by Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in World Literature Today, May 10, 2017
The new American Writers Museum, opening this May in Chicago, celebrates American literature in a lively, interactive space that honors America’s writers past and present.
Located on the second floor of a grand old building on Michigan Avenue’s “Cultural Corridor,” the American Writers Museum is the realization of a seven-year journey that began with a question: Why was there no national museum in the US honoring writers? Malcolm O’Hagan, a dedicated reader and retired engineer and businessman, had visited the Dublin Writers Museum in his native Ireland and began to talk with friends and professionals about developing an American museum. He brought on writers, scholars, and publishers to develop the idea and curate the selection of writers. All agreed the focus should be on writers no longer living who’ve stood the test of time, but the museum should also celebrate contemporary literature with readings, book signings, and programs.
“I see the museum as a literary jewel box where a visitor can enjoy old friends—the books, words, characters of writers they know and also get to meet new ones,” O’Hagan says. Chicago was selected because of its central location, the support of the city, and its rich literary heritage, which includes writers like Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
One of the governing principles was not to create a museum for static artifacts—though there will be some artifacts—but a place where readers, writers, and visitors can learn. “Books in glass cases don’t make for much engagement,” O’Hagan notes.
A large US map greets visitors with a Nation of Writers introductory film playing on it. On one side of the map is a room dedicated to children’s literature with places to read, word games, and story times with authors. Down the corridor runs the Gallery of 100 American Voices—from early Native American storytelling to Thomas Jefferson, Sojourner Truth, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, Ralph Ellison, and many others, a rich collection spanning American history. On the facing wall a Surprise Bookshelf features illuminated boxes showcasing samples of great American literature. A Word Waterfall stands at the end of the corridor where quotes by writers from Emerson to George Carlin stream down the wall.
As you turn into the Readers Hall, which is also an event space, kiosks let readers explore their favorite books and compare them. At the end of Readers Hall, a changing display space launches with the return of Jack Kerouac’s scroll of On the Road after a decade out of the country. Another space features W. S. Merwin.
In the nearby Writers Room a visitor can glimpse the creative process in an exhibit entitled Mind of a Writer. Two eight-foot touchscreen tables display book titles the visitor can open to view edits on manuscripts such as The Fall of the House of Usher and A Streetcar Named Desire. The display Anatomy of a Masterpiece includes quotes from writers about the creative process.
A large, windowed alcove is dedicated to Chicago writers. Another feature, Hometown Authors, lets a visitor enter a zip code and find writers past and present in his or her area, including local museum affiliates. The over sixty affiliates are houses and smaller museums around the country dedicated to single authors.
The museum plans to partner with literary and educational institutions nationwide. AWM president Carey Cranston says, “Once our doors open, we will learn from people coming through, and ideas will flow day by day. The feedback will help us going forward.”
“Whatever we do, we must represent all of America’s diversity,” adds Program Director Allison Sansone. “What makes American literature different is the diversity of voices and our willingness for self-examination.”
Novelist and journalist Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is vice president of PEN International and sits on the boards of Poets & Writers, PEN Faulkner Foundation, International Center for Journalists, Words Without Borders, and the American Writers Museum.
From the September/October 2015 issue of World Literature Today
While the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been going on for fourteen years, much of American literature from these conflicts is only now emerging. I appreciate the veterans who’ve woven the simultaneously “worst and best days of their lives” into literature. They have turned to all forms to find their truth—poetry, short stories, memoir and the novel. (Disclosure: I’m the mother of a Marine who served in both conflicts and is now one of the novelists listed here.)
I have framed these suggested readings with a history from the Great War a hundred years ago and with a diary of one of the long-serving detainees in Guantánamo. Truth in literature is determined in part by point of view. In these books, the reader can take a journey from many perspectives.
The War That Ended Peace
In this nonfiction book, Margaret MacMillan narrates history through the lives of those responsible for World War I. The characters and cousins could populate a fiction collection with their dramas, imaginations and absurdities. MacMillan offers an inside view, revealing the people and stories behind the politics and events that led to a war many feel—and felt at the time—shouldn’t have happened.
My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir
The author writes of his deployment as an Army sergeant, beginning in the US learning to identify body parts, watching combat on television, and then arriving in Iraq and facing real combat in the first Stryker brigade. “We rode on a war elephant made of steel,” he writes of the nineteen-ton tank. A poet (Here, Bullet), Turner narrates his experiences and his return home in a poet’s language, which spins the harshest circumstances—the soggy, trodden straw—into gold and art.
A veteran of the US Marine Corps assembles a dozen short stories and first person narrators—soldiers on the front lines, in the rear, at desks, with their family, friends, wives and girlfriends back home. The narrators’ voices are witty, unflinching, nostalgic, and the stories make the reader laugh, cry and wonder how a generation honed on this conflict will return to life as it was.
Green on Blue
This novel narrates the war in Afghanistan from the point of view of an Afghan orphan who gets caught up on the American side of the conflict in order to keep his brother alive. He quickly learns that the war has too many sides and so many points of view that truth shimmers only in the eyes of the beholder.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Larry Siems, ed.)
Guantánamo Diary tells the story of the “war on terror” from the point of view of one who has been detained, tortured, and continues to proclaim his innocence. With a literary and humane voice, Slahi, edited beautifully by Siems and redacted by a censor, renders the horror and humanity in this war that will not end.
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,
“I don’t know if you are like me,
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.