Poet in the City and Amnesty International organised an event in London on 15 November to highlight the connections between poets and poetry and human rights abuses. Hosted by Helena Kennedy, the distinguished human rights barrister, Tortured language: the poetry of human rights featured readings by three celebrated poets: Jack Mapanje, Yang Lian and Choman Hardi.
openDemocracy presents profiles of these three poets, plus an excerpt from Helena Kennedys introduction to the event, and exclusive audio clips of the poetry readings, which includes the poetry of Shi Tao, a Chinese poet and activist recently arrested by his government.
Excerpt from the introduction by Helena Kennedy:
Jack Mapanje, Yang Lian and Choman Hardi are three poets who really speak to the values of human rights. They really did have the courage (that often we dont have) to make those great courageous stands, but they have really taken language and used it as a way of connecting and of speaking to the pain that people can suffer.
Because human rights are really about knowing what it will mean to have your freedom taken away; what it will mean to be tortured; to use our imaginations to imagine the other; to imagine the horror of certain experiences that may be outside of our own; to imagine the indignity and shame of some of the things we saw happening recently in Abu Ghraib; the horror of exile and separation from people you love; the pain of being beaten by someone who is your partner in life all that human suffering that we can know and understand by just reaching into our own imagination.
So I want to turn to three great poets who are going to share their experience through their work through language with us tonight. And I know that we will take it with us as we go.
Shi Tao (read by Yang Lian):
I come from Malawi and I have been living in the UK for 14 years. I was imprisoned in my country for 3 years, 7 months and 16 days for nothing, effectively, as I was not put on trial or charged.
I was teaching at the University of Malawi, and then became head of the English department. I think someone thought I was getting a bit too ambitious! I have tried now for 14 years to find out why I was arrested, as I dont think I was a threat at all I had no real interest in politics.
But I think now that the problem was the presidents mistress. Around the time of my arrest, Hastings Banda, the president, had pretty much become senile. His mistress and her extended family were basically ruling the country. The principal at my college was the mistress brother, and her uncle was the chairman. Anybody who appeared to be clever was seen to be a threat. And if you were published, it was even worse.
I was not the first person to be arrested and detained without trial in my country. 10 years before I was arrested there had been a spate of arrests of academics. It has been almost 20 years now since my imprisonment, and Ive put together my stories and I am writing it up as a memoir.
I have discovered various things that happened during my imprisonment, including a letter written by Hastings Banda, which was a reply to a campaign letter sent by the University of Edinburgh about my imprisonment. I have managed to obtain the original copy of Bandas letter, and this is what he had to say:
Members of staff, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Your letter of appeal on behalf of Jack Mapanje was received. It is not necessary for me to burden you with a lengthy reply but if you must know the facts, teachers here who stick to their professional work of teaching students are not interfered with by anyone. Jack Mapanje has taught at a college for a number of years without doing anything wrong, just like all his colleagues, whether Africans or Europeans. But after all these years he changed his mind for his own personal reasons and he started using the classroom as a forum for subversive politics. This cannot and will never be permitted in this country, particularly in the University of Malawi. Therefore he had to be picked out and detained. This is Malawi in Africa and not any other country. Things have to be done according to the conditions and circumstances in Malawi, Africa. Signed, H. Kamuzu Banda.
Before I was released the post office was getting up to three bags of mail everyday and all of that was for me! And at that time they said to me, where did you get all these friends? In Africa protests came from Soweto to north Africa, and in the world from anywhere you pick letters were coming in from everywhere, so they were embarrassed. Banda by that time was just exhausted and, because of all the international pressure, there was no choice but to let me go.
My point is this: the struggle, the fight, the letters that you write, these do bother dictators.
|Listen to Jack Mapanje read Skipping Without Ropes (2.52mins)|
Skipping Without Ropes
I will, I will skip without your rope
Since you say I should not, I cannot
Borrow your sons skipping rope to
Exercise my limbs; I will skip without
Your rope as you say, even the lace
I want will hang my neck until I die;
I will create my own rope, my own
Hope and skip without your rope as
You insist I do not require to stretch
My limbs fixed by these fevers of your
Reeking sweat and your prison walls;
I will, will skip with my forged hope;
Watch, watch me skip without your
Rope; watch me skip with my hope
A-one, a-two, a-three, a-four, a-five
I will, a-seven, I do, will skip, a-ten,
Eleven, I will skip without, will skip
Within and skip I do without your
Rope but with my hope; and I will,
Will always skip you dull, will skip
Your silly rules, skip your filthy walls,
You weevil pigeon peas, skip your
Scorpions, skip your Excellency Life
Glory. I do, you dont, I can, you cant,
I will, you wont, I see, you dont, I
Sweat, you dont, I will, will wipe my
Gluey brow then wipe you at a stroke
I will, will wipe your horrid, stinking,
Vulgar prison rules, will wipe you all
The hop about, hop about my cell, my
Home, the mountains, my globe as your
Sparrow hops about your prison yard
Without your hope, without your rope,
I swear, I will skip without your rope, I
Declare, I will have you take me to your
Showers to bathe me where I can resist
This singing child you want to shape me,
Ill fight your rope, your rules, your hope
As your sparrow does under your super-
vision! Guards! Take us for a shower!
