Saturday, May 05, 2007

Silenced Voices

Remembering today writers and journalists who have faced persecution and even execution for following the truth I thought I'd write about one of the writers I met at last year's Ubud Readers and Writers Festival - Turkish Author and Journalist Asli Erdogan.

Asli's courage and intelligence greatly impressed me. Formerly a quantum physicist with CERN, she gave up the search for elusive particles to become a writer producing two novels The Shell Man in 1994, and The City in Crimson Cloak (about Rio de Janeiro where she did her PhD) as well as a collection of interlinked short stories Miraculous Mandarin in 1996. Her short story Wooden Birds received first prize in a competition opened by Deutsche Welle Radio in 1997.

Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk calls her:
... an exceptionally sensitive and perceptive writer who gives us perfect literary texts.
Asli's passionate interest in human rights led her to journalism.

Turkey has the worst record for persecution of writers in the world, she says. The infamous Article 301 making it a crime to insult "turkishness" has hit the headlines as prominent writers have been charged with it for drawing attention to the genocide against the Armenians and the plight of the Kurds. The case that attracted the most international attention was that of Orhan Pamuk who stated in an interview with a Swiss magazine, that "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

But Asli says that the the publicity surrounding Article 301 has drawn attention from even more serious human rights abuses in Turkey. She wrote articles about hunger strikes (in one 110 people died!), rape and deaths from torture in Turkish prisons.

She knew that she risked being jailed for speaking out. She lost her job after two and a half years and has been constantly harassed by the police. The month before the Ubud festival she said, there was a police car parked in front of her apartment all the time. "I felt I was going crazy," she said, but managed to joke about the drug dealers living in the street being in awe of her.

I found online a tribute Asli wrote for another persecuted Turkish writer, Hrant Dink, who was one of the most prominent voices of Turkey's shrinking Armenian community. He was convicted in 2005 under Article 301 for writing about the Armenian genocide, and received threats from nationalists who viewed him as a traitor. He had hoped to emigrate, but was gunned down by a 17 year old nationalist outside his offices on January 19, 2007.

Asli here describes the scene at his funeral as one hundred thousand mourners marched together:
It was a long, silent walk. Thousands and thousands of people were slowly walking, side-by-side, under an unexpected winter sun, a luminous sky, reminiscent of spring. A compact, homogeneous crowd was filling the avenues, the streets, the squares. There were blood-red carnations. Black signs spelling out the same message in three different languages: "We are all Hrant, we are all Armenians."Hrant's face emerges above arms, above heads, an intact face, bearing no signs of aging, with his gentle, comforting smile... Thousands of people, in mourning, heartbroken, intently turned to that face with a sense of loss even deeper than if he had been one of them. Newspapers, headlines, people clapping their hands, the white dove, so alive, in front of Agos people recognizing each other and humbly greeting, heads bowed in gravity, weighed down by the assassination. It was a winter sun that we did not seem to deserve. (But who had the right to deprive anyone of that sun, be it for a single minute?) "They say it is five miles away, do you think we can walk that far?" a voice says. Another one replies: "We will make it!" We walk on, leaving a deep invisible mark behind us.
Asli, today our thoughts are with you and other Turkish journalists (and other journalists around the world) who are are brave enough to speak out. Regardless of the personal danger.


Pelukismelukis said...

Asli's words are valorous, plaintive yet intensely beautiful. And her gaze; entrancing. I wish to swim in her mind's eye.

Anonymous said...

It's funny how you can only be courageous and brave etc. if you're oppressed, isn't it ? it's as if people living everyday lives in much less oppressive countries are less courageous because of it.

Dean said...

"It's funny how you can only be courageous and brave etc. if you're oppressed"

You're not looking deeply enough. A superficial appraisal of the world gives up a few momentous examples.

But looking more deeply, you can find plenty to give you pause. There's no excuse for not looking deeply, nowadays, as in developed countries there is plentiful coverage of events in online newspapers.

Anonymous said...

Well I don't know of any, so if you care to name a few courageous, brave people who aren't somehow oppressed, I'd like to know of them.

jen said...

I don't think people who live in less oppressed countries are less courageous - they are luckier.
I think courage is a little bit like a rubber band - you do not know how courageous someone is(or how stretchy a rubber band is) unless they are tested, and just because somebody is lucky enough to not be tested does not mean that they are not courageous.

lainie said...

liked what you read today sharon - and certainly concerns press freedom
(as too, life of galileo).
reminded me of the day we discussed political agitation through writing :)

Dean said...

