By Shaun Randol
In yet another stellar issue of World Literature Today (May/June 2012), the dastardly practice of censorship of literature and writers in general was given due attention. In his informative piece on censorship in Iran, Blake Atwood ends his piece with the following commentary:
My own attempts to understand better the effect that censorship has had on writing in Iran ironically betrayed the inadequacies of words and language. I encountered authors who were enthusiastic about helping me but ultimately said nothing. They circled my questions without ever answering them. There was mention of secret email addresses to ensure privacy, and my questions were often too broad to capture the complexities of censorship, not only as a state apparatus but also as a lived experience. It was nearly impossible to enter into this system and engage Iranian writers in a discussion of censorship. Some of these challenges were logistical, but others were reflective of the failure of words to communicate the kind of collective trauma that censorship has inflicted on Iranian society. The frightening truth is that censorship, even when it is called inspection, succeeds when language is no longer able to represent and resist the governmental structures that control it.
I was reminded of Atwood's words when I listened to Salman Rushdie's Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, recently delivered at the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival. At ~9:00, Rushdie makes the inevitable reference to the censorship of writers in China, an activity overseen by an Orwellian institution ("the Ministry of Truth" he rightly calls it, but he is not alone).
Recently, a row erupted over the appearance of "official" writers at the London Book Fair, where the Chinese government and its representatives took pains to avoid discussing the plights or activities of writers and activists, such as Liu Xiaobo and Gao Xingjian, both of whom are Nobel laureates (Liu remains in jail and Gao remains exiled in Paris), Liao Yiwu, and many more. Rather, a cadre of "approved" and "official" writers were brought over from China to participate in the august affair. Happily, as Jonathan Mirsky reported in The New York Review of Books, "To compensate for the absence of dissident Chinese authors, the delegation running the Romanian stall offered their space to exiled Han, Tibetan, and Uighur writers." Ma Jian spoke:
There are 118 Chinese publishers here; all are mouthpieces of the Communist Party. The writers they have invited are considered beautiful by the Party. No ugly person, like those of us here, can speak officially. We don’t object to the writers who are invited, but until all of us are free to speak and write no Chinese writer is free.
What pains the censored writer must endure in order to be heard! What clever ways he or she finds to speak the truth! Perry Link, who does a terrific job of translating censored Chinese works into English and reporting on issues dissidents face in the Middle Kingdom, recently published a tribute (also in the NYRB) to the late Fang Lizhi, an advocate of democracy who couched his arguments in the language of science and mathematics. With science being a central tenet of Marxism, Chinese officials (though they have drifted far from such strong beliefs) could do little to discourage scientific thought and discussion. Link explains:
Measured by civil authority, the Party leaders of course outranked Fang. They could demote him, and did. But in science? There Fang had the upper hand. A Party leader could not belittle science. Science was part of the Four Modernizations, the guiding policy of the day. Moreover it was in Marxism. The leaders no longer believed in Marxism, but had to pretend that they did. Fang’s challenge from science frightened them more deeply than anything a writer or professor of Chinese might do.
(Read more about Fang's struggle with censorship in China here.)
"I'd like to remind you that there are many countries in the world, in which a gathering such as this," Rushdie said in his lecture, "where a hundred or so writers talk about all manner of things in all manner of different ways simply could not happen."
We should not be complacent. Those of us who enjoy the privilege of being able to speak and write freely without fear of recrimination, especially from a police state, are obligated to speak for the repressed, to remind others of their misfortune, and to push for their freedom, both physical and intellectual.
Rushdie ends his lecture with the declaration: "Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it's a revolution."
Carry that flame.
Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol