Victorian Writer, PEN column
They shoot poets don’t they?
On the night of 8 May 2021, Myanmar poet and pro-democracy activist, Khet Thi and his wife, Chaw Su, were taken from their home, in the city of Shwebo, by armed soldiers and police, and detained at a local police station. Khet Thi was separated from his wife and taken to a military facility where he was tortured to death. The next day his wife was contacted to collect his body from hospital . . .
With these words in the current PEN Melbourne Journal, Arnold Zable gives a chilling reminder of why PEN’s work is so necessary – ensuring that persecution of writers is exposed, providing them support, and campaigning for freedom of speech. PEN continues to support writers in Myanmar despite many being rounded up or murdered. As John Ralston Saul writes, ‘People say that writers are powerless. We don’t have an army. But if that were true, then why would writers be arrested? Because the spoken word is powerful.’
PEN was founded in 1921. A hundred years on, the freedom to write and read is under threat more than ever. The annual PEN Case File bulges with the names of persecuted writers in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia . . . the list goes on. ‘Liberal’ countries are selective about press freedoms too – for example, the police raid on the ABC for reporting on ASIS’s bugging of Timor Leste’s government, and the vindictive and unjustified imprisonment on remand of Julian Assange for journalistic activity. In the USA, home of ‘free speech’, book banning is now an organised Republican strategy. Hundreds of titles were banned from libraries in the past year as part of a concerted campaign – a ‘historic erasure’ – to repress discussion of racism and sexuality.
Authoritarian governments as well as conspiracy theorists and self-righteous bullies have embraced the power of social media. It enables them to control how people see the world, discouraging independent thought. Zadie Smith writes eloquently in her essay, ‘Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction,’ about how imaginative works – novels, stories, and poetry – perform a sort of magic, allowing us to break free from assumptions and ‘groupthink’. She quotes Colombian author, Héctor Abad:
Compassion is largely a quality of the imagination: it consists of the ability to imagine what we would feel if we were suffering the same situation. It has always seemed to me that people without compassion lack a literary imagination— the capacity great novels give us for putting ourselves in another’s place—and are incapable of seeing that life has many twists and turns and that at any given moment we could find ourselves in someone else’s shoes: suffering pain, poverty, oppression, injustice or torture.
This compassion and willingness to imagine ourselves in the lives of others is at the heart of PEN’s work. To find out more, visit penmelbourne.org or follow us on social media @penmelbourne.
Victorian Writer, PEN column
The empty chair
PEN Melbourne is having a meeting soon. It’s a chance to come together at last after the lockdowns (how many did we endure?) and have a real-life, face to face catch-up. It’s a chance to meet up with old friends and make new ones. We’ve one new member who’d love to be there too – Nedim – but he can’t make it unfortunately. He’s unavoidably detained . . . in Van Prison in Turkey. In fact, he’s been there for the last 2,000 days, much of it in solitary confinement. His crime was a pretty serious matter, of course, to lead to such a savage sentence. He told the truth, and it doesn’t get much more serious than that to an authoritarian leader like Turkey’s Erdogan.
Nedim Türfent is an Honorary Member of PEN International’s Melbourne Centre. We’re in contact with him and his family, campaign for his release, and recently published a broadsheet to publicise his case. A young Kurdish journalist, he simply reported on a case of police brutality in 2016. The Turkish government’s response was not to suspend and investigate the police officers, but to threaten Nedim and prosecute him on trumped-up charges. Despite witnesses at his trial confessing they were tortured to give false testimony, he was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison for supposedly ‘spreading terrorist propaganda’. As part of the sentence, he has spent almost two years in solitary confinement in harrowing conditions.
We won’t be seeing Nedim at our meeting in Melbourne, then. But we don’t forget him, and do our best to ensure others don’t forget about him either, along with all the hundreds of other writers and journalists persecuted around the world for telling the truth. In PEN tradition, an empty chair on the stage will make Nedim’s presence felt. We’ll write letters and cards to him, and continue to call for the quashing of his conviction and release from prison.
PEN International’s Melbourne Centre is based at the Wheeler Centre, and welcomes new members and volunteers to help with our work campaigning for people like Nedim. Sad to say, PEN has never been busier, with an increase in authoritarian governments around the world. Find out more about our work at www.penmelbourne.org.
