COVID and the Kingdom of Fear
‘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 . . .
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
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
The politics of writing
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.