Tortured language: the poetry of human rights

About the authors
Choman Hardi is a poet and painter. She was the chair of Exiled Writers' Ink, a community of established refugee writers who write in English and other languages.
Jack Mapanje was born in Malawi in 1944. While he was head of the English department at the University of Malawi, he was imprisoned without trial for over three and a half years. His first collection of poems was Of Chameleons and Gods (1981). His other works include The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison (1993) which was composed while he was in prison, and Skipping without Ropes (1998). His latest book is The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New & Selected Poems (2004). He is currently an academic at Newcastle University and is planning to write his memoirs.
openDemocracy brings you this special feature.
Yang Lian is a Chinese poet who co-founded the influential literary magazine Jintian. He has been in exile since 1989, and now lives in London. Among his books is Where the Sea Stands Still(1999).

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 Kennedy’s 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 don’t 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.

* * *

Quick links

Jack Mapanje:

  • Skipping Without Ropes
  • Season’s Greetings For Celia (BC)
  • Yang Lian:

  • 1989
  • Banned poem
  • London
  • Choman Hardi:

  • At the border, 1979
  • My father’s books
  • My mother’s kitchen
  • Summer roof
  • Shi Tao (read by Yang Lian):

  • June
  • Pain
  • Jack Mapanje

    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 don’t think I was a threat at all – I had no real interest in politics.

    But I think now that the problem was the president’s 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 I’ve 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 Banda’s 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.

    Jack Mapanje
    Jack Mapanje, photographed by Kyna Gourley
    Back to top

    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 son’s 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 don’t, I can, you can’t,

    I will, you won’t, I see, you don’t, I
    Sweat, you don’t, 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,
    I’ll fight your rope, your rules, your hope
    As your sparrow does under your super-
    vision! Guards! Take us for a shower!

    Back to top

    Listen to Jack Mapanje read “Season’s Greetings For Celia (BC)” (3.33mins)

    Season’s Greetings For Celia (BC)

    They say when God closes one door
    He opens a window to let in the sun,

    Celia, your season’s 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 season’s 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!

    Back to top

    Yang Lian

    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. It’s philosophical but, at the same time, very real, as it’s 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 won’t 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 it’s our responsibility, not only China’s but the west’s 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.

    Yang Lian
    Yang Lian, photographed by Kyna Gourley
    Back to top

    Listen to Yang Lian read “1989” in Chinese, and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (2.45mins)

    1989

    who says the dead can embrace?
    like fine horses manes silver grey
    standing outside the window in the freezing moonlight
    the dead are buried in the days of the past
    in days not long past madmen were tied onto beds
    rigid as iron nails
    pinning down the timbers of darkness
    the coffin lid each day closing over like this

    who says the dead are dead and gone? the dead
    enclosed in the vagrancy of their final days
    are the masters of forever
    four portraits of themselves on four walls
    butchery yet again blood
    is still the only famous landscape
    slept into the tomb they were lucky but they wake again in
    a tomorrow the birds fear even more
    this is no doubt a perfectly ordinary year

    Back to top

    Listen to Yang Lian read “Banned poem” in Chinese, and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (2.19mins)

    Banned poem

    to die at thirty-five is already too late
    you should have been executed in the womb
    like your poem no need
    for a sheet of white paper to be your grave

    children are not permitted to be born
    lock up their hands in crime
    fingers rot like snakes coiled in winter sleep
    eyes rot escaping the tempest that bites
    your face at first touch is a current of water
    bones tracing out white scars line by line

    it’s a shoal of eels down in the deep waters of the flesh
    threading through white seaweed
    among still-paler shouts you hear only darkness
    coldly wiped clean by another hand
    coolly turned into a misprint
    placenta wrapping you ever tighter
    your last words dying with you

    to die today
    is to be turned into a stinking news story

    Back to top

    Listen to Yang Lian read “London” in Chinese, and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (3.56mins)

