< Back to index
Often when we write to our penpals over in the USA we want to keep things on an equal level. Literature and sharing a good book can be one common bond that gives both the penpal and the prisoner equal footing, something I have come to believe is a great step in maintaining an inmate's dignity and respect. Your opinions about what we read are just as valid as mine, your love for a character or narrative can be just as passionate as mine and the refusal to put the book down is equally as intense as my own inability to just put the book away and get on with the household chores! Moreover, as penpals we'd like to be able to send more gifts, but you know the rules, so a book is all we have.
During my Human Writes penpal friendship with Licho Escamilla (who was in Polunsky Unit, Texas) we shared some good letters about books and he recommended some great ones to me over the years. The standout book I enjoyed recommending to Licho was 'Shantaram' by Gregory David Roberts. When I think back on how I came across the book, there is a certain magic to the story; I was on a camping holiday in Italy and had finished the couple of books I'd taken with me, so I found an Italian bookshop with just one shelf of English language books on it. My choices were limited so I grabbed 'Shantaram'. I could not put the book down and literally devoured it in four days by torchlight once the kids were asleep in the tent, staying awake until my eyes were burning. This was a book I would send Licho as a gift.
Needless to say, he loved it too. We wrote about the narrative, the love story between Lin and Karla, the friendship between Lin and Prabhu, the epic nature of Gregory David Robert's writing and how we would both love a sequel please! I sent Licho some interviews I found with the author online and Gregory's own personal story.
Earlier this year, I discovered that a sequel would finally be published - 'The Mountain Shadow'. How exciting. I wrote to Licho and said I would send him a copy as soon as it was released. Great... But when I went to pre-order it online, I saw the date for release was 13th October 2015, the day before Licho's execution. For me this was a thunderbolt of reality. It made me feel as if I was in a strange almost parallel universe here in the UK considering all Licho and the other inmates must be going through. We are busy in our comfortable lives whilst inmates on Death Row must think of nothing else but the fragility and preciousness of human life. I was very aware that this book release was a trivial detail, but when a book has embraced you so richly, it exacerbates the emotion that comes with losing a friend and the hope and belief that we see an individual with so much to give
I spoke to a good friend of mine who works in a London publishing house about it. Her advice: ask the publisher of Mountain Shadow what they could do for Licho and explain how much he loved the first book. So I wrote. Here is the letter that Gregory wrote back to Licho
"My dear, dear brother,
When I was a kid, my Mother took me to a ceremony, a vigil. It was outside a prison, and the night before a dawn execution. We were holding candles, shielding the flames from the breeze. People were talking, very quietly and very sadly. It was late and I was a kid, but the intensity of the hours there, lighting candles from candles so the light never went out, kept me awake to see the first grey of dawn.
When the trap fell, people put out their candles, and cried uncontrollably. They didn't know the man. They just knew that he was a man, and the execution was a crime against the soul of what we'll become. And he was the last, in my city, in my country. His death was the last demand for the abolition of the death penalty. He was the last one to fall.
Every tear that struck the ground sprang up again in a thousand hearts opposed to the idea that the state may lawfully kill. Millions all over the world are speaking out, or changing their minds, moving to a more loving expression of our human nature and a more humane justice. One day, it will be all of us. Every tear that falls outside aprison gate springs up as a thousand hearts.
You exist, and your life is a sacred thing. I don't need to know what you've done, or what you haven't done. Your life is sacred. I heard that all your appeals were dismissed, and you must die. It's too much for the soul to bear. I cried when your story touched mine. I'm crying now.
The shame and misery of us is that a certain number must die, before our humanity can rise above the iniquity of ritual sacrifice. But there will be a last. There will be a day. The day will come when this slavery of the mind and the heart is vile to us all, and the sanctity of one is the sanctity of all.
You exist. Your words are heard. Your story is being told. If you're called on to fall, know you're not alone. You're not alone. Every tear that falls outside a prison gate, springs up as a thousand hearts.
Love, Doc, Gregory David Roberts."
Licho wrote back to me, "I got Greg Robert's email. That was cool. Thank you."
I write this now, post-execution. I have lost my penfriend and am deeply saddened. But reading Gregory's letter at midnight UK time (6pm US time) over and over whilst lighting a candle gave me strength. I would like to share this with fellow Human Writes penpals both in the US and the UK, for those of you who are fighting appeals, awaiting the inevitable, or maybe just praying for your friend's dear life. Right up until the end Licho never gave up hope. For those of you who have read Shantaram, you will understand that Lin never fails to listen to his own heart
Gregory David Roberts made the decision with the release of The Mountain Shadow not to attend any book launches or do any interviews. I feel deeply honoured that he chose to reply to my request for a gift for Licho and it is in the spirit of his generosity that I have shared with you this aspect of my friendship with Licho Escamilla
Keep up the writing and story-sharing, it really does make a difference.