“This is a story of not long ago and not far away.
It is the story of a boy who loves stamps and a boy who loves words.
This is the story of a life that is lost.
The boy who loves stamps lives in the city, “in the shadow of a grey prison.” His philatelism originates with “a scrap of paper on the street,” which his grandfather deems ”not rare or precious’” upon inspecting the emerald-green stamp, “‘[b]ut it is beautiful.’” In a nearby village lives the boy who loves words, who “devours every poem and fable” and yet “hungers [f]or stories.” Lost in his own world, he “finds stories all around him. He learns to capture them. He writes.”
Both boys grow up. One puts his dreams of far-away away, and becomes a prison guard. The other buries his stories within and finds a factory job. When his soul is near bursting, the village boy writes a story that brings “joy and hope to the villagers. But it brings fear to others.” His “dangerous” words land him in the guard’s prison.
Years pass, and the guard and the writer tentatively attempt a silent friendship. It begins with a single stamp passed through the bars: ”[e]very stamp tells a story without words. The writer knows he is not alone now. Not forgotten.” When stamps are not enough, the guard secretly delivers letters from all over the word that the writer was never supposed to see, each asking for “one more story.” The writer weakly whispers, the guard bravely listens … and just how much both are willing to risk for that final tale is a bittersweet triumph to behold.
Captured in remarkable, atmospheric art by François Thisdale, who fills the pages with such exquisite, breathtaking details that will make you pause with every turn, The Stamp Collector is both illuminating storytelling as well as an act of sheer defiance. Author Jennifer Lanthier reveals in her closing essay, “Freedom to Write, Freedom to Read”: “This story was inspired by two writers: Nurmuhemmet Yasin and Jiang Weiping.” The latter, a journalist, lives free in Canada after surviving six years in a Chinese prison for exposing government corruption. The former, a writer, has already lost 10 years in jail for writing “The Wild Pigeon,” a short, allegorical fable that represents the indigenous Uyghur experience under Chinese rule. In 2009, the International PEN Uyghur Center‘s website tragically “… reports from credible sources that Nurmuhemmet Yasin may have been tortured to death in prison.”
“Countless writers” remain trapped throughout the world, Lanthier reminds, “because of something they wrote.” Organizations like PEN International are advocating on behalf of these writers, and also corresponding directly with the prisoners and their families “… to reassure them that they are not forgotten.” In solidarity and support, partial proceeds from Stamp are being directed to PEN Canada, which helped orchestrate Jiang Weiping’s release and immigration. That’s irrefutable testimony to the power of words: while words can tragically bind you, words are also the very tools that can – and will – set you free.