LETTER TO AN UNKNOWN FRIEND
It may seem strange to you that I should call you a friend, since we have never met and do not know each other. However, this week several hundred writers, cultivators in the world of words – are gathered near the Northern tip of the world. And today some of us are urged to discuss a topic formulated as like this: Should writers stay in prison? I thought you should be informed since it is about you. May be this headline provokes you, since you are barred by thousand walls from being here. However, the question may be formulated as it is just to remind us here that people like you exist. But it may also function as a word play hinting to the story of suffering and art. Or should we call it not a story but a myth? Does not prison tear apart more than it stimulates in any human being?
Come to think of it, there are undoubtedly prisoners who became artists while in prison. For some the prison years compelled them to write, like many survivors from the Nazi concentration camps in WW II. French-Jewish writer Fania Fenelon’s story of the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau is one brilliant example, not the least because she dares to explore also how the dark sides of the human soul appear in detention, that is, not only humanity but also greed and vanity, the presence of solidarity and the opposite.
One living proof of becoming a writer in prison I met recently, the president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao. For seven years he was confined to a cell in Cipinang prison in Jakarta, Indonesia. During these seven years he gradually got access to canvas and paint, to a typewriter and later a computer. But he does not tell a prison story, he becomes a poet. One result of this period is a collection of poetry called Mar Meu, My sea of Timor, illustrated by his own paintings, dream-like images of his longed-for country:
Timor / where flowers also bloom / to make beautiful / the unknown graves / ‘in cold, endless nights’.
The longing for what you cannot see, but imagine with your baggage of experience, the longing for where you cannot be but have belonged to. I imagine this longing takes a huge part of the day in a prison cell. It made Xanana an artist.
But my East Timorese friends tell me the best book written about East Timor, its suffering and courage, was created and published by a writer who has not even visited the island. The person is Timothy Mo, with his novel The Redundancy of Courage. In this book he is deeply inspired by the seemingly madly courageous East Timorese guerrilla movement, that is; of mountain men he has never met; a couple of hundred men challenging Indonesia who occupied the country for 24 years, a world power. He writes of them with a blend of critical empathy, admiration and humour. Timothy Mo, born from a Hong Kong Chinese father and an English mother, has never spent time in a prison cell. But he has lunched with Timorese exiles. And they must have left quite an impression.
At present Xanana, the president-poet longs for somewhere else, a place beyond a position he did not really want, but felt compelled by his people to take on. Being an old guerrilla fighter in Timor’s mountains he has become a national Icon. He now expresses his need for a room of his own, a retreat in which he can write and paint. He will have to wait for the 2007 elections. But he should not have to go back to a cell block.
For in prison the horrors overpower the blessings of the dream world, a world Jack London generously let his straitjacketed prisoner escape to almost a hundred years ago. Did you ever read his The Star Rover, in Norwegian actually called the Strait jacket? In this novel a man on Death Row writes of a soul wandering across the world and across history, while physically he was confined to a small dark cell.
The horrors of such a place may follow a person throughout a life time, as it has to this day followed the Afghan writer Razak Mahmoon. In his novel “Asr-e-Khodkhoshi” (The Era of Suicide) he makes an account strongly based on his personal experience from Kabul’s Poul-e-Charkhi prison. His own story is sad, but also carries a string of irony. Being part of a radical underground movement, he was mistaken for an extreme fundamentalist, then arrested by the Soviets, tortured and imprisoned at the age of 16. For the first four years he was in a dark place, in solitary confinement. Then one day a Russian doctor came to see him and concluded that if he was left there much longer, he would turn blind. So his guards had the sense to transfer the young boy to a cell with 150 other prisoners. Razak Mahmoon did not like it much, he detested the smells of the other inmates, their behaviour, their fundamentalism. Sometimes he even wanted to return to his small cell, where he had nursed his imagination; to prevent himself from turning mad. But in the new, crowded cell books were allowed to circulate. He started reading. In his home there had not been many books, but he had been obsessed with listening to radio and thus discovered a larger world. Now the guards brought in literature. Since he was not a very devout believer, Mahmoon took to philosophy, the Russian classics and even Lenin for a while. – I am the son of Dostoyevsky, he told us as we meet him in Kabul. His new novel Pardai Haftum, the seventh curtain, is too radical for this country, he tells us, since he is a critic of orthodoxy in Islam. He struggled with his prison book for years, but got his award when an Iranian critic thought his name must be a pseudonym for a Russian writer.
