Yellow Geranium in a Tin Can

From the November/December 2009 Issue of World Literature Today as the Introduction to the Special Feature, “Voices Against the Darkness: Imprisoned Writers Who Could Not Be Silenced”

The prisoner Halil
closed his book.
He breathed on his glasses, wiped them clean,
gazed out at the orchards,
and said:
“I don’t know if you are like me,
Suleyman,
But coming down the Bosporus on the ferry, say
making the turn at Kandilli,
and suddenly seeing Istanbul there,
or one of those sparkling nights
of Kalamish Bay
filled with stars and the rustle of water,
or the boundless daylight
in the fields outside Topkapi
or a woman’s sweet face glimpsed on a streetcar,
or even the yellow geranium I grew in a tin can
in the Sivas prison—
I mean, whenever I meet
with natural beauty,
I know once again
human life today
must be changed . . .”

—Nâzım Hikmet, Human Landscapes (1966)

In 1938 the renowned Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63) was sent to prison, charged with “inciting the army to revolt,” convicted on the sole evidence that military cadets were reading his poems. He was sentenced to twenty-eight years but was released twelve years later in 1950. His “novel” in verse, Human Landscapes from My Country, was written in prison, featuring Halil, a political prisoner, scholar, and poet who was going blind (see WLT, October 2003, 78).

One of the cadets reading Hikmet’s poems was the young writer Raşit, who met the senior poet in prison. Raşit helped care for Hikmet, and Hikmet mentored Raşit, who went on to become famous in his own right as the novelist Orhan Kemal. The friendship of the two men endured past prison, as Maureen Freely’s article “The Prison Imaginary in Turkish Literature” (page 46) chronicles.

In this issue of WLT, stories, essays, and poetry from Turkey, Burma/Myanmar, Iran, South Africa, Libya, and Iraq show prison as a cage, a crucible, a classroom, a stage, a fraternity from hell. The challenge for the writer in prison is to survive and to keep writing.

Governments have long tried to stifle dissent by imprisoning the writer. The charges vary: “inciting subversion of state power,” “insulting religion,” “insulting the president,” “insulting the army,” “spreading false news.” Today the largest number of writers in prison for the longest periods are in China, Burma/Myanmar, Cuba, Vietnam, and Iran. In some countries such as Mexico and Russia, the threat to writers is assassination, often by criminal elements who operate with impunity. In Latin American countries such as Colombia, Peru, and Honduras, death threats are serious inhibitors to free expression. In many African countries such as Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, and the Gambia, violation of criminal defamation laws—particularly those relating to “insulting the president”—can land a writer in prison. Worldwide, the increasing use of anti-terror legislation has resulted in imprisonment of writers when the line blurs between legitimate dissent and criminal advocacy of terror and violence as in Spain and Sri Lanka. In the United States, writers are rarely imprisoned for their writing, but over the years the U.S. government has denied visas to writers from other countries whose political views the authorities object to.

The texts in this issue are from writers who were locked up for political reasons in some of the harshest prisons by authoritarian governments on both the left and the right. Common among the jailers was not their politics, but their fear of opposing opinion. Implicit was the belief that the writer and his words could undermine the authority of the state.

For a generation of Turkish writers, prison was almost a rite of passage as the government incarcerated anyone suspected of communist or leftwing sentiments. Conditions in prison were harsh, but Nâzım Hikmet insisted that the writer must master his despair in order to pursue his literature. Hikmet committed himself to his fellow prisoners, tutoring them and learning from them. He warned the younger Raşit about the corrosive effects of despair: “Beware, my son, protect yourself from this, be even more bitter and sad, but let your joy and hope shine through.”

As seen in these texts, the writer’s imagination and the support of fellow prisoners and those outside the prison penetrate the despair and allow hope to struggle through so that the spirit endures and literature survives. The story “Life on Death Row” (page 52) chronicles how the prisoner’s life in Myanmar shuts down to a small, dark space, but also how the prisoners “boosted spirits by singing” and relating books to one another.

In “Seven Years with Hard Labour: Stories of Burmese Political Prisoners” (page 55), Sara Masters recounts the experiences of writers who have served and are serving in the infamous Insein prison in Myanmar. She also tells of people outside the prison and the country who give voice to those locked up or shunted to the margins. Through theater and film, Actors for Human Rights and the iceandfire theater company render the humanity, humor, and tragedy of the Burmese, which the government would hide away.

In U Win Tin’s poem “Fearless Tiger” (page 43), the narrator’s courage and endurance spring from his certainty that truth, the people, time, and God are on his side: “Like a tiger in the zoo, / Rolling in a cage. / Do they think it has become harmless? / […] / It’ll always be a fearless tiger. / Just like me.” U Win Tin spent nineteen years in Burma’s Insein prison.

Iraqi poets Saadi Youssef and Amer Fatuhi (pages 60-61), imprisoned at the beginning and end of the Baathist regime, both use the tools of the imagination to assault the darkness.

Tunisian writer Omar Al-Kikli’s stories “Awareness” and “The Technocrat” (page 51) show a writer in harsh conditions—in his case, ten years in a Libyan jail—still finding in the life around him the beauty that helps him endure. “For the first time, he could see the clear sky with a mixture of delight and suffering. He wondered why he hadn’t recognized the splendor before no….He wished that he could take, from the sky, a blue fragment abundant with clarity and brightness and keep it with him.”

The challenge of captivity and freesom is not simply political. In “The Inextricable Labyrinth” (page 45), Breyten Breytenbach shares the existential dilemma he faced when the society that imprisoned him changed. Proud to be “a statutory, convicted terrorist” in apartheid South Africa, Breytenbach finds himself trapped as a free man by respectability and responsibility. “I have seen. I am responsible. I must report….And here I am now, writing myself, burrowing into an inextricable labyrinth.”

Iranian filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani (page 57) highlights the importance of the witness to tell the story. In an interview, Sarvestani explains her compulsion to film the struggle of the people in Iran, particularly women, who are bound by repressive laws. Imprisoned under house arrest herself, Sarvestani notes that after the recent presidential election, Iranians “could not be quiet any more. Despite the fact that the regime imprisons, tortures, and executes young people in order to keep others quiet and under control, people will not be silenced or stopped.”

Sixty years ago Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” A number of signatories who subsequently imprisoned writers signed this declaration, including Turkey, Burma, Cuba, Iraq, and Iran, represented here.

Article 19 set the standard for freedom of expression in the last half-century. Though its full realization has not yet been achieved, its ideal reflects the dream of Hikmet’s narrator in the opening poem that “human life today must be changed.”

A number of the writers represented in this issue were released from prison early, in part because of pressure from those outside who advocated on their behalf. With the combination of a megaphone for the writer and a klieg light on the abuser, organizations such as PEN, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others lobbied governments and mobilized international institutions and citizens to uphold the right for individuals to speak and write freely.

Readers of this “Voices Against the Darkness” section can celebrate the writers and the writings that have survived, rather like a yellow geranium growing in a tin can.
To read other prison literature featured in this issue of World Literature Today, go here.