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|Listen to Jack Mapanje read Seasons Greetings For Celia (BC) (3.33mins)|
Seasons Greetings For Celia (BC)
They say when God closes one door
He opens a window to let in the sun,
Celia, your seasons greeting arrived
In time of despair, after I had sighed
My life out by signing the Detention
Order insisted upon by my Life President,
who wants us to rot, rot, rot forever
In this prison, but your white and red
Roses invoke that War of the Roses I
Battled to comprehend to achieve my
A-Levels; the green English landscape
Summons the Romantics I explored
Under the billowing smoke of paraffin
Tin-can lamps once upon the tough terrain
I thought I had left behind; and how did
You hope to be remembered when you
Mark your name merely as Celia (BC)?
If the parentheticals are the British Council,
10 Spring Gardens, London, I recall no one
By that name there; my British Council
Programme organiser with whom I shared
My London Magazine poems was called
Sheila, I think, and why, why of all those
Bags and bags of protest mail which harass
The Post Office Sorting Centre everyday,
As oblique couriers convey, why did only
Your postcard from London and another
From The Hague choose to slip past our
Strict mail sorters at this crucial moment,
What bribe did you provide the Office-in-
Charge of prison for him to chance me to
His office to peruse your mail from over-
seas, defying the edict from the life-despot
And risking his life and mine? No matter.
Your seasons greetings Celia have thawed
Our anguish furnishing these rancid prison
Walls with much sought after night jasmine;
Now the cliché glowers: somewhere some-
one we do not know cares and that dear
Celia is all the prisoner needs to know!
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I was born in Beijing, and I started writing poetry during the Cultural Revolution. My work became more well-known during the 1980s, partly because I was involved in a new movement of a modern style of poetry writing. But, despite the interesting new poetry, China during the 1980s was still a deeply flawed place, and, until 1989, lacked any real political and cultural introspection.
In 1988 I was invited by the Australian Arts Council and Auckland University to join a year-long writers program. So I was actually in New Zealand at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre (4 June 1989). But, from where I was in New Zealand, I led many campaigns about it. It did mean that at the end of 1989 all my books were banned in China, and that effectively was the start of my exile. Since then I have travelled around the world, and finally settled in London in 1997. I am also now a New Zealand citizen, so I can go back to China, but as a foreigner!
It is difficult to be a poet-in- exile. You are far away from your own country, your friends, and your readers. But, to be in exile is also a very positive thing, as you have been forced (some of it based on your own choices) to be purely individual and to really think about the reason why you write. It is really important to develop your writing based on new experiences, and this adds hugely to the strength of the poet.
Being in China in the 1980s was very important for me, as I went through a crucial process of developing my own thought. My friends and I were questioning everything reality, history, tradition, language, the self, and on each of these levels we would go back to the root of culture, and of life. This way of thinking and writing, and constant analysis was very healthy for my mind.
For many people in the west, China is still an exotic fantasy, a strange, faraway country. They cannot understand China, but somehow those people will never understand themselves.
Writing poetry is what I do, and it is the root of my entire mind. Poetry is self-discovery, and I treat it as a journey to seeking myself and a way of connecting to others. My new book Concentric Circles, took me three years to complete. It is based on that idea of concentric circles, which could represent lots of things China and the rest of the world, history and the present, myself and others, language and realities all these things are concentric circles, and at the centre of this is the question of poetry. Its philosophical but, at the same time, very real, as its based on my own life experiences. At the end, what I have done in my poetry is maybe the best part of it.
Poetry is the root of all language and culture. If you knew how exciting Chinese poetry websites are, especially compared to western ones, then you will see that poetry has never left young Chinese people. Even so, publishing is getting more and more commercial. But websites do play a very important role. For instance, I just directed a large web discussion between a group of English poets and Chinese poets. We were up in an Arts Centre in Scotland and linked up with a literary website in China, and hundreds of people took part, and we had over 600 questions in 3 hours! I have always been a bit wary of the internet, but I have been getting more involved with online projects, and now I am even building my own website!
So, would I ever go back to China? I feel now that the borders are not so important, and that shared ideas are much more important. So now, I wont go back to the old China, but the new China which is against the government. I want to be able to support these people.
I am always trying to push for change in China on all sorts of levels, but especially political and cultural. China has already gone through enormous change and, thankfully, some of the changes have been very good. Even now, with an ever-increasing commercialism, individual consciousness has been woken up. There are a lot of young writers and young people who now have access to more open information, and they are doing some really interesting things. There are political movements held by peasants and workers, and there are millions of people now who understand these actions.
A lot of people, especially the cold war ideologists, had this theory that communists could never run an economy well. So now, with a lot of economic success, China has become this weird case: a communist system with a growing economy. How did this happen? Is the theory wrong or is China just special? China is not special, and the theory was right. What has happened is that as capitalists, China and the Chinese government are behaving even worse than they were as socialists. Look at the new rich, and how terrible the lives of the new poor are, and it is actually much worse than it ever was.
So its our responsibility, not only Chinas but the wests too, to fight against the union of selfish interest and individuality, and to fight for unity between humanity and individuality. This is the new reality that we are facing.
|Listen to Yang Lian read 1989 in Chinese, and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (2.45mins)|
who says the dead can embrace?
like fine horses