Edinburgh World Writers' Conference » Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org The website for the 2012-13 Edinburgh World Writers' Conference Thu, 31 Oct 2013 16:37:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.5.2 The Southernmost Edge of the EWWC – Margo Lanagan reports from an “exhilarating” Melbourne http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/the-southernmost-edge-of-the-ewwc-margo-lanagan-reports-from-an-exhilarating-melbourne/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/the-southernmost-edge-of-the-ewwc-margo-lanagan-reports-from-an-exhilarating-melbourne/#comments Wed, 04 Sep 2013 14:56:36 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5413 Last year I was immensely privileged to attend five days of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Edinburgh. What writers, what brains, what passions were brought to those five days! It was all very stimulating—perhaps slightly too much to digest in such a short time, on top of the normal adrenalin of a book festival and of being on the other side of the world, and in the beautiful city of Edinburgh for the first time, and I was glad that it was all recorded and put up online for later digestion and consideration.

Last Friday I managed to get along to two of the five sessions of a more condensed version of the Conference, presented all in one day in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival. The sessions were held in the Deakin Edge, part of the Federation Square complex in the central business district and a great venue, bigger and airier than the Edinburgh marquee, with trams and Yarra Bank trees visible beyond the talking heads and bodies of the presenters and Auslan interpreters.

The first session I went to was Censorship Today, Censorship Tomorrow, where writer and lawyer Larissa Behrendt gave the keynote, and Ali Alizadeh then ran the discussion between Larissa and Scottish poet John Burnside, who had been a very vocal part of the proceedings in Edinburgh—and of whose poetry I’ve been a fan for several years. I took scads of notes for the purposes of this blog post. How to condense them into something meaningful?

Well, the difference from Edinburgh was immediately obvious with the acknowledgements of the original custodians of the land, and it was the many issues surrounding the silencing and marginalisation of Indigenous points of view that dominated the session. These are vital matters in Australia today, with many writers feeling a strong taboo around the use, and possible misuse, of Indigenous cultural material in their work.

Larissa talked about three powerful kinds of censorship: the first was the cultural erasure practiced by colonial and assimilationist Australia on Indigenous people in the past. Indigenous children still face stark disadvantages in education and career prospects, and it’s difficult for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities to maintain their cultures when they are denied tools such as literacy and numeracy and taught not to aspire to progress to tertiary education. Larissa applauds the ongoing drive in ATSI communities, despite this powerfully antagonistic history, to continue telling Indigenous stories in written (fictional and factual), visual art, craft, dance and film form.

The second kind of censorship was all the forces operating to keep non-Indigenous Australia steadfastly uninterested in hearing Indigenous narratives. She wished that past practices of child removal and cultural genocide could be told to Australian schoolchildren, so that more Australians could see what Indigenous people face, and echoed Tony Birch in urging white Australia to take ownership of its colonial past. In the face of strong assertions of the Indigenous experience such as the Bringing Them Home report and the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, she said, which show us a history that’s difficult to face, we should not fall silent, or fall back on the contested statistics thrown up by the ‘history wars’, or distract ourselves with semantic arguments about the competing non-Indigenous narratives about our past.

In pursuit of a more healthy debate about Indigenous matters, and one that includes Indigenous points of view directly, Larissa urged non-Indigenous Australians, particularly writers, to get over the third kind of censorship, our self-censorship when it comes to including Indigenous characters and matters in their fiction. ‘Writers with talent can write from any perspective,’ she said.

The pursuit of absolute authenticity is important if we choose an Indigenous perspective, and in the light of our general ignorance about Indigenous history and culture it’s very difficult to get it right. But—and this to me was the most powerful message of the address—blowing it isn’t the worst thing we can do. Larissa talked about the effect on her of reading Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. Though it depicted well a black man torn apart by exposure to the possibilities available to whites and the limitations imposed on him by his black skin, she felt it presented very one-dimensional Indigenous women—yet she was glad he had written and published it, because it gave her more to think about in terms of her gender and her race, more provocation to articulate her own views. It is better to have these gifts of brave, thoughtful, imaginative and uncensored writers out there, she said, than to present Australians, white and black, with a frightened silence.

‘Talented writers translate, interpret and hold a mirror up, and that is why they are so very, very threatening,’ she finished, and her clear implication was that we should get out there and be as threatening as we could.

During the discussion, which elaborated and extended this message (with John Burnside drawing parallels with the Norwegian Sami people and with his own working-class upbringing in Scotland) and explored ways in which non-Indigenous Australians might be engaged in listening Aboriginal stories, Larissa further suggested that writers shouldn’t sit down with a political agenda. The best writing would come from our trying to tell the best story we could. ‘Write for the story and passion; don’t try to…write propaganda,’ she said, just try to arrive at the particular truth the story is leading you to.

In response to Paddy O’Reilly‘s question about offensiveness (Is part of a writer’s role to not be afraid to offend people?), Larissa talked a lot about writers coming from ‘a position of good’. A greater debate can happen, she said, when you try to work out a situation from a position of good. She decried the ‘crippling of [non-Indigenous] people of goodwill’, the ‘concerning silencing’ of them/us. We shouldn’t deal ourselves out of debates about Aboriginal people; because we are the dominant culture, we have the greater responsibility to keep the conversation going, so self-censorship becomes almost an abrogation of responsibility.

Her goal isn’t to keep Australia as an ‘us and them’ society. All Australian people, she says, should see Aboriginal culture and history as our own culture and history. Honest questions shouldn’t be shut down because people find them offensive. The debate has become bland because a lot of good people have dealt themselves out of it for fear of offending.

This was an exhilarating session—particularly for a writer whose latest novel had mired itself in just this complex of issues. Both the keynote and the discussion went right to the heart of one of the most significant issues of censorship in this country today.

The other session I went to was the one I was a participant in, along with the brilliant Scottish writer Kirsty Gunn, with Francesca Rendle-Short doing a top job of steering us through the shoals that awaited us in the discussion of Style vs. Content. Kirsty’s keynote was a strong assertion of the primacy of form, form ‘which gives birth to style and content’, while I hummed and hawed about form and style being more or less the same thing, but operating on different scales in a work. It’s always fascinating to see how other writers think about what they’re doing, and how much you can’t actually glean from a reading of their work. It was stunning to me, for example, to hear Kirsty talk about the impossibility of dealing with character, of truly inhabiting another human’s consciousness, after having read, in the previous week or so, her novel The Big Music, whose characters live and breathe so believably on the page—or within the stack of files of which the narrative is built—that it becomes almost impossible to believe in the story as a fiction.