Through his novel he tries to control his traumatized mind. He is restless, does not trust the future in his own homeland. And without doubt, say other Afghan writers, his eight years in prison, the best years of his youth, have given shape to great literature – and a tormented soul. So who am I, dear friend, to say that any such suffering is worth while?
You have obviously reflected more deeply on these questions than I have. Maybe you would even – in spite of your own miserable situation argue that some of the great art of this world is created from people’s sufferings. Slave labourers and quarry workers whipped through endless days of toiling. In the end for me it is impossible to imagine. But if we happened to be in that moment of history we would have sided with the slaves but admired their skills, wouldn’t we?
A different kind of irony of history has been lived and experienced by Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. In his four novels called the Buru Quartet he explores Dutch colonialism mainly through a young and ambitious person’s mind. Through their schools the main character Minke learns of the freedoms that the rulers will not allow people like himself. Thus his subversiveness grows. But do you know where he started writing these four volumes? We may not even call it writing, since for several years the dictator Soeharto denied him access to pen and paper. When he was imprisoned the police destroyed eight unfinished manuscripts and his great library. But like you, he did not give in. From his arrival in 1967 to the prison island Buru, in the Malaccan archipelago; he was compelled to take part in unpaid slave labour with his fellow prisoners. But then, in the dark and damp evenings, rather exhausted, he sat down with fourteen of his compatriots. Under these circumstances Pram Toer started telling his stories of Minke’s life at the beginning of the 20th century, chapter by chapter. One prisoner became so intrigued from hearing about Minke’s experiences that he disappeared in the jungle of Buru. When his friends luckily found him before the prison guards did, he explained to them that he wanted to be Minke. A free person.
In the year 1973, after eight years of imprisonment, Toer was allowed writing utensils, and his fellow prisoners started taking over some of his work in the fields, while he was still responsible for providing his group with firewood. His novels were produced in four copies, helped by carbon paper, and smuggled out of Buru and Indonesia by a German priest. After another six years Toer was released 1979, but had to live under restrictions resembling house arrest until Soeharto’s fall in 1999.
But why do I only tell you about the man and his writings? Writers are beings of flesh and blood. They need protein to survive, especially when forced to do hard physical labour. Today often mentioned as a candidate to the Nobel price, Toer hunted rats and reptiles to survive at Buru. He was arrested when the youngest of his seven children was two months old. Throughout his stay in prison he tried to reach them, scribbling on insides of cigarette packs, smuggling out small notes and thus showing how he cared. Not the least he was trying from his awkward position to give them advices about the future. In short; all the things a parent should be allowed to do face to face.
Do not remind me, you say. I am a mother and a father and the thought of my children is the worst part of being in this place.
I answer you that I know, but then again I don’t. It just came to my mind as I had the privilege of meeting Toer this summer. I also feel helpless; I can do little to comfort you but saying that Pram Toer eventually learnt to know his children again after fourteen years away. But what these relations might have been with him living with them in Java, and what kind of literature he could have created without the prison years, with his library and his eight unpublished manuscripts intact, nobody will ever know. All those ‘might-have-been’s’ must surely haunt him at times. I have read some of his pre-prison works: He has always stayed close to the Indonesian common man. He did not need imprisonment to learn to know him. Only now, when he declares he is too old to write, when his fingers will no longer willingly follow the signals of his brains, he is living in a style more typical of a famous writer.
When shifting my focus from the president-poet in East Timor and young Razak Mahmoon in Kabul to Pram Toer, I also shifted from men who became writers in prison or as a result of prison, to an established well-known writer from whom everything – his writings, his research, his family and his right to let his voice be heard – was taken away by his tormentors. I do not know, however, whether Mahmoon the Afghan would have published a first novel or a volume of short stories in his early twenties if it had not been for the brutes who arrested him. He probably does not know himself either.
And between the two ways of relating to prison that I have just described, there are the in-betweens. Like Partaw Naderi, another Afghan writer who was a grown-up family man when he was thrown into Poul-e-Charkhi, south of Kabul, on the Logar road. He ended up in prison accused of being a Maoist, since he had some friends belonging to one of their groups. He himself did not believe in them, since they seemed to adhere to the same ideology as the Soviet invaders of his country. But his name was found in the house of one of his friends, and this was enough to get him arrested. His friend, like many others, was shot. In prison Partaw met other, more experienced writers and was thrilled when at times he was able to have his poetry evaluated by other, more experienced authors who shared his prison experiences. Partaw, the leader of Afghan PEN, is a very sociable man. He did not dislike so much the company of 149 cell mates. In prison he became a tailor. He and his fellow prisoners had access to books and newspapers, and they were allowed to work, sewing uniforms for the army. The trick in the sewing department was breaking needles, a kind of mild sabotage that had to be performed with care, not too many, and – if one wanted to be considered a good Muslim – not too few, either.
