By Anna Porter, Write Magazine, Spring 2022
Saying Their Names
“Tyrannical governments always try to silence writers: writers represent the uniqueness of the individual human voice, and that is what dictators of all kinds wish to erase. They are Job’s messengers, escaping from catastrophes to tell us what has happened. They are Dantes, bringing news of the Inferno. Now, more than ever — in an age of burgeoning autocracies, when democratic norms are under attack — these endangered human voices need our help.”
– Margaret Atwood, March 2022
I was born in Hungary, at a time when writers were imprisoned or killed for writing stories that the governing regime thought were not sufficiently submissive or failed to support the approved narrative. My grandfather, a publisher who had already lost his publishing company, was jailed for speaking his mind in old-world coffee houses and being overheard. The charges (yes, there was a trial) were something else, but everyone knew why this charming, somewhat anachronistic older man — Olympics contender, football player, dueller, magician — had been sentenced to 18 months at hard labour.
Obviously, he was not the only one. Renowned poet George Faludy was in the same labour camp. As was George Gabori, whose book When Evils Were Most Free recounts his time, first, in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau, and later at the Recsk labour camp in Hungary. He joked that he viewed himself as an “equal opportunities internee.” Novelist Sandor Marai was forced into exile. He wouldn’t allow his books to be published in Hungary under the Soviet dictatorship. He mourned the loss of his homeland but continued to write in poverty. When the German (2001) and English (2002) language editions of his brilliant novel, Embers, became international bestsellers, he was no longer here to enjoy the success. He had killed himself in California, mere months before the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989. (Embers was translated from the German edition, Die Glut, by Carol Brown Janeway, and published by Vintage in 2002.)
Marai considered that being deprived of hearing his own language in his own country was more painful than death. No wonder that driving writers into exile is favored by dictators. Exiled Chilean novelist Isabel Allende wrote in Island Beneath the Sea, “We all have an unsuspected reserve of strength inside that emerges when life puts us to the test,” as she had been put to the test. Poet and Nobel Prize laureate Pablo Neruda returned to Chile in 1973 and died there a few days later under circumstances that are still debated today. His funeral was attended by thousands who risked imprisonment for disobeying curfew.
“Being in exile is harder than being a prisoner.”
Elsi Erdogan and Ahmet Altan are just two of the hundreds of Turkish writers jailed after the 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Elsi Erdogan, one of the best-known Turkish writers, disappeared without charges into Bakirkoy Closed Prison in 2016. After her release, pending trial, she went into exile. Altan’s books have sold more than seven million copies worldwide, and he won literary prizes in France and Germany while he was behind bars. Released after 5 years, at the age of 71, he chose to stay in Istanbul. He said he would rather spend the rest of his life in a Turkish prison, where he can speak his own language, than in exile. “Being in exile is something I believe is harder than being a prisoner,” he said.
I write this as Russian forces have invaded Ukraine. I read messages from Ukrainian writers caught in the maelstrom of bombardments against civilians. Stanislav Aseyev, who had been tortured by the occupying Russian forces in his native Donetsk, published his book, The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, even as Russian forces gathered at the border. Poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan, whose devastating novel, The Orphanage, was recommended by the New York Times as one of six books to read for context on Ukraine, was coordinating relief efforts in Kharkiv; Andrey Kurkov, author of Death of the Penguin and eighteen other novels, was sending messages to the Today program from Kyiv; novelist and filmmaker Oleg Stentsov, joined the territorial Defense Forces.
When I was researching material for my book, The Ghosts of Europe: Journeys Through Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future, I discovered that 80 percent of Ukraine’s published writers had disappeared during the first 10 years of the Soviet Union’s existence. The post-war regime continued to wage war against writers — some were beaten to death, many were jailed, more were forced into psychiatric hospitals. Their books were banned, as were books by Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and Polish writers. I remember visiting the Library of Prohibited Books in Prague. Those cramped dark rooms hold 27,000 different books and 2,200 periodicals, of which 14,000 are samizdat publications — unpublished, copies made and circulated illegally by writers and sympathizers. They are novels, essays, short stories, poetry, philosophy, translations, mysteries, even humour, and they have nothing in common except that they were all banned during Soviet times. There is Solzhenitzin’s Gulag Archipelago, Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains, Vaclav Havel’s The Beggars’ Opera, and books by Czeslaw Milosz and Josef Skvorecky, whom I had the privilege of publishing in Canada. After 1968, his name could not be mentioned in public. The librarian, Jiri Gruentorad, had spent eight years in a forced labour camp.
