Prisoners of the Pen

By Maria Di Mento ’03 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
Ask yourself the question: What could I write today that could get me killed? What could I write today that could get me arrested, beaten up, or ostracized by my community?” asked Larry Siems, representing the PEN American Center in New York City before an attentive Starr Auditorium crowd on November 8.

Siems was was part of a two-day conference titled “Freedom to Write,” and two of the writers on the panel with him have experienced firsthand the steep price often paid for writing freely in some parts of the world. Nigerian playwright, poet, and 1986 Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka had been imprisoned from 1967 to 1969 after calling for a ceasefire during his country’s civil war. And Iranian novelist and memoirist Shahrnush Parsipur had been arrested twice: first in 1974, after she protested the execution of two poets under the shah’s regime, and again in 1979 under the Islamic republic. She served four years and seven months, but was never officially charged.

Now a political refugee, Parsipur is the first fellow of Brown’s new International Writers Project, a joint effort of the Watson Institute and the Creative Writing Program to aid writers censured in their home countries. With them spoke Caribbean poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite, who cautioned that the prisons that bind writers are not always the kind with walls and iron bars.

“Imprisonment,” he said, “is a subtle thing that takes place slowly over time, so people don’t recognize it as such.” Under oppressive governments, whole cultures become prisons, he observed: “I always thought I was a citizen of the world because of my talents, but I found I was a prisoner of my own society.”

Even in the United States, Soyinka argued, he has been unable to escape. After fleeing Nigeria in 1994, he taught at Harvard, and then at Emory, in Atlanta. When he moved to Atlanta, he said, the Nigerian government suddenly decided to open a consulate there.

To avoid harassment, Soyinka’s family moved to California while he remained in Atlanta teaching his classes, evading the Nigerian officials watching him, and living at a location so secret that only Emory’s president knew his address. Soyinka mockingly suggested that the Nigerian consulate should be named after him.

Parsipur compared the dark, head-to-toe Muslim chador to a kind of prison. The covering of the head and chin, she said, is not just to hide a woman’s hair: “It shows you have no right to speak.”

“The idea of prison is a complicated one,” Soyinka concluded. “Underneath the outer garb of enslavement, women often wear bright, fashionable clothes.” Some even wear nail polish and lipstick, he added. “But many who conform, resent. They resent very, very deeply, and when the moment comes, they are primed for revolt.” Soyinka cited the anger of South Africans repressed under apartheid as an example.

When the discussion turned to U.S. antiterrorism laws, Soyinka said that people in the United States don’t realize that prisons are being built around them with legislation:

“What you’re fighting in America, really, is the inefficient way the whole thing is being done.” Then with a grin he added, “America is supposed to be an efficient country, but they can’t even rig an election properly.”

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January / February 2004