The audience questions kicked us along into other territory—the influence of editors, the making of sentences, what constituted tone and voice—but it all stayed within the realm of what was useful to a working writer in thinking about these different components of the writing. I still hold to my sense that they are mostly useful for diagnostic purposes when the writing falls over and I need to identify which part isn’t functioning, that when I’m in full flow, thinking about style and content, let alone style versus content can be not only pointless but inhibiting. But it was all fascinating to explore, especially in tandem with such an intelligence as Kirsty’s, and under such gentle but shrewd guidance as Francesca provided.

I had hoped to hear great things about the panel on A Post-National Literature, which I thought was a particularly crucial topic in an Australian context, but I heard from a friend who was able to attend it that not a lot was ventured in the way of general pronouncements, which was disappointing.

However, overall, the Australian EWWC did a pretty good job of giving some by now fairly well-worn discussions fresh flavour and juice, and rounded off the conference neatly.

Copyright: Margo Lanagan, August 2013

Were you at EWWC Melbourne? Have your say below!

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BEHRENDT & BURNSIDE – Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-burnside-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-burnside-censorship-today/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 13:30:10 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5103 Melbourne Writers' Festival 2013 Friday 23 August 10:00am AEST Censorship Today Keynotes: Larissa Behrendt & John Burnside Chaired by: Ali Alizadeh]]> BEHRENDT-&-BURNSIDEMelbourne Writers Festival 2013

Friday 23 August 10:00am AEST

Censorship Today

Keynote: Larissa Behrendt joined by John Burnside
Chair: Ali Alizadeh

Author Biographies:

Prof. Larissa Behrendt is the Professor of Law and Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. She has published numerous textbooks on Indigenous legal issues. She is a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and a founding member of the Australian Academy of Law. Her most recent book is Indigenous Australia for Dummies.  Larissa wrote and directed the feature film, Innocence Betrayed.

Larissa won the 2002 David Uniapon Award and a 2005 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for her novel Home. Her second novel, Legacy, was released in October 2009.  Larissa is Chair of the Bangarra Dance Theatre and a board member of NSW Museums and Galleries. She is the Ambassador of the Guwara Aboriginal Campus at St. Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney and a board member of the Sydney Story Factory, a literacy program in Redfern. She was awarded the 2009 NAIDOC Person of the Year award and 2011 NSW Australian of the Year.

John Burnside‘s last two books were the novel, A Summer of Drowning, shortlisted for the 2001 Costa Prize, and his poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, which won both the 2011 Forward Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. His latest book is Something Like Happy.

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Behrendt in Australia – Keynote on Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-in-australia-keynote-on-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/behrendt-in-australia-keynote-on-censorship-today/#comments Fri, 23 Aug 2013 12:01:16 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5323 1-behrendtlCensorship Today

Keynote address given by Larissa Behrendt

First presented at Melbourne Writers Festival 2013


Larissa Behrendt keynote text: “Censorship Today, Censorship Tomorrow”

At the end of Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, there is a powerful image of a colonial mansion, the new home of ex-convict-turned wealthy land-owner, William Thornhill and his family, being built on rock that has a sacred Aboriginal carving of a whale on it. The house represents the wealth of the new settlers, those who have conquered the Australian landscape, made their fortune and built their future here. The foundations of the house are the Aboriginal people and their culture.

The power of Grenville’s metaphor is that she preserves the Aboriginal presence and connection to land. It is not destroyed in the face of the on-coming colonisation; it is buried. Although it lies hidden, one day, when the civilisation eventually crumbles, the rock with its carved etching, will once more be revealed, the ancient connection to land continuing.

It is easy, when thinking of censorship, to think first of legal definitions. But Grenville’s image evokes a broader, more complex reflection on the concepts of silencing, one that goes beyond the arbitrary and shifting concepts within the dominant legal system. What lies hidden beneath and unseen – like the foundations under a stone house – is also silenced.

Winners vanquish losers; we all know they write history. But each instance of conquest has its own historical peculiarities, its own legacies. And within those historical distinct events and repercussions are a multitude of experiences, the plethora of stories. Some of those stories triumph and become canonical. Others are supressed, still handed down from parent to child and transmitted amongst subgroups and subcultures, but outside of the dominant national narrative.

The capacity of Indigenous people to tell their own stories was impeded in several complicating ways as part of the process of the colonisation of Australia. As an oral culture, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures relied upon transmission from generation to generation through stories, ceremony, dance, music and art. The high mortality rate from introduced diseases, the processes of dispossession, dislocation and relocation, and the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families, are all factors that made the continuing transmission of these oral traditions difficult, especially in the areas where colonisation was most aggressive.

And secondly, while the removal of Aboriginal children was supposed to give them the advantages of dominant culture, education levels were appalling and Aboriginal young people, no matter what their talents, were ear-marked for manual labour. Boys were to work on cattle stations; girls were to work as domestic servants. Among all of the insidious ways a peoples can be colonised, denying them the tools that allow them to communicate in the imposed and dominant culture is one of the most effective in disenfranchising, disempowering and continually marginalising them.

Literacy rates in Australia have improved gradually but even today there is a large gap between the literacy rates of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students emerges early. Non-Indigenous students out-perform Indigenous students in benchmark tests for reading, writing and numeracy in Year 3 and Year 5. By Year 7, the gap has widened, even more so for numeracy and competency in science. As Indigenous children get older, the gap continues to widen. Indigenous students are 2.2% of the population in the age groups that can engage in higher education yet Indigenous students make up only 1.3% of student numbers. While 82% of all Australian students enter tertiary education through their previous educational attainments, only 46% of Indigenous students enter university this way. The gaps in their earlier education mean that Indigenous students often have to do additional studies to be able to enter university. It is not a matter of the students not being clever enough for tertiary studies but they were denied the shortest pathway and come to university studies later in life and through a more circuitous route.

The resilience of living cultures must frustrate those hell-bent on assimilation or achieving a cultural hegemony. Attempts to assimilate – no matter how extreme or how subtle – often have the opposite effect. They further bind an identified and persecuted group through a shared suffering and its associated experiences and trauma. Discrimination only succeeds in reinforcing difference, in testing attachment to culture and reinforces a sense of identity.

Attempts to reintroduce marginalised voices into the dominant narrative are not always welcome. My grandmother was removed under the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their parents. Her experiences as a ward of the state – and my father’s childhood in an orphanage – inspired my first novel, Home. Growing up, I was surrounded by other children, well-meaning but innocently ignorant of these historical practices of separating Aboriginal children from their families as part of a policy of assimilation. Their views were sometimes crudely racist and often lacking in empathy. I had always thought that if Australian children were taught this history, it would increase the understanding of the issues facing Indigenous people. Even if it would not win people over to the Indigenous point of view, at least it would explain why Indigenous people face the issues we face and why we have the political agenda we have.

