As a young mother, I used to tell stories to my two sons constantly—on the way to school, standing in long lines anywhere, on car, plane or bike rides, on hikes. I would ask each to give me two things (people, ideas, places, plots) they would like in the story, and then I would weave the disparate ingredients into a tale. Their elements might include something like a dog, a butterfly, a battle of some sort, and a waterfall…the possibilities were open and endless, though usually there was some battle involved and some animal in most of the stories.
Over the last year and a half, partly urged by my now adult sons, I’ve committed to writing a blog post once a month. For me the process is a bit similar to the earlier exercise as I look over the month and try to wrap ideas, thoughts, events into 600 words. This month’s elements are particularly rich, probably too rich for a 600-word essay, though the literary form of the blog hasn’t been established or defined so it can, I suppose, be whatever one wants.
I began June at an International PEN Writers in Prison conference joined to the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression conference in Oslo, Norway, where the sun doesn’t set in the summer. In Oslo, activists from organizations around the globe discussed, debated, and strategized into the summer nights about the state of freedom of expression around the world and the mechanisms to protect it. Everyone understood that societies without this freedom are most often without political and civil freedoms as well so the defense of freedom of expression is the front line.
The timing of the conference coincided with the 20th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in China. This year of 2009 is also the 20th anniversary of the popular uprising against the military government in Burma/Myanmar after the election of Aung San Sui Kyi, who was re-arrested this May; it is the 20th anniversary of the fatwa in Iran against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, and it is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The year 1989 was a threshold year. So where have we come twenty years later?
After Oslo, I went briefly to Paris en route to Normandy, where the 65th anniversary of the World War II invasion was being celebrated. I was headed to Normandy for a bike trip through the countryside and the historical sites, not for the official celebrations, but I was in Paris the day President Obama and his family arrived. It was also the day of the men’s semi-finals of the French Open in tennis. (You see the elements of this blog complicating…)
Driving back to the hotel after Federer beat Del Potro and Soderling beat Gonzalez, I was talking in my broken French with the taxi driver talking in his broken English about the matches and about the arrival of Obama and about world politics in general. The driver was ebullient—an oxymoron perhaps for a French taxi driver—but he was ebullient nonetheless.
“The world…the U.S….France…Europe…it is hopening,” he said, gesturing with his arms, trying to explain what he meant about the opening he saw in the world and the hope he felt. “We have hopening between us!”
This optimism was more circumspect but also cautiously present among many monitoring free expression. There are serious problems in countries like China, Iran and Burma/Myanmar where writers who speak out are given long prison terms and in countries like Mexico where writers without sufficient protection from the state are killed by criminal cartels, but at the same time citizens are speaking out. One can look at indices that track and analyze freedoms within societies and see that the trend has been towards opening.
That day in Paris the sun was shining, but for the rest of the week and most of the bike ride through Normandy, the skies were grey and drizzling, not dissimilar to the weather during the Normandy invasion. Every now and then the sun would shoot through as we pedaled into the rain and the wind along the coast. At both the American and European cemeteries we—all children of the generation who fought the war—paid quiet homage and in the German cemetery we stood in sober reflection.
The war of our parents was the last world war, though there have been plenty of regional wars and battles since. But in the last twenty years at least, societies have been unlocking and the citizens’ voices have grown in volume and strength. However, neither on the wind-swept coast of Normandy nor on the light-filled avenues of Oslo, did any of us predict that only a few weeks later hundreds of thousands of Iranians would fill their streets. Their call for reform and the opening up of their society still hangs in the air.
In Normandy we met a gentleman now in his late 80’s who worked in the French Resistance during the war. He lived across from the German headquarters, and the night of the invasion his task was to report on what went on there as the Germans realized that the invasion had begun. He was in his early twenties at the time. He spent the rest of his life as a professor, but his participation on the right side of history, his small, but crucial acts remain central to his memory and were honored at the celebrations. Looking back, he could see the long arc of history which at each moment can appear as disparate and unconnected as the separate elements of a story…a dog, a butterfly, a battle, a waterfall…but with the knitting of time and the shaping of history can render a story that almost makes sense.
In August, 1993 in Myanmar (Burma), Ma Thida, a 27-year old medical doctor and short story writer was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison, charged with “endangering public tranquility, of having contact with unlawful associations, and distributing unlawful literature.” She had been an assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi and traveled with Suu Kyi during her political campaign.
In September that same year at the International PEN Congress in Spain, I stepped into the Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. One of the early main cases that came across my desk was that of Ma Thida.
Last week in Providence, Rhode Island Ma Thida and I shared a stage with others at Brown University in a program: There Will Still Be Light: a Freedom to Write Literary Festival focused on the situation in Burma today as well as the situation for the freedom of writers around the world. For the past year Thida has been at Brown as a fellow of the International Writers Project (a joint appointment of the Writing Program and the Watson Institute for International Studies) which gives a writer under stress a year to work and to share their work and cultural heritage.
Thida and I had met before in London soon after she was released from prison– five years, six months and six days, mostly in solitary confinement–after writers around the world had protested and written letters on her behalf as had those in other human rights organizations. No one knows for certain what levers prompt a government to release an individual so no organization can ever claim the success, but it is clear that pressure from many sources, voices from around the globe, individuals in countries on every continent caring and imagining the fate of their colleagues and acting on that does contribute.
It is a thrill and one feels deep humility when actually meeting the person who has endured, and who, up until that point, has only been represented by words on paper. In Thida’s case as I searched old files, I found fading words on fading fax paper, verses of her poems and parts of stories clandestinely translated and smuggled out by a British official, who was also at the literary festival last week.
Earlier this week another writer Liu Xiaobo, who is under house arrest in China, was honored by PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Award. Liu Xiaobo is one of the drafters of the Charter 08 manifesto which urges democratic reform in China. He is a well-respected literary critic and writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. A worldwide campaign for his release is ongoing. One hopes for the day when we might also meet Liu in person. Right now he can be seen and read and heard–no longer on fading fax paper–but on the internet and on You Tube.
The technology of the globe has changed considerably since Ma Thida was imprisoned, but thought has not progressed as rapidly. Recently I was in a meeting in Washington on Capitol Hill relating to human rights and an individual said, “I can’t be worried about a few poets in prison.” The statement wasn’t meant to be callous; the speaker was aware of the complexity of problems in places like Burma and China and of the competing policy needs. The view, which was perhaps intended to sound practical and experienced, is at best short-sighted and at worst dangerous.
As policy is being crafted to try to assist in opening up Burma and China, to increase the space for freedom, to end the abuses of torture and long term imprisonments, as questions of sanctions versus trade, engagement vs. isolation, questions of real politic are debated, let us not forget the poets–and the short story writers, the novelists, the critics, and the journalists–who are on the front line of ideas and therefore often imprisoned. They are among the citizens who will do the opening up in these countries; they are the citizens who live there.
Supporting voices of citizens around the world can help, but it is “the few poets in prison” who will be among those who prepare the lamp and light it and carry it on.
* if the moon does not shine
and the twinkles of the stars are faint
the lamp will be prepared
at the entrance to the house
there will still be light
— from “The Road is Not Lost” by Burmese poet U Tin Moe (1933-2007), imprisoned in Burma from 1991-1995