Writers, like most people, like to be noticed once in a while. Sit or stand at a keyboard all day in a quiet room, and even a misspelled email in ALL CAPS informing one of gross incompetence and grammar mistakes can be a comfort: “Well, at least somebody is reading,” the writer thinks.
Those writers who have come to Ithaca over the past 15 years through the City of Asylum program experienced a heavier sort of critical attention in their home countries. Your average letter-writer or tweeter might have some nasty things to say; the City of Asylum writers have had action taken against their lives.
Present at the Kitchen Theater on Sunday, September 25, were Yi Ping, the first Ithaca City of Asylum writer, who fled China along with his wife, poet/translator Lin Zhou after the Chinese government increased repression after the Tiananmen Square protests. Here was Sarah Mkhonza, who had her University of Swaziland office ransacked after criticizing the monarchy’s repressive regime. Journalist/activist Sonali Samarasinghe left Sri Lanka for the United States with her family after her husband, editor of a weekly paper openly critical of the government, was assassinated in 2009. And Raza Rumi, the current ICOA writer-in-residence, left his home in Lahore, Pakistan, after an attempt made on his life by Islamic militants in 2014 that left his driver dead.
In exile, the internet has allowed these writers to continue publishing for outlets in their homelands. Given their apparent distance from danger, one might think that they would grow more outspoken in their critiques. Yet the effect of exile has been somewhat the opposite for some.
Mkhonza said at the Voices of Freedom celebration on Sunday that she feels her words don’t have quite the same impact spoken from afar.
“I can be out here and speak, but it doesn’t get to Swaziland the same way as when I was there,” Mkhonza said.
In Pakistan, Rumi was a defender of liberal values, of human rights, and a critic of the military’s use of jihadist militias. He’s more careful in what he says since coming to the United States.
“I’ve been put in the position of telling people not all 1.6 billion Muslims are terrorists,” Rumi said, adding drily “It gets rather exhausting.”
In Sri Lanka, Samarasinghe said she was a “lot more strident.” In the U.S., she has found her style to be more “tempered and circumspect.”
“You have to be strident, or you’re not going to be heard with all that noise and fearmongering going on,” Samarasinghe said of her writing in Sri Lanka.
Despite the distance, their duty is still to write. As Yi Ping put it, though he’s a poet, essayist, and dramatist, he feels because in the U.S. he has “the freedom to write and speak, I should focus on political writing and help my friends.”
With her voice rising, Mkhonza said her work was to tell Swazis, especially women, “the freedom is theirs, the voice is theirs, and their stories can be told by them as well as by anyone.”
Though writers and journalists are by and large freer from the threat of physical violence in the United States, there are areas where critics here don’t dare to tread: Rumi reiterated a point he made in a March interview with me for the Ithaca Times that when it comes to coverage of national security policy, most outlets toe the government policy line.
Ithaca City of Asylum co-founder Anne Emmanuelle Berger said in a video introduction sent from Paris that Ithaca’s “marginality” and “diminutive size” is why this town is a good place for writers who question power. Far from the center of decision-making, writers in humble burgs like this one have more room to breathe, free of influence and fear. The pen might be mightier than the sword, but it’s a slower-acting force that needs space and time to have its effect.
The American writer is often guilty of not using freedom to its fullest ends; we pat ourselves on the back for living somewhere oppression isn’t so blatant, and congratulate ourselves on our wit and charm while ignoring that “shabby backstreet” of our own country where most people live, to borrow a phrase from Nelson Algren.
Writers worldwide would do well to heed Samarasinghe’s words every time they crack open the laptop or set pen to paper:
“I’m very, very critical of my country not because I hate my country, but because I love my country and want it to be a better place.”
Featured photograph of Yi Ping and Lin Zhou from YouTube.