Jailed Writers Can’t Be Silenced
Writing, like other compulsions, can be dangerous for your health. It can bring fame and fortune, which is bad enough – Pen a hard truth and you also face calumny, imprisonment and death.
The Miami Book Fair closes this Sunday, a celebration of the written word, that also reminds, through writers like Chris Abani, that literature’s rewards can be harsh.
At 18, Abani was imprisoned by the Nigerian regime on charges that his first novel inspired a coup. Years later, in Daphne’s Lot, he wrote: “I still have a bullet found as a child and carried / for luck, a warning worn smooth by worry.”
It’s a familiar story. In March 2003, the Cuban government arrested 75 writers and dissidents and charged them with ”endangering the state’s independence.” Some, including the poet Raul Rivero, were soon released.
Fifty-nine still remain in detention, among them: Normando Hernandez Gonzalez, 37. His health deteriorating from diseases contracted in prison, Hernandez was moved in September to a military hospital. ”He’s dropped to 52 kilos,” said his mother Blanca Gonzalez, of Hialeah. “He’s very skinny, but has tremendous spirit.”
The spirit is partly inherited: Blanca’s brother was a political prisoner in the 1970s. ”His arrest affected my son deeply,” she said. “The suffering grew in him.”
In a statement smuggled out of prison, Hernandez wrote: “The direct and indirect provocations have never gone away, they come from all sides, from State Security agents, jailers, thugs, other prisoners, and lackeys, and the only thing these poor devils have accomplished is to reaffirm my idealism, my patriotism, and make me a slave of my own dignity.”
Last April, PEN American awarded him the Barbara Goldsmith Award to bring attention to his story. But international pressure has so far yielded little. Cuba recently rejected a Costa Rican offer to grant Hernandez a visa.
Cuba hardly stands alone. In the first six months of this year, PEN International looked into more than 700 similar stories worldwide. It recently released a case list that runs to 80 pages of tiny script.
Of special concern, the organization noted, were the high number of writers killed from January to June: 39. Eighteen of those were Iraqi journalists and translators, many of whom have come under threat for their work on behalf of American troops.
More than 200 writers were in detention worldwide during the same period, most of them in Asia, including 39 in China. The Americas and Africa follow close behind with more than 30 writers in jail. Most are held by Cuba and Eritrea.
Many friends of the United States also make a habit of harassing writers, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (go to www.internationalpen.org.uk for the report).
When they are released, prisoners face poor health. Many are ostracized. The best definition of a dissident is someone whose beliefs make him a hero abroad and a pariah at home.
Most people would rather disappear quietly into the great consensus. Dissenters are those rare creatures driven by a combination of idealism, naiveté and madness.
PEN American and PEN International have funds to support jailed writers around the world. Go to www.pen.org for more information. This year, PEN American also has a booth at the book fair, where I and other writers will be.
Abani, a past winner of PEN’s Freedom-to-Write award, reads this Sunday at 11 a.m. with Ana Castillo and Margaret Cezair-Thompson.