Just one example:

A Sydney school principal, who crawled through a blazing house to save the life of an elderly woman, has been given one of NSW's highest bravery awards.

"To go into a burning building with no safety gear at all is something you wouldn't normally do," fire officer Brendan Mooney said today.

"But she put her life on the line to save someone she didn't know, which was unbelievable."

This is just from going to the Sydney Morning Herald website and putting 'bravery' into the search box.

I think jen said it best. I totally agree with those words.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks lainie - good to see you there.

like jen's comments too. i guess we all wonder how we ourselves would shape up if tested ...

Anonymous said...

Er Dean, I thought we were talking about writers. People I know can be courageous, but it seems you can't be a courageous or brave writer if you live in a less oppressive country or write about less controversial issues.

Actually Jen I wonder if they are lucker, I mean controversy is free publicity and easily available material. If you live in Sunnydale what would there be to write about ?

Dean said...

"I thought we were talking about writers"

OK, fine, let's talk about writers, shall we?

Australians are obsessed by sport. Literature is a niche endeavour. Selling 5000 copies of a literary novel is considered a good result.

But Australian literature is strong, regardless. Writers go without what other people would consider the basics. Often, the only way for them to survive is to teach at a university.

Luckily, our universities believe that they have something important to say.

If we look at just one writer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature, Patrick White, we see a man who lived in an openly homosexual relationship at a time when it was taboo to talk about such things. His novels contain themes that thirty and forty years later we are beginning to see as critical themes. He was ahead of his time. When he died, most of his estate (which had grown large because of his eventual success) was donated to charities.

He believed in the power of high culture, and was never afraid to stand up for those he believed were wronged by society. Probably because he had stood there himself.

But White came from one of the richest families in Australia. He never lacked for money because of his inheritance. He shows what the middle class can do when it relinquishes the endless quest for more money, and focuses on the hard task of changing society.

When the rich people of his time are long forgotten, Patrick White will still be seen as a beacon of reason in a sea of mediocrity.

bibliobibuli said...

dean - you are so right about the strength and vitality of australian literature. (and also about patrick white whom i also greatly admire)

can i divert the flow of discussion here and slip in a question here and ask you how much do you think it is due to the support that writers have from regional writers centres (and maybe other sources?)

Dean said...

Conservative pundits deplore the Australia Council, which provides funding, following an application, to writers who otherwise would find it difficult to survive. You only have to listen to people like Paddy McGuiness, a conservative columnist and editor of the fearlessly right-wing monthly Quadrant, to know that the Australia Council provides inestimable support for the arts in a country where sport reigns supreme.

McGuiness and his ilk say that these grants are 'politically motivated' and 'encourage PC thinking'.

As I said, universities also provide support for writers who otherwise struggle to survive.

The big end of town, which tends to vote Liberal (conservative), has the money but it mostly goes to visual arts and the higher end of the performing arts, such as ballet and opera.

But you do have people like Morry Schwartz, a Melbourne property developer who supports the liberal publishing sector but funding Black Inc.

He's a rare exception.

I'm sure that regional writers centres contribute to the funding of literary fiction, but in general there are too few outlets to really support writers.

A good example is Cate Kennedy, who writes exquisite short stories. The biggest item in her CV is publication of a story in The New Yorker. (She'll be appearing at the Sydney Writers' Festival, later this month.)

The festival is something of a curiosity. If so few people read literary fiction, why is the festival, and similar events in the other state capitals, so incredibly successful?

But Australians are inherently omnivorous. Just because an author is a local, that's no justification for preferring their work. Overseas authors do very well here.

That book you have mentioned several times (and were going to send a copy to me, but I can't find your email address), I Am Muslim, would be a good addition to the current debate about the place of Muslims in Australian society. You should encourage the author to send review copies to the broadsheets. The author might also try addressing a copy to Peter Manning, who works at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has written a book called Us and Them about the problem of being a Muslim in modern society.

bibliobibuli said...

dean - my e-mail is

just drop me a line and i will send you a copy of dina's book

thanks a lot for the info. i do find it v. interesting. australian authors are producing a lot of good stuff. it's good to know that the universities and individuals are providing support.

Anonymous said...

"If we look at just one writer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature, Patrick White, we see a man who lived in an openly homosexual relationship at a time when it was taboo to talk about such things.'

I think you just provewd my point -- that people think 'no controversy, no courage'. If it was perfectly acceptable to be in a homosexual relationship at that time, would be still be labeled "courageous" ?