But the response to the publication of the Bringing them Home report – the detailed national investigation into the extent and impact of the children removal policy – was instructive and sobering. The official response was to dismiss the report by saying that “only one in ten” Indigenous people were removed, that the term “cultural genocide” was too emotive and that, whatever the report concluded, the motivation for the removal of children was often done with the best of intentions and for the best interests of the children involved.

Aboriginal poet, novelist and historian, Tony Birch, wrote of this response to the Bringing them Home report:

Indigenous communities across Australia have become the memory bank of white Australia’s violence by proxy. It is time for white Australia to take over that responsibility. Perhaps it is time to make an ethical withdrawal of responsibility. Such a need has become more acute in recent years, with the outcome of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Bringing Them Home report providing an opportunity for white Australia to take ownership of its colonial past in a more than selective manner. Unfortunately the backlash against Bringing Them Home has been more substantive than any acceptance of, and responsibility for, the colonial violence that it has provided testament to. It was the delivery of the report that motivated the most ferocious elements of the History War; an orchestrated campaign conducted by the right in Australia against the legitimacy of Indigenous memory.

Birch’s observations resonate with me and are a reminder that these “history wars” or “culture wars” that waged amongst academics and writers of opinion pieces may have argued the semantics and the numbers in the halls of universities and on the pages of broadsheets but, like the stone hidden under William Thornhill’s house, the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by those polices remained unchanged by those debates. The ideological battle was not really about Aboriginal history; it was about the competing narratives that non-Indigenous Australians want to tell about themselves.

And this reaction, which included the official government response, showed me that I was wrong to believe that hearing the stories of people who had suffered under the removal policy would be the pathway to better understanding of Indigenous history and culture.

The response was much more complex than that. What it did show was that evidence in its most human form can be so powerful that it is simply too confronting and the easiest way to deal with it for some people is to attempt to silence it, dismiss it by falling back on to contested statistics or distract from it with semantic debates.

This reaction does, however, give testament to the power of stories. The Bringing them Home report was littered with extracts from testimony – not just from those taken away, but from the parents, grandparents and siblings left behind. So many government reports are written after investigations, contemplation of the research and a list of sensible recommendations to address the problem to sit on shelves, gather dust and fade into the mists of bureaucratic memory. What challenged people more than any legal or historical argument made in the report, what made it so dangerous to those who felt so challenged was the power of human testimony, the power of their stories. George R. R. Martin, author of the now culturally iconic Game of Thrones wrote in another novel, A Clash of Kings, that “when you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.”

The impact of the removal policy has been a strong theme through much Indigenous writing – not surprising since it formed such a large part of the contemporary Indigenous experience. Sally Morgan’s My Place and Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence are quintessential examples of this – and the response to the Philip Noyce film adapting Pilkington’s book to the screen was met with a similar response to the Bringing them Home report from, predictably, the same quarters.

Telling these is not just an essential part of Indigenous culture; love of stories is instinctive and primal to all human beings. So it is no surprise that there is a vibrant creative drive within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia to continue to tell stories. The renaissance of Indigenous writing, which has been driven by writers such as Tony Birch, Alexis Wright, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kim Scott and a pantheon of others. It been accompanied by other Indigenous storytellers using other mediums – Stephen Page and his work through the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Wesley Enoch and his work on the stage, the rise to eminence of Indigenous art whose aesthetics point to ancient connections to country, the new wave of Indigenous film makers, including Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton and the establishment of National Indigenous Television Ltd. All these new technologies have been adopted for the telling of our most ancient stories.

So coming from this perspective, it might seem natural that I would blindly embrace the concept of the “right to free speech”. But it is more complicated than that. An essential part of any rights culture and of any human rights framework is the complex balancing of rights. I believe free speech is important but, like any other right, needs to be balance with others, including the right to be free from racial discrimination and vilification. Where that line is drawn should be the debate of a healthy and inclusive participatory democracy. Observing the psychological and emotional scars of racism enacted as policy or disseminated through popular culture and political narrative, I am wary of blanket claims of absolute rights, suspicious of extremes demanded by a dominant culture that has only championed well its own interests, not those of the groups it has marginalised.

The heightened precedence given to the right of free speech against other rights is a particularly American value but also symptomatic of the way that our civil and political rights are often given precedence over economic, social and cultural rights. For marginalised and culturally distinct groups, exclusion from economic and social participation and freedom of cultural expression are perhaps valued more and seen as being of equal importance to the civil and political rights that more easily engage members of dominant cultures and political elites. Besides, the notion that any society supports the concept of free speech in an unfettered way is absurd. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to defamation and libel. It is regulated, rightly, in relation to trade practices, to ensure that consumers are not duped by unsubstantiated claims.

I find it difficult to support blanket statements about the concept of censorship. For me, the arguments about where to draw the lines in theory are slippery and contradictory. Of more interest, and of more importance, is the question of what is seeking to be censored and why. When the censorship is one where the weight of the dominant culture is used to silence dissenting views and to silence the marginalised, I think it raises a complex set of moral and ethical questions. I don’t pretend to know where that line is but I believe that the balancing of the right to free speech against other rights is one of the on-going conversations in a healthy participatory democracy. This might sound utopian but I say this as someone who is inherently suspicious of the way the dominant cultures laws sometimes draw lines. The fact that the dominant culture often gets to decide that line is often problematic. Its adjudicators are never without their own cultural bias even though they often assume that they can be objective on such matters. But I do think the discussion about where those lines are drawn needs to be an open, honest and fluid one and needs to include voices that are often marginalised within the dominant culture.

It strikes me that one of the deepest cultural differences between Indigenous culture and dominant Australian culture is around the concept of knowledge. Within the spiritual life of Indigenous societies there was a clear delineation about knowledge holding. There were issues that were “men’s business” and “women’s business” and the concept of “secret and sacred” knowledge, which only the custodian or the initiated were entitled to know. The concept that there is information that you are not permitted to know is one that sits uncomfortably with European intellectual tradition. It remains the case today across Australia that there is still knowledge, images, practices and artefacts that remain sacred to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cannot be shared.

