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
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.
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