Partaw seemed more eager to become a good poet, writing on the silver paper of the cigarette boxes, on the small empty spaces of the newspaper, on wrapping paper, on whatever he could lay his hands on.
All kinds of scrap paper were in high demand. You surely know that – since you have at times been denied even reading, and since your hands have not been allowed a pencil to hold and to move. At this stage I wonder whether all these stories do you any good, or if they just increase the pain you must feel. I am not able to stand inside your shoes, you can not hear my voice and the other voices being raised in this room. My hope is that we both have the power of imagination and thus we are somehow able to communicate.
Partaw did communicate in Poul-e-charkhi prison, and one of his favourite writers spent nine years in another block, Assadullah Walwaliji. The first two months he spent in a cell on the Kabuli version of Death Row. Often at night the guards came to pick up a new victim, and his cell mates knew they would never see him again. Walwaliji says that many of the survivors have not recovered from this experience. Somehow, he himself says he learnt what it meant to be a human being while in prison.
At a Chinese restaurant in Kabul we asked him how and why. He said he had been a thoughtless, wild, undisciplined guy not caring about the next day until he was arrested. His poems from that time were – in his own words – bad love poems that he does not even want to be reminded of today. – I just cared for myself, he said, – and did not give the human condition, human suffering much of a thought. In Poul-e-charkhi I had time to reflect, it was there that I laid the foundation stone for the philosophy that has nurtured my life and my poems ever since. To my knowledge, he still writes love poems!
In spite of all this suffering, does he have a point? Do some human beings have to personally experience suffering to be full human beings? The Indian social psychologist Ashis Nandy in his book “The Intimate Enemy” discusses the impact of colonialism on peoples’ bodies and minds. He sees through Western hypocrisy – colonial and so-called post-colonial – and suggests an alternative universalism based on the experiences of the suffering and oppressed people around the world. That would leave a huge responsibility on people like you, a burden you cannot take on alone, in your small cell. I therefore write to you in the hope that you eventually, when reading these words, will feel a sense of belonging to a world-wide network of experience. Another writer, Gayatri Spivak, says that a prerequisite for more symmetrical human relations in this world of deep inequalities is that privileged people need to recognise their privileges as a kind of loss – that is, there are horizons we as privileged will never discover unless we admit to this complicated fact. This lack of experience due to privilege may make us less full human beings. She adds that one needs to do a special kind of homework, which equals unlearning these privileges. How can one do that? We can not all go to prison, but we can travel to you in our minds, put on a straitjacket and try to see the world as it may be seen from your confined space. The president of PEN this morning mentioned empathy as one of the four key words for further development of the organisation. One special case is the German writer and journalist Günter Wallraff, who during his life has taken on a number of roles to be able to explore the living conditions of people at the bottom of his society. In an interview with two Swedish journalists he says that as a young man he felt his personality was poorly developed, and he lacked self confidence. His work with taking on other people’s identities – for example the Turkish immigrant worker Ali – made him develop into a richer human being. This may be an extreme example, but it still shows how seeing the world from another place can develop a personality.
You are in prison. Excuse me for also taking the opportunity to write a few words about other kinds of imprisonment. My experience tells me that one can be imprisoned in narrowness, in prejudice and ignorance. At times I feel this country, so much trying to be a humanitarian superpower and a peace negotiator around the world, suffers from some of this narrowness. It is more normal than rare for people from non-western areas to be treated with a blatant lack of respect when invited to visit us. Black British writer Caryl Philips has eloquently in his “The European Tribe” described his brutal encounter with Norwegian passport and customs officers. Other writers share his experiences. Only by very narrow margins were we able to have our Afghan colleague attending this conference. There may be other similar experiences.
For me, who enjoys the privilege of travelling so-to-say in any direction, these restrictions represent an albeit modified, but shameful way of erecting walls around the rich and privileged, thus denying writers and all others the right to share experiences across the globe. As the keynote speaker Amin Maalouf, later to be heard at this conference has so eloquently expressed it:
For it is the way we look at others that may imprison them within the narrowest allegiances, but it is also the way we look at others that may set them free!