Respecting that, I do not, however, ascribe to the view that a non-Indigenous person can never write from the perspective of an Indigenous person. Writers with talent can write from any perspective. The trick is to get the authenticity – the truth – of the situation, the characters and the essence of the interaction. The challenge in crossing any divide – gender, religious, cultural – is that unless the writer can stand in the shoes of the character, can adeptly interpret the perspective, the writing will ring hollow, will ring untrue.

In this way, Indigenous writers are advantaged. They better understand, by virtue of their interaction with the dominant culture, the views from the other side of the cultural divide. It has always challenged Australian writers – even writers of great skill – to be able to interpret well the world of Indigenous people. That is not because it is impossible but just because the level of understanding needed to write authentically is so deep, that the general ignorance of Indigenous culture often makes the translation a challenge for those seeking to interpret it from the outside.

Patrick White, one of our greatest writers, meditated on the perspectives on Indigenous people within Australian culture in several of his books. He did so reflectively in Riders of the Chariot and Voss. But he was much less successful in his novel inspired by the shipwreck of Eliza Fraser in the 1860s, A Fringe of Leaves. During the heroine’s time amongst Aborigines, she becomes closer to her more natural state and, as part of this psychological reconnection, engages in a ceremony that includes an act of cannibalism. Instead of understanding that there was no practice of cannibalism within Indigenous communities in Australia, White buys into this myth – and thus perpetuating it – but seeks to excuse it by using the act of consumption of flesh as a metaphor for our most primitive desires, the instincts our society represses. White paints the Aboriginal people in this novel in the classic noble savage role. I’ve argued elsewhere that the depiction of Aboriginal people in this romanticised role is an unhelpful and dangerous as the portrayal of Aboriginal people as savages.

Grenville avoids this trap in The Secret River. She tells the story of William Thornhill’s conquest of his land and the Aboriginal people who lived there before him without romanticism. Her novel also tells the story of Aboriginal people and she chose not to do this by creating an Indigenous character to guide us through this perspective but by telling us the same story from the unsympathetic viewpoint of a white Australian who sees Aboriginal people fearfully – fearful they will retaliate, they will fight, they will challenge. And through the eyes of such characters, she says so much with deep truth about the underlying unease which not only pervades the contemporary relationship between Aboriginal people and the dominant Australian culture, she also explains why so much unease and conflict remains amongst that dominant culture about the way in which they tell the story of their own history.

This is a deft skill but I want to conclude by celebrating what uncensored, unselfconscious writing can achieve even when it misses the mark. Another great Australian novelist is Thomas Keneally. Of his enviable body of work sits a book, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, written in the 1970s when Australia was confronting a new political era in its relationship with Indigenous people. Influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States, a black power movement and a land rights movement had emerged , along with a new kind of Aboriginal activist. Keneally’s novel is inspired by the outlaw Jimmy Governor and explores the inevitable consequences of trapping a young man between the ambitions available to white people and the discrimination against his own black skin. What blind ambition to try to write a book about this subject matter. And in the most part, Keneally succeeds. But the portrayal of Aboriginal women seemed so one dimensional, especially contrasted to the insights Keneally showed for Jimmie’s own plight as an Aboriginal man. That aspect of the book annoyed me n contrast but I have a great affection for both the book and the author for its audacity. Keneally has since written that he would write the book differently if he wrote it now. I am glad he wrote it when he did. It gave me more to think about, more to contend with, a greater slate against which to try to articulate my own views about my feminism and the intersection between my gender and my race and what that meant in contemporary Australia against this historical backdrop. Along with A Fringe of Leaves, Keneally gave me a book that provoked me to articulate my own views, providing me with a conversation of depth and intelligence I could find nowhere else within Australian society. That is the gift a brave, thoughtful, imaginative and uncensored writer can give.

So I don’t think the territory is off limits but I think that the challenge for writers who want to explore that terrain is that the extent to which one must be familiar with it if coming from the position of the privileged, from a position where many of the voices will be hidden, is very difficult.

And such is the skill of great writers. They translate. They interpret. They hold a mirror up. And that s why they are, when talented, so threatening.

 © Larissa Behrendt, 2013

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Thida in Malaysia – Keynote on Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/thida-in-malaysia-keynote-on-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/thida-in-malaysia-keynote-on-censorship-today/#comments Sun, 23 Jun 2013 12:55:43 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=5007 Ma-ThidaCensorship Today

Keynote address given by Dr Ma Thida

First presented at EWWC Kuala Lumpur, #Word – The Cooler Lumpur Festival

Dr Ma Thida keynote text: “Freedom and Literature”

Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen.

First of all, I’d love to express my pleasure and gratitude for being here to make this lecture happen.

Indeed as a native of Burma or Myanmar, the title ‘Freedom and Literature’ seemed surreal to us in the recent past. However, for me, literature itself, either creating or reading it, always relates to freedom.

Literature itself is truly a medium which conveys, maintains and appreciates freedom between writers and readers. Compared to other forms of art, literature is the most modest art form which mainly relies on or includes ‘words’ only. For music, we need not only words but also a tune or sound to have a song. For a movie, we need more. But literature always simply does not include sound, color, motion and image. Without the assistance required by music, movies, pictures, and other art forms, ‘words’ and ‘sentences’ make themselves into ‘literature’. So literature is a form of art which is free from dependency on any other assistance like sound, picture, colors.

Without this assistance, how does literature work as an art which relates to writers and readers? The way literature connects people – writers and readers or readers and readers – is with freedom. For a movie, viewers need to just follow one scene after another in order to know it. Viewers are voluntarily forced to just look at the screen, and accept the scene provided and the actors or actresses performing it as characters of the movie. For example, while watching the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’, viewers experience Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. But while reading the novel by Margaret Mitchell, readers can imagine anyone else or themselves as Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara. Imagination through words is truly more boundary-less or free than imagination through pictures.

While reading, readers have full freedom to imagine the literature or words as they comprehend them. ‘Words’ and ‘Sentences’ alone encourage readers in their imaginative power, free in their right to use their preconceived knowledge to expand or add on the knowledge provided by literature. For example, a simple sentence saying ‘The Sun rises’ can be imagined differently by different readers. But a movie scene of a sunrise can only be the same for every viewer. That is why literature is such a truly free art form for both writers and readers. And even among readers, the perception of a single work of literature will be different. According to their own private knowledge, readers try to imagine what the characters or setting of a novel looks like, or try to relate their experiences to the experience of the characters at a particular period in a short story, or also try to empathise with the feelings of the poet or writer in his or her poems. Even for a single work of literature, perception, feeling and appreciation by different readers could be totally different or more or less similar. It is totally unpredictable and so it shows the nature of freedom in literature. That is why I would like to say literature is truly freedom for both writers and readers, and even among readers themselves.