    London

    reality is part of my nature
    spring has accepted the overflowing green of the dead again
    streets accept more funerals which are blacker beneath the flowers
    red phone boxes in the rain like a warning
    time is part of the internal organs bird voices
    open every rustling face in the benches
    watching night’s eyes a prolonged flying accident
    when yet another day is blotted out London

    write out all my madness lick out all the brown beer’s froth
    the bell’s toll in the little bird’s brain vibrates like a gloomy verse unemployed
    city is part of the word the most terrifying part of me
    showing my insignificance accepting
    blue mildewed sheepskin slip-cover outside the window
    sheep meat’s memory diligently binding
    its own death dying in the unconvulsing lens
    when between two pages of newsprint is a grave behind the grave is the ocean



    Back to top

    Choman Hardi

    My father is a poet, and so poetry wasn’t new to me. I started writing poetry when I was 20, here in Britain, and that’s when I fell in love with it.

    Kurdish is my mother tongue, and so it was natural for me to write in that language. I tried to translate some of my poems but they really didn’t work! Kurdish belongs to a very different literary tradition – it’s a lot more colourful, elaborate and abstract, whereas contemporary English poetry is very understated, and quiet. So when I first started to write poetry in English five years ago, I was still following the Kurdish tradition, but as I read more contemporary English poetry it gradually changed.

    Languages also have this tendency of switching, and the language that you use more becomes more active. Gradually, English has become a much stronger language for me. But it’s important to keep Kurdish alive and to give it cultural life, to reach out when nobody knows about our story. I still have people asking me “Why can’t you settle down in Iraq and Turkey, what’s your problem?” Poetry can do what journalism and history cannot; it can really bring back those little things which really make up a person’s relations, it gives you the bigger picture.

    I went back to Kurdistan about two and a half years ago. It’s a bit of a difficult relationship with the homeland. There is a poem in my book that describes it:

    “places we come from / stay in our memory / they haunt us and appear in our dreams / forever tempting us to go back / only to drive us away when we get there.”

    You’re always idolising your homeland and when you get there, you’re disappointed, and you want to run away, but then after a few years you want to go back. So there’s this constant cyclical push, but really, that place you left will never exist again. That world is gone, and you keep searching for it, thinking that when you go back you’ll find it, but you never do.

    Writing in a second language is also a form of distancing. Nostalgia is very difficult in poetry: strong emotions can really turn people off. It’s important to have a bit of distance in time and space, and using another language will allow you to write about it a bit more neutrally. It’s important to distinguish between poetry that is emotional and poetry that is informed by emotion.

    Emotional poetry is like people shouting in your face, but poetry informed by emotion is where emotion is infiltrated into the poem in a more subtle way. And that’s what I try to do, I try to capture in words all the myths that make up this nation, the Kurds; our identity; what do we think of ourselves; the stories and legends. I might forget it myself in twenty years time, so I can always look back and say “that’s why I did that.”

    Choman Hardi
    Choman Hardi, photographed by Kyna Gourley
    Back to top

    Listen to Choman Hardi read “At the border” (2.12mins)

    At the border, 1979

    ‘It is your last check-in point in this country!’
    We grabbed a drink –
    soon everything would taste different.

    The land divided by our feet continued
    divided by a thick iron chain.

    My sister put her leg across it.
    ‘Look over here,’ she said to us,
    ‘my right leg is in this country
    and my left leg is in the other.’
    The border guards told her off.

    My mother informed me: We are going home.
    She said that the roads are much cleaner
    the landscape is more beautiful
    and people are much kinder.

    Dozens of families waited in the rain.
    ‘I can inhale home,’ somebody said.
    Now our mothers were crying. I was five years old
    standing by the check-in point
    comparing both sides of the border.

    The autumn soil continued on the other side
    with the same colour, the same texture.
    It rained on both sides of the chain.

    We waited while our papers were checked,
    our faces thoroughly inspected.
    Then the chain was removed to let us through.
    A man bent down and kissed his muddy homeland.
    The same chain of mountains encompassed all of us.

    Back to top

    Listen to Choman Hardi read “My father’s books” (1.44mins)

    My father’s books

    It was autumn 1988
    when my father’s books dispersed.
    One by one they came off the shelves,
    cleaned themselves of his signature
    and grouped, choosing different fates.