Transforming a manuscript to a book: Editing, compromise, and censorship
Victorian Writer, PEN column
Oh what a feeling! You’ve finished your story… but this is not the end; it’s only a beginning. A neat pile of A4 sheets has a very long way to go before it is transformed into a book.
We are generally too close to – and too much in love with – our own writing to see what needs fixing up to turn it into something that works at its best, keeping a reader turning those pages. To maximise the chances that your work is published and read, it deserves a professional edit. Is the basic concept likely to be picked up by a publisher? Are there plot twists or characters, which were fun to write but don’t add to the story? Does the middle section ‘sag’? Only after these and many other questions are answered, can you even think of submitting to an agent or publisher, let alone think about a copy edit or proofreading.
As part of this process, it’s not uncommon for an editor to suggest you change or remove a passage to make the work a more attractive prospect for a publisher. The choice is yours, and you may not always agree, but it’s usually wise to accept the suggestion. In authoritarian countries (which now outnumber democracies in the world), such suggestions from publishers and authorities have dark consequences if not followed. At best you may be censored or ‘cancelled’. At worst, you may be tortured and imprisoned for years, as happens in Turkey, China, and so many other countries. The PEN International Case List gives chilling details on the scores of writers and journalists persecuted around the world.
It is not only political pressure which causes writing to be ‘edited’ in this way. It may be religious extremism, or a culture which fears sexual freedom. It may be conformity to orthodoxies (right or wrong, right or left), which are intolerant of discourse with other views. It is not only in fundamentalist societies where such restrictions are imposed. For example, Philip Pullman’s best-selling, ‘His Dark Materials’, trilogy was heavily criticised by Christian churches in the US for being ‘anti-religious’, so his North American publisher insisted on editing out a passage which described the heroine, Lyra’s, sexual awakening.
Navigating our own choices when reviewing a manuscript is never an easy task. However, it’s a deeply rewarding process that brings your words closer to becoming a publishable work. These are easy choices though, compared to the challenges faces by writers in countries where a wrong word can mean the author ends up in a dank prison cell for years. There is no greater demonstration that words matter, and have a power which dictators fear.
Picture this . . .
Victorian Writer, PEN column
Weary but wakeful, feverish but still
fixed on the evasive bulb that winks on the wall,
thinking surely it’s time for lights out,
longing for darkness, for the total black-out.
Trapped in distress, caught in this bad dream,
the dust under my feet untouchable as shame,
flat on the cold ground, a span for a bed,
lying side by side, with a blanket on my head.
And the female guards shift, keeping vigil till dawn,
eyes moving everywhere, watching everyone,
sounds of the rosary, the round of muttered words,
fish lips moving, the glance of a preying bird.
Till another hour passes in friendly chat,
in soft talk of secrets or a sudden spat,
with some snoring, others wheezing
some whispering, rustling, sneezing –
filled the space with coughs and groans,
suffocated sobs, incessant moans –
You can’t see the sorrow after lights out.
I long for the dark, total black-out.
The delicate observations in this poem by Mahvash Sabet belie the horror of its subject. So picture this . . . you are a respected writer and school principal in Iran approaching your sixtieth birthday. One day you are arrested and charged with espionage and propaganda. The real reason, though, is ‘blasphemy’ – the crime of being a Baha’i not a Muslim in Iran’s theocratic state. You are sent to notorious Evin Prison where you are tortured and kept in a tiny dark cell. You must sleep on the cold cement floor with no pillow and only a thin blanket for cover. How is it going so far? Ten years go by . . .
Is it possible to endure such conditions without giving way to suicidal despair? For Mahvash Sabet, her survival strategy was to write poems. To distract from her own pain and distress, she focused on the lives of others in the prison – drug addicts and prostitutes as well as criminals – and on tiny details that gave her hope. Mahvash was desperate for the greenery of the natural world in her dark cell, and wrote an entire joyful poem about a thistle growing through a crack in the concrete floor. She called the poem, ‘The Great Outdoors’. Writing poetry enabled her to clean ‘the rust off my heart and recover the strength of my soul,’ Mahvash says. Her strength of mind is humbling.