However, publishing literature might not be related to freedom. For example, in my own country, we had the Press Scrutiny Board for nearly five decades. This censorship board prohibited publishing some literature. In the early 1980s, it took from 1 to 2 years to get permission to publish a novel. Even with permission, there would be much editing. Sometimes writers decided not to publish his or her own works because of immense and nonsensical editing by the censorship board. But at that time, for periodicals, we didn’t need to submit manuscripts before printing, but we did need to submit the print copy before distributing. In the early 1990s, the censorship board asked to remove paragraphs or whole short stories or articles from printed periodicals before distributing them. So we put black or silver ink over the paragraphs or glued facing pages together or ripped out some pages to remove them from magazines/journals. In the early 2000s, the censorship board asked us to submit before printing any form of literature or books including advertisement pages. So we needed to submit them two times, before printing and before distributing. Then there were no more ugly magazine pages. All forced editing was finished before printing. So just before the censorship board abolished its process in mid-2012, a weekly current affairs journal would be submitted three times before it was printed and one time before it was distributed. That is why it is impossible to have regional papers in places far from the office of the press scrutiny board and where people from ethnic minorities live. For this reason, media or literature in ethnic languages was almost impossible establish. This process also prohibited not only the freedom of the press but also pluralism in the press.

For that reason, the investor or owner didn’t want any editors who were willing to test tolerance or censorship or take the risk to reprint all time-and-cost consuming manuscripts. Then some editors refrained from accepting any literature or works which might be censored heavily. And no definitive rules were mentioned by the censorship board. So it is sometimes hard to imagine which one might be censored or not. Since all publication houses need a licence to operate, there were risks in publishing some works. These risks could be terminating a licence, going to trial under one restricted printing law, or a person being putting into prison without any other reason. Eventually writers were forced to give up their freedom to think and write as they wish, ever having to count on the risk of censorship. This is what our Burmese literature has been through. This is how the role of the government’s censorship prohibited the freedom of publication and literature. And consequently this is how media ownership prohibited the freedom of editors and writers also.

Here I would like to tell my personal story. I had been writing many short stories in the 1980s. But because of my political activities and written criticisms of the government, my pen name was on the brown list and most of my short stories were banned. And in 1993 I was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for four accused crimes, and two of them were the printing and distribution of illegal materials. Then all of my writing was banned and I became on the black list. Though I was released after 5 and a half years, most editors didn’t dare to publish my works and no publisher wanted to publish my books. And furthermore I couldn’t get permission for a media licence. I really wanted to run a news or current affairs journal. But I knew it was impossible. I tried to apply to get a licence to run a health journal in mid-2000s but I didn’t get it. And because of the censorship board’s heavy pressure, neither did any publishers want me to be an editor of their publication. The press scrutiny board had the power to refuse any works by particular writers to get published anywhere by any means. So even if a writer weren’t arrested in person, the censorship board could prohibit him or her to become an editor of any official periodical or to write under their own name or a pen name. If this happened, no editor would dare to publish my works. So even though a writer is not inside prison, he or she has very limited freedom, not in creating literature but in publishing it.  Then in 2011, I was awarded a freedom of expression prize by the Norwegian Authors’ Union. But at that time the situation inside Burma was not very good and I was still working as an editor of literature magazines and writing for many other periodicals. So I decided not to go to Norway and accept the prize but I sent a video thank-you note to them.

Here I want to read some passages from this thank-you note in order for you all to understand much more about our Burmese freedom and literature:

What a shame for a Burmese writer who was rewarded the prize but she decided not to come and accept it in person? What made this? I dare to say the reason of making this decision is not to save me but to save my ‘words’ or ‘creativity’.

Writing creatively is indeed very basic and simple needs for any writers around the world. However for us, creativity is not with freedom but with hunting for freedom.

Though I have been trying a lot of new forms and presentations of writing, content and message of my works are usually not out of our struggle and hope. Why? Why I keep writing these? I do care of expressing my feelings and suffering of my people freely. I really do care of creating works to convey our speeches to the others. With free creativity, world has been experienced about rest of the world. I just want the world to be exposed to our creativity on expression of our speechless people. I cannot confiscate both creativity and freedom of expression in my works. We, Burmese writers, use creativity to get freedom of expression at the expense of losing our writing career or physical freedom. And we love to do it. 

For me, loosing chance to be a writer in Burma is worse than being imprisoned. To keep freedom of expression, I have to create and my works should be reached to my beloved people who have full of imaginative power. In other words, freeing the words with efficient creativity is more important for me than freeing myself.

That is why I dare to say that it might be easy to prohibit writers to write but indeed it is hard to prohibit both writers and readers to lose their freedom of creativity. For writers, creativity in their writing itself always helps to expand the boundary of freedom permitted by censorship. So for Burmese literature, creativity is not because of the freedom we have, but it is for the freedom we want to have. And for readers, creativity in their imagination helps them to read between the lines, among words or even inside a vocabulary. For Burmese readers, imaginative power is a very basic need, to understand or appreciate more about literature. For this, they just need freedom in their imaginative power. And for writers too, they do not need to get permission from the censorship board in order to be creative. So writers and readers remain free in their own creative and imaginative power though under a period of heavy censorship. So in this sense, we can still say literature is a kind of art which can still hold freedom. This is the role of writers, to still keep freedom in literature by their creativity, and the role of readers by their imaginative power.

Therefore literature needs freedom but it also brings freedom. Censorship indeed prohibits only the publishing of the literature, not its freedom. The free nature of the creation of literature and its appreciation still remains, even in censored works. However, in order to have freedom of literature, we need more than one party to try hard. So in order to keep freedom in literature, we need not only governments to abolish censorship, but also investors/publishers and editors to be free from the fear of being at risk, and writers to be creatively strong or readers to be imaginatively strong.  Therefore, what we, writers, need in order to have freedom both in creating and publishing literature, is also freedom or independence from fear, greed, hate or dependency.

Eventually I would like to say this; freedom and literature is mutually inter-related and cannot be separated from each other. Then we do not only to fight for freedom but also to keep it in our literature. Let’s be free ourselves to do the best for literature and freedom or freedom and literature. Thank you. Thank you.