    The books with conscience divided.
    The stubborn ones set themselves alight,
    too rebellious in their objection
    they chose death over a life in the dark.

    The others preferred a hiding place.
    Hoping to see the light again
    they packed themselves into a luggage bag,
    buried themselves in the back garden,
    to be recovered many years later
    crumpled, eaten by the damp.

    The rest chose more stable homes
    where they wouldn’t be abandoned again.
    They shone on other people’s shelves
    keeping their secret to themselves.

    Back to top

    Listen to Choman Hardi read “My mother’s kitchen” (1.53mins)

    My mother’s kitchen

    I will inherit my mother’s kitchen.
    Her glasses, some tall and lean, others short and fat,
    her plates, and ugly collection from various sets,
    cups bought in a rush on different occasions,
    rusty pots she can’t bear throwing away.
    ‘Don’t buy anything just yet,’ she says,
    ‘soon all of this will be yours.’

    My mother is planning another escape,
    for the first time home is her destination,
    the rebuilt house which she will furnish.
    At 69 she is excited about
    starting from scratch.
    It’s her ninth time.

    She never talks about her lost furniture
    when she keep leaving her homes behind.
    She never feels regret for things,
    only for her vine in the front garden
    which spread over the trellis on the porch.
    She used to sing for the grapes to ripen
    sew cotton bags to protect them from the bees.
    I know I will never inherit my mother’s trees.

    Back to top

    Listen to Choman Hardi read “Summer roof” (1.50mins)

    Summer roof

    Every night that summer
    when we went to bed on the flat roof,
    I stayed awake
    watching the opposite roof
    where he was,
    a tiny light turning on
    every time he puffed his cigarette.

    Once I was shown his paintings
    and I went home
    and wrote his name all over my books.

    I kept imagining what he would say,
    how I would respond.
    I imagined being married to him,
    looking after him when he fell ill,
    cooking for him and washing his hair.
    I imagined him sleeping on the same roof.

    A whole year went by and we never talked
    then suddenly an empty house opposite us,
    an empty roof not staring back
    and sleepless nights for me.

    Years later we met again
    the same man with a few fingers missing,
    bad tempered, not able to paint.

    We never spoke,
    we remained on our separate roofs.

    Back to top

    Shi Tao

    Listen to Yang Lian read Shi Tao’s poem “June,” and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (1.28mins)

    June

    My whole life

    Will never get past “June”
    June, when my heart died
    when my poetry died
    When my lover
    Died in an abandoned pool of blood

    June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
    Revealing the true nature of my wound
    June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
    Toward another place to hibernate
    June, the earth changes shape, the river falls silent
    Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead

    9 June, 2004

    Back to top

    “Pain,” by Shi Tao (text unavailable)

    Listen to Yang Lian read Shi Tao’s poem “June,” and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (2.45mins)

    On 24 November 2004, Shi Tao, a 37 year-old Chinese writer, poet and journalist was detained at his home in Shanxi province and later charged with “illegally divulging state secrets abroad.” His “crime” was to notify overseas media contacts of a central government order forbidding media organisations in China from commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This was subsequently reported on an overseas website.

    On 30 April 2005 Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. His appeal was rejected on 2 June and he has since been held in Changsha prison in Hunan province.

    For more information on Shi Tao and to help the campaign for his release please visit Amnesty International.

    Back to top

    The English translation of Yang Lian and Shi Tao’s poems is performed by Peter Forbes, a distinguished English Shakespearian actor who has just completed a season of “A Winter’s Tale” at the Globe Theatre.

    * * *

    With special thanks to Graham Henderson of Poet in the City

    Quick links

    Jack Mapanje:

  • Skipping Without Ropes
  • Season’s Greetings For Celia (BC)
  • Yang Lian:

  • 1989
  • Banned poem
  • London
  • Choman Hardi:

  • At the border, 1979
  • My father’s books
  • My mother’s kitchen
  • Summer roof
  • Shi Tao (read by Yang Lian):

  • June
  • Pain