Written on scraps of paper and smuggled to visitors, these writings were collected and published in an English translation as Prison Poems. After a decade of incarceration in these inhumane conditions, Mahvash was released in 2017 and named PEN International Writer of Courage for that year. While she is now free, the Iranian regime continues to persecute, torture, and imprison thousands of writers and others who dare to express views the regime does not like.
PEN International has a Melbourne office, based at the Wheeler Centre, and welcomes new members and volunteers to help with our work campaigning for people like Mahvash Sabet. Sad to say, PEN has never been busier, with the rise of totalitarian governments around the world. Find out more about our work at www.penmelbourne.org.
COVID and the Kingdom of Fear
Victorian Writer, PEN column
‘How was your lockdown?’ a friend asked when we met for a picnic in the Botanic Gardens.
After the long COVID hibernation, it felt strange to be socialising again, yet the
honest answer was ‘fine!’ Like many of us who write for a living (and don’t have children at home), my routines were largely unchanged.
Yet I wasn’t immune to the fears and anxiety which we all felt over those long, winter
months. In Victoria alone, tens of thousands were infected. Over 800 died. Death seemed to stalk the city. We avoided strangers on the street. Some people wiped down their shopping
with disinfectant. We watched the Premier’s briefings obsessively, as hundreds of new cases were confirmed every day. Our lives were regulated to an extraordinary degree that it’s no exaggeration to call draconian. Police enforced an overnight curfew from 8 pm. It was illegal to be out of your house for more than sixty minutes, or over 5 km from home. Meetings of more than two people were forbidden.
The Murdoch media screamed in protest about ‘Dictator Dan’, but the lockdown
worked. Victorians are enjoying a well-deserved Life after COVID. Friends overseas tell me how surprised they are that Australians were so ‘compliant’, but that is to misunderstand our behaviour. The genius of totalitarianism, Lenin, wrote that ‘trust is good, control is better’. Victorians were not controlled, but trusted their government and consented to the rules for the sake of public health and to save lives. In many other parts of the world, though, such draconian restrictions on life have long-predated the pandemic – not for health reasons, but to control and stamp down on any opposition. From Russia to Egypt, from Myanmar to China, and in dozens of other countries, people live in kingdoms of fear. To write or speak the truth brings imprisonment or death. Lenin recognised the power of words and the danger they posed for totalitarian regimes.
‘Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed?’ he wrote. ‘Why
should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be
criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal
things than guns.’
We have every right in Australia to to be proud of having created a ‘Doughnut Nation’
and to congratulate ourselves on the lifting of pandemic restrictions. As writers, we can enjoy these freedoms and continue our happy, if impecunious, lives. You don’t need to worry whether writing and speaking the truth will bring a squad of Victoria Police knocking down the door of your study, poisoning you with nerve agents, or simply putting a bullet in the back of your head. Yet this is a daily reality for writers and others who speak out in dozens of countries around the world today.
As you gaze out of the window, deciding whether to use a comma or semi-colon, or
wander down to the kitchen to make a latté coffee, give a thought to others who don’t have the luxury of being the citizen of a democratic society. Remember the uncertain fate of brave Alexei Navalny. Remember Lucía Ubau, a journalist imprisoned in Nicaragua. Remember poet, Maung Saungkha persecuted by the government of Myanmar, Asli Erdogan exiled from Turkey, and hundreds of others attacked for telling the truth. To discover more about these writers and the work of PEN to support them, follow us on social media, visit our website, and become a member to campaign for their release.
Once upon a time . . .
Victorian Writer, PEN column
Who doesn’t love a story? From ancient cave paintings to the latest novel or Netflix series, we have always been captivated by stories. The reasons go deeper than mere entertainment (not that I’m knocking the value of entertainment, especially this year). As Aristotle noted over 2,000 years ago, the ‘pretence’ of storytelling – portraying people and events that didn’t actually happen – is a profoundly important element of all human cultures. Why is that?
Experiencing the lockdown has been a reminder of the far worse situation of writers in prison for simply telling the truth. There is another form of imprisonment, however, that we never escape – solitary confinement within our own skulls. We are all utterly alone in our heads – however much we love or empathise with another person, we will never know what it is like to be someone else.