© Dr Ma Thida, 2013


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THIDA, MAHATHIR, VEYRA & MORGAN – Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/mahathir-veyra-srithong-morgan-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/mahathir-veyra-srithong-morgan-censorship-today/#comments Sun, 23 Jun 2013 12:43:55 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4850 #Word – A Cooler Lumpur Festival, Kuala Lumpur Sunday 23 June 2:00pm MYT Censorship Today Keynote: Dr Ma Thida Panelists: Marina Mahathir, Lourd de Veyra, Nicola Morgan. Moderator: Ezra Zaid]]> Ma-Thida#Word – A Cooler Lumpur Festival, Kuala Lumpur

Sunday 23 June 2:00pm MYT

Censorship Today

Keynote: Dr Ma Thida
Panelists: Marina Mahathir, Lourd de Veyra, Nicola Morgan  Moderator: Ezra Zaid

Author biographies:

Dr Ma Thida is a Burmese surgeon, human rights activist and writer, famously known as the leading intellectual in Burma whose writings dealt with her country’s political situation. She was sentenced to prison for twenty years for “endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organisations, and distributing unlawful literature.” She has published nine books in Burmese and English, including two fictional works of and a prison memoir.

Marina Mahathir is well known as a leader in many non-governmental organizations such as the Malaysian AIDS Foundation and is currently an active socio-political blogger. She also writes in her bi-weekly column called Musings in The Star newspaper since 1989. Some of her pieces in the column have been published in her books such as 50 Days: Rantings by MM, published in 1997 and Telling It Straight, published in 2012 by Editions Didier Millet. The latter is a selection of her articles published in her column between 2003 and 2012. It includes a foreword by Dr Farish A. Noor, a local political scientist and historian. It contains 90 articles which are written thematically including a special written introduction on the topics discussed in the book. It also includes two previously unpublished articles.

Lourd de Veyra is an award winning poet, novelist, musician and broadcast journalist from Quezon City, the Philippines. He has published three collections of poetry, a collection of essays from his blog, and a novel. He has also released four full-length music albums as the frontman of spoken word-jazz-rock band,  Radioactive Sago Project. He currently hosts TV and radio commentary programmes in the Philippines.

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning British writer, teacher and professional speaker, best known for fiction for older children and teenagers, non-fiction about the teenage brain, and her advice on publishing. Nicola was the Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland, is a member of the committee of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group within the Society of Authors and is an Ambassador for Dyslexia Scotland.

Ezra Zaid is the proprietor of publishing house ZI Publications, which has produced some of Malaysia’s most important and best-selling books in Bahasa Malaysia and English over the past few years, including Amir Muhammad’s  Rojak, Farish Noor’s Di Balik Malaysia: Dari Majapahit ke Putrajaya, Hishamuddin Rais’  Tapai, Marina Mahathir’s  50 Days: Rantings by MM and Zaid Ibrahim’s Saya Pun Melayu.

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Literary Orderlies & Specialists of the Unknown: A Dispatch from EWWC St Malo http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/literary-orderlies-specialists-of-the-unknown-a-dispatch-from-ewwc-st-malo/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/style-vs-content/literary-orderlies-specialists-of-the-unknown-a-dispatch-from-ewwc-st-malo/#comments Thu, 06 Jun 2013 12:10:39 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4830 Ben McConnell attended the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in St Malo, 20 – 22nd May 2013.

Photo: Gael-FestEV

Sansal giving his keynote speech on Censorship Today
Photo: Gael-FestEV

For more than twenty years, the literary & film festival Étonnants-Voyageurs has summoned francophone writers from far and wide to join in the sleepy seaside medieval city of Saint-Malo to discuss the vital elements of their craft.  Inspired by such fathers of travel writing as Stevenson and Conrad, its founder, Michel Le Bris, chose to create an international forum surrounding the ideas of travel literature and of a world literature.

Over the course of three days of intense debates, lectures, and literary cafes some two hundred writers gathered under this year’s theme of “Le monde qui vient” (The world to come) and were joined by an enthusiastic audience of many thousands.   Despite the typically wet Breton weather there was a palpable energy in the air.  Throughout the city each evening one could recognize huddled groups of writers smoking and conversing beneath awnings or gathered in leaning old bars engaged in animated conversation.  The structure and formality of the day’s events seemed to spill over into a jovial nightlife sparking  discussions between writers and readers alike.

The Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference series of five debates were hosted in the Palais Du Grand Large overlooking the English Channel and the old Fort National.  Saturday, Algerian author Boualem Sansal, whose books are currently banned in his homeland, introduced the first debate, Censorship Today.  Sansal spoke of censorship historically and psychologically, but returned again and again to the climate of Islamic fundamentalism that he fears is hastily blotting out freedom of expression in the Arab world.  Sansal related with absurdist humor being awarded the 2012 Éditions Gallimard Arabic Novel Prize for his book “Rue Darwin” only to have it revoked before the fifteen thousand Euro prize had been delivered.  Although no one would admit to it, this was clearly a reaction by the Arab Ambassadors Council to his having attended the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival earlier in the year.  Sansal said, “I went to Israel on principle, to demonstrate my power as a free man who does not obey orders.”  He was told his award ceremony was indefinitely ‘postponed.’  Later, the entire jury resigned in protest, and a wealthy Swiss offered Sansal an equivalent consolation prize which he then donated to the A Heart For Peace foundation.  Together with the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem they finance costly cardiac surgery for Palestinian children living in the West Bank.

“Ironically”, said Sansal, “silence has become a form of freedom; saying nothing is saying it all but it is also depriving yourself of any action, while the struggle for freedom requires, first and foremost, a practical commitment.”  But at what cost?

Julien Mabiala Bissila from Brazzaville spoke of the violent censorship occurring at home, where it’s “safer to shut up” than risk imprisonment or mutilation.  French writer Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès mentioned that in a democracy such as France, censorship exists through financial groups and its partners, making it more insidious and therefore more accepted.

The next day began with Velibor Colic introducing the debate on National Literature.  Colic is from Bosnia, where he has witnessed first hand the inherent dangers and devastating consequences of nationalistic thinking.  He believes that while a nationalist literature’s role in war is never direct, it points the finger at the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’, and strengthens the dualisms which are necessary to war’s very existence.   This kind of literature may even replace history in the popular consciousness, as in Serbia where certain nationalistic novels were actually taught in schools as history proper.  Not only does this type of literature dehumanize the so-called enemy, but the writer as well, reducing her to a mere tool of propaganda.

Colic declared, “This confusion between genres, between history and literature, was a tragedy.  For everyone.  The distinction between myth and reality lies in intelligence and common sense, in the ability to distance oneself and to reason…   But, unfortunately, new national literatures work on an emotional and a collective level, they inexplicably erode convictions that were set in stone.  And at that point, there is but a step between national and nationalistic literature.”

