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Sunday, 6 February 2011





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Government Gazette

GLF Notes: On writers and whiners in taking on tyrannies

Sometimes I feel people spend more time talking about the freedom of expression and complaining about relevant lacks than about actually expressing themselves. It doesn’t help of course when those who do register complaints by the act of expression talk nonsense, out of context, with feigned ignorance of history and with little or no reference to relative merits. By and large, however, few of the whiners actually test the waters, so to speak.

Those who can swim imagine depths and currents that are non-existent or at least of magnitude that do not forbid engagement, while those who cannot, give into wild conjecture about temperature, current and depth.

GLF opening ceremony at courts square, Galle

Even a cursory consideration of the word and deed of shrill talkers about the freedom of expression in this country would show that they are guilty as charged above and moreover explain why they are getting nowhere with placard, whine and sour grapes. Some of them were asking writers not to attend the Galle Literary Festival, suffering from the odd perception that gagging people would further the cause of un-gagging people.

There were others who ‘defied’ the boycott-call, went to Galle and used the space what they’ve used it for every year since inception: a platform to attack the Government. Somehow I find it hard to choose between the two groups, given their conspicuous reluctance and/or inability to express anything coherent or honest, over and above the fact that they have horrible track records of having double-standards, lying, misrepresenting etc.

I am not privy to what they were doing in Galle outside their ‘literary’ (sic) moments in various panel discussions, but I believe they would have gained a lot had they attended a discussion held on Saturday morning (January 29,). The title of the panel, ably moderated by Ashok Ferrey, was ‘More than just a good laugh,’ and featured Tishani Doshi, Andrey Kurkov and Pauline Melville.

Tishani is the joker of the pack as far as this article is concerned, i.e. the use of humour (and other such literary devices) to cut through objection and the objectionable, especially when it comes to taking on repressive regimes. Make no mistake, she did entertain and was humorous. I didn’t read her novel but I found her poetry to be fresh, incisive and of superior quality to that which is occasionally short-listed and even rewarded by the Gratiaen Trust. That’s a different article, however.

The other two authors, and in particular, Kurkov, demonstrated how literature can considerably enhance the parameters of the possible even under trying circumstances. This is not a review-piece and therefore I shall not get into an assessment of literary merit, but going by the opinions expressed and sections read out to the audience, it was crystal clear that literature has the potential to do what placard-holding, rabble-rousing and hand-wringing (for bucks, let us qualify) cannot.

It reminded me of what Mikhail Bulgakov inserted by way of capture-all in the matter of framing the writing exercise when his book The Heart of a Dog was eventually published (the manuscript had been burnt by the KGB): ‘Good books will not burn’. That’s commitment and faith in the power of the word. It embodied courage as well as humility.

I was also reminded of the terrible period of wanton killing in Sri Lanka at the end of the eighties when people of my age dealt with the violence that surrounded them and indeed engulfed some by resorting to humour. There were always ways around restriction.

Literary enthusiasts

The censorship that prevailed at that time makes today’s expression-reality a veritable freedom-heaven, but even then the limits were tested and tested again and again. I remember all playwrights having to submit manuscripts to the ‘Competent Authority’ for evaluation and how some of them replaced Sinhala names and local contexts with Russian ones to make it out that they had submitted a translation and not an original. That was originality. Creativity. Determination.

I remembered reading of an author from the Soviet Union who was not a ‘chosen one’ of the Communist Party having his manuscript confiscated at some check point or another.

He remarked that he had come across this same book at a later date and was happy to see the edges frayed, indicating that more than one guard had actually read it.

This world is bursting with metaphor. There are millions of characters waiting to be developed and made to play with one another. There are a million stories that can be written. There are a million ways to write them. The choice before an author is so wide that only the unskilled or slothful can really complain about his/her hands being tied by State or institution. We never write freely. We write in a context and not always one that is so comfortable there’s nothing to worry about. Some choose to actually write that context in ways that escape the minder’s eye but are transparent to reader. That takes skill.

All three authors related stories. They were entertaining. Made the audience laugh. None of them overthrew regimes, but regime-change is not necessarily the chosen task of the writer. The writer tells a story, opens eyes and gives power to mind, heart and arm.

The writer is an empowering agent. Some may take to the streets at certain point, storm the barricades, open chest to bayonet and bullet and that would be a bonus, perhaps.

The hard work, in the main, is done out of camera, sans placard and slogan. It is all poured into paper as particular word combination and plot-mesh. They express their freedom and don’t always scream about it. They work through their inabilities, work around imposed limits.

They know that the anger of the world is not placated by word drop or metaphor-twist. They inspire, nevertheless. They give breathing space to a people under tyranny and sometimes that’s all that’s necessary to allow a citizenry to fill lung and scream. Or whisper so softly that tyrannies are duly swept away.

I wonder if the self-righteous, buck-making, globe-trotting screamers about the freedom of expression and other things political read these authors the way I did. I felt empowered. Not saying that writers cannot be activists or vice versa, but strictly limiting observation to GLF-fare, my general preference for writers over activists was once again justified, I felt.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at [email protected]


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