day of January.
"It was a wonderful feeling to get that e-mail," Wiandt says.
Wiandt was in a class of only three students. Still, even a year later, she has no doubt about the class's value. When she thinks of other literature or writing classes she has taken over the years, she says, "It seems like such a waste of time compared to this."