by Ruth Sims
I’ve noticed that when most of us, myself included, use the term “writer” what we really mean is “writer of fiction.” But that’s really just a category of writer. “Writer” also refers to the journalists, biographers, playwrights, picture book authors, literary authors, erotica authors, sports writers, etc. In forgetting this, we also forget that across the world, both today and historically, writers have been persecuted, imprisoned, even killed for daring to express themselves.
Most of us, again including myself, write to please readers, to entertain, and perhaps even to teach them of other cultures, or historical times, or our ideas of the future. Most of us don’t have to worry that police will search our homes and confiscate our computers or typewriters or
unpublished manuscripts. Sure, that happened in Hitler’s Germany, or Communist Russia or Franco’s Spain or the Spanish Inquisition (well, ok, they didn’t confiscate the computers or typewriters during the Inquisition but still…), but it’s so unlikely to happen today that we don’t even think about it. We go happily forward with our works in progress, without ever considering how precious and tenuous freedom of expression is.
I’ve been musing on this lately, after having read the memoirs of Reinaldo Arenas (more on him in a minute). I’ve decided to put together this little reminder for myself and anyone else who is interested, readers as well as writers.
Most people are at least familiar with the name of Salmon Rushdie, whose long, complicated literary novel, “Satanic Verses,” set off a tsunami of controversy which led to threats not only on his life but on the lives of those associated with the publication of the book. The book was banned or burned in several countries. For many years Rushdie lived under police protection.
In Spain under Franco, playwrights, novelists, and poets were routinely imprisoned; some were tortured. Spanish poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca was hounded by the government–and then he vanished. It’s believed he was murdered by soldiers of Franco’s government, though his body has never been found.
“Before Night Falls” is the memoir of Reinaldo Arenas, the Cuban poet and novelist. Like Lorca, he was a gay man in a country where gays were routinely imprisoned and tortured. He was also a creative mind, something every despot hates, and he was also critical of Castro. He was harassed, his writings were destroyed. Some of his works were smuggled out and published abroad to great acclaim, but he was either in prison or living in abject poverty, unable to read his own books because they were banned in Cuba. At one point he was imprisoned in the Morrow dungeon. By falsifying his name slightly he managed to escaped Cuba in 1980 during the boatlift.
Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was jailed in 2008, for daring to write about political reform and human rights and charged with trying to “subvert state power.” He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Before that, in the late 1990’s he spent 3 years in prison.
In Camaroon, singer/songwriter Lapiro de Mbanga was fined $640,000 (US dollars) for writing a song critical of Cameroonian President Paul Biya and sentenced to three years.
Two writers who paid with their lives: Russian journalist Natalya Estemirova, who was abducted from her Grozny apartment in Chechnya and murdered in July 2009, because she wrote about horrendous violations of human rights.
Mexican anthropologist and author Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez Ávila, was beaten to death in Guerrero state in July 2008; he frequently criticized government violations of free speech. The world has treated his death with a thundering silence.
As a young author, Victor J. Banis, whom most of us know and respect, learned first-hand about US government interference, censorship, and harassment. Get a copy of his memoir, “Spine Intact, Some Creases.” It’s funny, frightening, and eye-opening. And it even has recipes.
Just a few of the countries where writers have been persecuted, prosecuted, imprisoned or killed in recent years: Cuba, South Korea, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, Somalia, Sri Lanka. The work of the authors targeted include every kind of writing: short stories, plays, novels, journalism.
It’s such a serious, widespread problem that there is a global organization, Cities of Refuge, which has created a network of safe cities where there are designated safe streets or houses specifically for persecuted writers. One such city is Arhus, Denmark. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania there is a street: Sampsonia Way on which there are several safe houses. An annual grant from the estates of novelist Dashiell Hammett and playwright Lillian Hellman is given specifically for the help and support of persecuted writers.
And lest we in the US think “it can’t happen here,” I offer a snippet of history that happened in my lifetime. In the 1950’s, during the Cold War, there was a senator named Joe McCarthy’s, a power-hungry idealogue (how often those two go together!). His House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) went after filmmakers, playwrights, novelists, poets, and anyone else who had an imagined or youthful and long-vanished tie to Communism, or who wrote antiwar literature, such as Dalton Trumbo’s incomparable “Johnnie Got His Gun.” FBI dossiers were kept on thousands of US citizens. Careers were destroyed by suspicion and questioning. Lifelong friendships were ruined because people were bullied and threatened into naming names to the committee. Gifted authors and playwrights were forced into exile, or they worked anonymously, or, as Trumbo did, publishing under another author’s name. If McCarthy had not been stopped, United States writers today might be living in a very different atmosphere. No one knows how far he would and could have gone. Could it happen again? You bet, especially when it comes to books dealing sympathetically with gay issues, people, and stories. If you doubt, watch the news and see what the intolerants in the country are up to.
It’s said the pen is mightier than the sword. The pen and the sword have been replaced by computers and guns, but it’s still true. Free expression, especially the written word, is anathema to any dictator, whether religious or secular. It’s a two-way street, of course. I have the freedom to write a gay love story, and someone else has the freedom to write “Can Sarah Palin Save America?”
A good source, always up to date, is the PEN: A World Association of Writers http://www.internationalpen.org.uk/
Want to learn more? Go to http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/10/11/banned-censored-harassed-and-jailed
and read about the 34 writers from 19 countries who received the Hellman/Hammett grants in 2009.
So whether you write, read, or both, appreciate and celebrate the freedom to make your own choices. And take a moment to think about the past and present writers who take their freedom and sometimes their lives in their hands with every word they write.
Ruth Sims is a liberal Democrat born and raised in the conservative Republican US heartland, surrounded by cornfields. Was it something in the water?
She has one novel in print: “The Phoenix,” from Lethe Press 2009. Another is under consideration: “Counterpoint.” She is proud to have a short story, “Legend of the Mountain Ash,” in the just-released “I Do Two” anthology to benefit marriage equality. A fun and exciting new venture is short story ebooks released by Untreed Reads. The first is The Lawyer, the Ghost, and the Cursed Chair. Only $1 for a story that will make you laugh. She has six novels in different genres, in various stages of development. If she lives to be 140 she may get them all finished. Website: http://www.ruthsims.com. Sign up for the newsletter on the front page. She loves to hear from readers. Ruth.firstname.lastname@example.org