As Aristotle recognised, stories allows us to escape this prison for a while and learn from the experience. We can imagine how it feels to be a penniless orphan in Victorian Britain; a Greek soldier sulking in his tent before the walls of Troy, or a Japanese teenager lost in an alternative universe. Great Expectations, the Iliad, and IQ84 are all ‘untrue’. They are told by narrators pretending to be different people, about events that never really happened, and yet they are the lies that tell the truth. These different perspectives transport us into a kind of virtual reality in which we are warriors,
adventurers, criminals, people forced to make terrible choices, and an infinite number of other situations – all from the safety of our sofa.
We are never the same after reading a story. It gives an utterly different perspective on reality and relationships than the ‘solitary confinement’ of our own minds. We can never un-learn these lessons about how and why people think, feel, and act the way they do, ourselves included. Our lives are full of sliding doors – those ‘what if . . .’ moments – which stories allow us to experience vicariously.
For totalitarian regimes, this freedom of thought is the enemy. Around the world, in dozens of countries from China to Iran, writers are imprisoned for years, solely for using their imagination. They don’t need to be critical of the regime; it is sufficient crime to ask that dangerous question, ‘what if . . ?’ And if people start to wonder about different ways of seeing the world, then the regime’s entire narrative of society is in danger of cracking and give way.
PEN International was not established as a political organisation. Our mission is to campaign for the right of all writers to express themselves, to exercise their imagination, and to speak the truth. If totalitarian regimes regard that simple freedom as a political act, then so be it!
Taking part in PEN International campaigns is a practical and straightforward way in which all of us can express support for fellow-writers persecuted for telling stories that dictators do not want to be heard. You can be part of this struggle by joining the Melbourne PEN Centre and supporting our work.
The politics of writing
Victorian Writer, PEN column
In This Country, We Can Only Hibernate
Winter arrives too early.
Our trees begin to wither.
We no longer have the nutrients to offer them;
Our dark hair slowly freezes to white
In the snows of passing time.
Our skin is like chapped fields.
Winter is here,
We all love to hibernate.
Our hearts are tired
Our blood is tired,
We nestle beneath the snow to hibernate.
Is this a political poem? Despite being a translation, the lines retain a cool lyrical beauty. It reminds me of Rilke. The landscape and people become one. They are ‘our trees’ yet ‘our dark hair’ turns white like the land under snow. While we feel the cold, the poet writes, it is the fields which are chapped like our skin. The only option is to hibernate. There is acceptance but also a quiet will to awaken again when the time comes.
As well as describing winter, the poem evokes a melancholic mood that might relate to lost love, to feeling depressed, or simply to the passing of time – enduring with dignity and waiting for a hard season to pass. The lines were written by Chinese poet, Li Bifeng. Imprisoned after the Tiananmen Square protest, he has spent much of the past 30 years in prison. This immediately changes how we read the poem. It evokes the Chinese people surviving under a totalitarian government. The poem itself hasn’t changed, of course. A political interpretation does not stop it being lyrical. A good work of art is like a prism, with multiple interpretations which do not cancel
each other out
But for totalitarian governments, everything is political. Any writing which displays
independent thought is suspect. (In China, even Winnie the Pooh is banned, as the little bear resembles leader, Xi Jinping.)
PEN International was founded with a commitment to freedom of expression but ‘no politics’. With the rise of fascism, PEN realised this was a naively idealistic position, condemned the Nazi book burnings, and campaigned against the persecution of writers in Germany. Ever since, it has spoken out against tyrannical regimes and supported imprisoned writers.
In a sense, authoritarian leaders have always know the truth: everything is indeed political. Politics permeates and affects every part of life. Writers cannot claim to ‘be above it’. Free speech is part of the Liberal Project of individual rights which began in the seventeenth century and received a fillip in the post-1945 era. We cannot pretend political differences do not exist or simply blank them out. As Nick Cave recently wrote, ‘refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society’. It is our duty to engage with them, and to defend other writers
who do so at great cost to themselves, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
At PEN Melbourne, our sole focus is this fight to defend these writers who speak the truth.