Indifference to literature?

It is hard to believe that books can still provoke demonstrations and death threats but in mid-February the 75-year-old Azeri novelist Akram Aylisli became the target of public anger reminiscent of the Rushdie fatwa. His crime?  Writing a book with unwelcome portraits of the 1994 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In the novella Stone Dreams, Aylisli recounts Azeri mistreatment of Armenians and fails − at least in the eyes of his critics − to acknowledge abuses on the other side. Asked about the controversy, a BBC correspondent in Russia said that both Armenia and Azerbaijan are “trying to control the narrative, portraying themselves as victims and the other side as aggressors” and Aylisli’s refusal to embrace this myth had prompted the hostile reception to his book.

Every year hundreds of writers are threatened, imprisoned or attacked for the peaceful expression of inconvenient political opinions. A few are well-known such as Nobel Laureates Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, or the intrepid Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, but hundreds of other writers remain largely unknown outside the countries which silence them.

How many people who don’t work in human rights or freedom of expression organisations know anything about the brutal crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press in 2001, or the steady imprisonment of Chinese dissidents, or Turkey’s use of draconian ‘insult to the state’ laws to imprison dozens of writers? Understandably few, given how little coverage these stories receive in the international press.

Our lack of knowledge about these writers has terrible consequences. When governments learn that they can prosecute or imprison critics without facing serious condemnation they rarely waste time before they silence their writers. In Cuba’s 2003 Black Spring, for instance, 29 of the 75 dissidents tried as ‘foreign agents’ and similarly nefarious ‘enemies of the state’ were working journalists.

It is slightly shameful then to see how little we value books which were written by writers who were threatened in their lifetime, or imprisoned for their beliefs. The list of prison writers in English is extremely distinguished and ranges all the way from John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe up to Oscar Wilde and William Burroughs. If other languages are included, scores of other eminent writers would appear on the list, among them the novelists Miguel de Cervantes, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Primo Levi, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Varlam Shalamov; the iconic Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler − whose novel Darkness at Noon remains one of the classic literary takedowns of Stalinism. And yet how few of us know, far less read, the work of the modern day counterparts to these writers.

Leaving censorship aside, it is saddening to see how few West Indians have read the work of what might be called our essential writers. Within the Caribbean for example, Black Jacobins, CLR James’ masterpiece on the Haitian Revolution ought to be required reading in every household – as the Bible and the works of Shakespeare used to be in England. But often it can be difficult to find a copy in many island bookstores, nor any of James’ other wonderful books on cricket, literature and politics. Within Guyana, too few of us have read canonical writers such as Martin Carter (another imprisoned author) and Wilson Harris, nor the work of more accessible writers such as Edgar Mittelholzer and Roy Heath – not to mention the host of younger writers who have barely been noticed during the last 30 years.

Admittedly this is often not a deliberate choice and has more to do with the absence of local publishers, proper libraries and school curricula, but it is a failing that could be rectified fairly easily in the age of digital publishing, especially if the lack of appreciation for local writers were taken more seriously, and not just by politicians but by the general public.

There is a popular adage that is usually attributed to Mark Twain – mistakenly, according to scholars who use literary databases to check these things − which warns us that ‘The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.’ It is a pity that this probably wasn’t said by the man William Faulkner would later honour as “the father of American literature” but it remains a timely reminder that local literatures can only ever be as valuable, and engaged, as contemporary readers wish to make them.

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