Is it any wonder that Ukrainians, as fellow Eastern Europeans, tend to disagree with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s assertion that the loss of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”? During the Stalin era, neither fame nor international awards could save you from persecution if the dictatorship didn’t approve of your work. The state took over control of literature through the Union of Soviet Writers. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita spent 12 years in hiding, and was published only in a heavily redacted version in 1967.
Anna Akhmatova, the 20th century’s most significant Russian poet, continued to write even as her work was banned in Stalin’s Russia; her husband and many of her friends were executed, and her son was imprisoned. Her fellow poet, Osip Mandelstam, was sentenced to a labour camp for the sin of criticizing Stalin in his poem “The Stalin Epigram.” He died in transit.
Sadly, Russia under Putin’s autocracy has returned to the repressions of the Soviet era. Since 1990, the number of murdered Russian writers has grown alarmingly, but not surprisingly. A regime that does not allow free speech, or a free press, will silence independent voices. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Anna Polytovskaya, known for her writing about corruption and human rights abuses in Chechnya. She was assassinated in the elevator of her apartment building. The person who ordered her killing has not yet been charged.
Since 1990, the number of murdered Russian writers has grown alarmingly, but not surprisingly.
Russian-American writer Masha Gessen has written extensively about the harassment and beating of journalists and the persecution of LGBTQ+ Russians. Gessen, who is trans and non-binary, now lives in the United States. After their interview with fiction writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya was published in the New Yorker, they were branded a traitor for speaking out about brutality of the police and for their opposition to the war on Ukraine.
Dictators, my grandfather used to say, imprison or kill the writers first, because words can be more effective than weapons. Writing in the New Yorker in 2014, Gessen said, “A book can be an inspiration or a murder weapon.” It depends on whose hands it falls into.
How many works of literature will never appear because their authors were jailed?
PEN Canada campaigns on behalf of persecuted, imprisoned, and exiled writers throughout the world. At home, its Writers in Exile program helps writers who are forced from their own countries. In the face of tyranny, it has had some successes.
Ethiopian writer Martha Kumsa was tortured and imprisoned for 9 years without the formalities of even a sham trial. In prison, she taught geography and mathematics. She was released in part because of pressure from the international PEN community and now teaches in Canada. “Ethiopia is in freefall into carnage once again,” she wrote in PEN’s 2021 annual report. “Hope raised is miserably dashed. Hundreds of thousands are suffering in its dark dungeons…”
PEN had something to celebrate on March 11, 2022, when Saudi Arabian writer and blogger Raif Badawi was released from jail. PEN had been agitating for his release since he was sentenced to a decade behind bars and 1,000 lashes, fifty of which were delivered in a public square in Jeddah. Ensaf Badawi, his wife, now lives in Montreal.
On arriving at Los Angeles Airport, where he was greeted by a crowd of supporters, Vietnamese writer and blogger Nguyễn Văn Hải, known as Dieu Cay, said that the best message to all political prisoners is: “Have faith, you are not alone.” He had been jailed in April 2008. International human rights organizations, including PEN Canada, had worked for his release.
Poet Hernando Gonzales was released from prison in Cuba in 2010. He had served 7 years, much of it in solitary confinement. “I have been beaten, caned, and starved.” But he was one of the lucky ones. The youngest of the seventy-five writers and human rights workers who had been rounded up in March 2003, known as “Black Spring,” he survived his incarceration.
Rashad Ramazanov, an Azerbaijani writer and blogger, was arrested in May 2013 and served 6 years of his 9-year sentence before being pardoned with 400 other prisoners in 2019. He had been beaten and tortured. He suffers from tuberculosis contracted while in jail. The author of 7 books and numerous articles, he has remained an outspoken political commentator after his release. He is an honorary member of PEN Canada.
Maung Thar Cho, who uses the pseudonym Zargana, a writer, poet, editor, and member of PEN Myanmar, author of over seventy literary works crossing multiple literary genres including poetry, essays, and short stories, was jailed several times. A professor of Myanmar literature at the Yangon Training College, Maung Thar Cho gained a reputation for his use of satire to address contentious political and social issues. After his release, he was banned from performing in public. He was rearrested in 2021 together with many other writers and journalists.
Military dictatorships are notoriously lacking in a sense of humour.
Executed Nigerian environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa spoke about a writer’s duty not only to “x-ray society’s weaknesses, its ills, its perils,” but also to be “involved in shaping its present and its future.”
Arundhati Roy, speaking of the suppression of voices critical of the government of India, said, “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe…”
Anna Porter is the author of ten books, some of which have won prizes. She was a book publisher for 30 years.