Amongst those present at this debate, it seemed relatively safe to assume that most were in accord with Colic’s sentiments, but it was impressive to hear them uttered by a man whose home had been burned, and life turned upside down all in the name of nationalism.  He hopes that, “After the era of politics, which is only a perverted game that we will eventually have to put an end to, and after the era of crazy and bloodthirsty national bards, will come the era of literature.  A nomad and human literature, a mobile and multicultural literature, disheveled, undisciplined, without visas and without passports.”

The second debate that day was Style vs. Content, hosted by French-Tunisian writer, Hubert Haddad, who opened with a poetic (if not esoteric) introductory speech, itself highly stylized, infused with paradox.   Haddad’s conviction that “Only literature gives reality its full dimension, at the same time allusive, lethal, unpredictable, marvellous, and wildly open to interpretation…” seemed to equally apply to his own words as well.

Haddad argued that both style and content were inexorably bound saying that “Only literature gives reality its full dimension” and discounted factual description as a means of conveying anything intimate or crucial.  With sincere passion, Haddad delivered mystical proclamations such as “Literature is just reality becoming aware of itself in its enigmatic, symbolic and secular activity.” and “The origin of the world is to be found in the mind of a poet admiring Courbet’s painting or the depths of the Milky Way.”

Haddad scoffed at Norman Mailer’s opinion that “Style is an instrument, not an end in itself.” retaliating, “Only a literary orderly could say that.  If style is an instrument then Proust and Rimbaud are operating theatres.  No, style is no more an instrument than art, in and of itself, would be an ‘instrument of propaganda and education.’  On the contrary, it distorts all instrumentations and is life itself, replicated ad infinitum in the mysteries of language.”

Haddad closed his speech with a quote from Emily Dickinson, “the magic scribbler, for she alone, beyond language and beyond all authoritative pronouncements, uttered the only truth; for what, really, is style?”

A something in a summer’s Day

As slow her flambeaux burn away

Haddad’s lofty sentiments left some scratching their heads and even agitated, such as Mbarek Beyrouk who said, “I don’t understand this.  Literature has to be magic, instinctive, and from the guts!” which was met with broad applause.  And Azouz Begag, who grew up in a shanty town with illiterate parents, responded, “I really believe if you can dig through the different layers [of your heart] and extract a book from it, it works.  I’ve never worried about style.”  I don’t believe these convictions were at all at odds with Haddad’s, but afterwards Haddad simply stood up and walked out.

Style is a slippery topic indeed, difficult to gain a toehold on and open to infinite definition; however, Haddad delivered the best that any of us could hope to do: he offered a poem full of wonder, passion, and the very mystery of existence.  The highest poetry does not answer any question or posit a belief, however, it also doesn’t leave much to say afterwards.  If just for a moment, I relished the reigning silence which resonated across the sea like a temple bell.

Photo: Gael-FestEV

Rahimi at St Malo
Photo: Gael-FestEV

The third and final day of the festival began with Atiq Rahimi: Should literature be political?  Rahimi related his personal history as a former member of the Afghan resistance in the 80’s, and the complications of having a communist brother – continually threatened by radicals, and later killed.  Rahimi’s novel, Earth and Ashes, was his way of dealing with his brother’s death.

Throughout his keynote speech, Rahimi reiterated a theme that had been present throughout the entire conference: that literature must first come from a sincere depth, an ‘inner experience’, which compels the writer to express himself out of a necessity.  This in a way transcends the concepts of politics, style, nationalism, and censorship (these are all afterthoughts in the creative process), but at the same time does not exclude them.

The closing debate of the EWWC conference was on the future of the novel, introduced by Étonnants-Voyageurs’ Michel Le Bris. Le Bris spoke of some of the difficulties that we as a society face at this transitional point in our history, with television, Internet, and so many other technologies competing for our ever-diminishing attention span. But he was equally optimistic, saying, “The only specialists of the unknown that I am aware of are precisely artists and writers.  As a result, they are needed with a renewed and special urgency in this period of momentous change of ours.  Thus it is that the novel form is critical to our times.”

Throughout the weekend, the festival and the EWWC debates in particular were an intense source of high-caliber literary discussion. Revisiting the original debate topics from the Edinburgh International Writers’ Conference in 1962 provided not only a sense of where we’ve come from, but where we might be headed as well.  Also, as a native English speaker – and I admit, I read mostly in English – I was delighted to discover several very impressive French writers whom I look forward to reading – in French of course.

Ben McConnell, 5 June 2013

Click here for a photo album of the weekend’s events in St Malo. You can browse all the keynote speeches from the French edition of the Conference here.

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Sansal in France – Keynote on Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/sansal-in-france-keynote-on-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/sansal-in-france-keynote-on-censorship-today/#comments Sat, 18 May 2013 20:11:05 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4674 © Hélie GallimardCensorship Today

Keynote address given by Boualem Sansal

First presented at EWWC St Malo, France

Boualem Sansal keynote text: “Writers Against Censorship”

I don’t want to review the whole history of censorship, we would have to go back to the Roman censors, the magistrates whose absolute power meant their decisions couldn’t be appealed against, and who were meant to maintain moral standards in the City.

We are familiar with censorship, we know the myriad official and unofficial ways censors have used over the centuries to muffle speech, and we know how the state punished those who broke the law of silence. Each and every human institution – whether religious, civilian or military – has had a go, at all levels.

At some times, in some places, the system was so ignominious that it has left a lasting imprint in human consciousness. Such totalitarian behaviour has left us words we still cringe at the sound of: inquisition, deportation, banishment, self-criticism, purge, gulag… Such words speak of death, of the arbitrariness and the suffering of our world. They make us truly uncomfortable.

Yet we also know how men and women, intellectuals, writers, journalists, film-makers, playwrights, have spoken up against censorship, putting their own lives at risk. That goes back a long way: from Socrates sentenced by the censors to drink hemlock to Galilei sentenced to life-long relegation. And the list goes on, up to Kravchenko whose film we have just watched and whose death is still mysterious (suicide or murder made to look like suicide?). The list is full of prestigious names: Voltaire, Zola, Solzhenitsyn, Heinrich Heine, and so many others. It speaks of the courage and resilience of Man in the cause of freedom of speech, a freedom without which life is worthless.

But the world is not divided into two groups. The line between censors and libertarians is uncertain: censors live amongst us, even within us. We all know that freedom of expression and its cause can be easy excuses for those who actually want to impose their truth and their censorship onto society. That is what extremists do. They speak up against censorship and want to impose their own, as Islamic fundamentalists – the latest addition to the double-speak scene – do. Someone like Tariq Ramadan is the greatest advocate of democracy and freedom of expression in Paris, London and Geneva. We have to admit it even though we know his ulterior motives: to spread Islamic fundamentalism, democracy’s sworn enemy. Conversely, ardent proponents of freedom of expression have, on occasion, approved of or even called for its restriction. For instance, the Gayssot Act establishing the offense of denial of crimes against humanity does exactly that but draws on positive inspiration. In its introduction, it states that it introduces a ban not to violate freedom of expression but to oppose the virulent anti-Semitism of the Front National and of Holocaust deniers such as Robert Faurisson. Since then, Islamic fundamentalists have joined and even overtaken them. This goes to show that laws are only as effective as the resources made available to implement them. In this case, the resources are minimal. As we know, legislation, when not enforced, will support the trend, it becomes an incentive to do what it is meant to prevent and sanction.

For the radical anarchist that Noam Chomsky is, it is evil. He claims freedom of expression only makes sense if it is unfettered. He has therefore heavily criticised the Gayssot Act. It is easy to imagine what would happen if the law were repealed and if freedom of expression were unrestricted, as Noam Chomsky, who has defended Faurisson, would want. There is a host of deniers and manipulators, they would soon get us to forget all the genocides committed, against the Indians in America, against the Armenians in Turkey, against the Jews in Europe. We would forget about large-scale colonial massacres. They would try to convince us that slavery and colonisation were collateral damages in the forward march of history and civilisation. In fact, they have already tried. A law was passed here in France in 2005. Article 4 asked historians to highlight the positive aspects of colonisation. And article 13 extended the benefits enjoyed by those repatriated from Algeria to all OAS activists, including those convicted of terrorism and murder by French courts. This was going to lead to a comprehensive reworking of history and to a new form of censorship to gag all dissenters. Historians rebelled; the revisionist provisions were withdrawn; but those who put them forward are still sitting in Parliament expressing the same beliefs which, incidentally, are becoming more popular.

It is all about democracy killing off democracy!

Significant voices, including Elisabeth Badinter, Marc Ferro and Alain Decaux, have called for the repeal of all restrictive or prohibiting historical/memory laws, such as the Gayssot Act on revisionism, the Taubira Act on slavery, the act of 2005 on the Nation, and others. Should we do so? It is a real issue.

The question is as old as censorship itself: Is prohibition or restriction always an act of censorship? Orhan Pamuk – who probably shares Noam Chomsky’s views – was sentenced not for denying a historical truth widely accepted across the world and, probably, in Turkey too but for acknowledging it. In the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, we have two crimes against humanity as the focus of two contradictory forms of censorship. In one case, whoever denies genocide is condemned, in the other, whoever acknowledges it. Orhan Pamuk was condemned and reviled at home but praised and honoured abroad. Those who deny the Holocaust in Europe are welcomed, listened to and honoured in many countries. In Iran, for instance, learned symposia are often organised at which people claim that their voice is muffled in Europe at the instigation of the Jews and of Israel.

The questions of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, islamophobia and anti-Westernism are similar. Do we need a Gayssot-type potion for every ill? Or do we need more freedom where there is already so much unreasonableness, madness and ignorance and so little sound common sense?

My introduction is self-explanatory. I would like us to look at this from a slightly different point of view as we open the debate on censorship. I feel we know enough about the way censorship operates, who fights it and who supports it but too often we overlook the basic issue of legitimacy. I mean the validity, or otherwise, of the reasons which, at a given moment, in a given country, lead the dominant classes – civilian, military, religious and financial – and other institutions whose purpose is to give meaning to society, such as universities, masonic organisations, learned society and the media, to state the truths and the way they should be observed, and to claim that straying from this would threaten public order. They have the power to direct, and possibly, force people. That should be enough, but no, they want everyone to share their philosophy and to support their domineering project. Anywhere the spirit of censorship takes root it spreads and becomes all-pervasive and prescriptive.

It may also be interesting to see how writers delegitimise censors’ arguments and legitimise their own. In truth, they have forgotten how to do it. Delegitimising Islamic fundamentalists by saying that they want to introduce sharia is stating the obvious: sharia is part of Islam, it is perfectly normal that Muslims should want to be governed by the laws of their faith, just as democrats would want to be governed by the laws of the democracy they believe in. The same goes when saying that sharia is violent. Capital punishment in the USA, China, Japan or elsewhere is no less violent. That, to me, is the reason why censorship lasts. We don’t always know how to delegitimise its bias and its claims. On the contrary, our arguments too often support it. To criticise the means without unpicking the underlying ideas is to support these very ideas.

It isn’t really a debate between advocates of opposed opinions but a vital struggle between two contradictory views of society.

Secrecy is part of human history. Some want to keep it untouched and untouchable as it guarantees their power, and will do all they can to protect it. Others want to remove it as it obstructs and keeps men ignorant and destitute.

Writers stand on the cusp, between these two worlds, the worlds of secrecy and transparency. They are not all looking in the same direction. Some denounce the censors. Many also denounce their victims and those who support them. In Paris, the global capital of human rights, left-wing intellectuals came and accused Kravchenko for denouncing Soviet totalitarianism. Are those who side with dictatorship sincere? Do they truly believe that good can come from evil? That some evils are worse than others?

Looking at censorship from this point of view means looking at truth. What is truth? Who holds it? Who can confirm that it is real and more useful to society than doubt, questioning or mistakes may be? These are so many basic yet relative questions. Definitions are entirely different from one country to the next.

Censorship is no longer an official institution in democratic countries. It is pervasive and enforced through legislation: anyone – public or private institution, voluntary organisation or individual – can turn to the courts to impose censorship on an article, a book, a film or a painting. They will mention defamation, infringement of privacy, breach of the peace, blasphemy, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc.

In a democratic environment, there is a double difficulty for writers active as defenders of freedom of expression. First, it is difficult for them to speak against censorship as they are talking of court rulings, handed down on the basis of existing legislation, and against which it is always possible to appeal to a higher court. Second, confusion is such in society that speaking against censorship can be seen as supporting the action that gave rise to the initial complaint and the court case. When Charlie Hebdo printed the cartoons of Mohammed in support of the Danish Jyllandsposten, which was being threatened by Islamic fundamentalists, many accused it of islamophobia, blasphemy, racism and the like. The fact is, defenders of freedom almost always end up in the dock, and the censors are justified in their ways. It is a vicious circle.

Everywhere you turn you hear people saying, with despair in their voices: we can’t say anything about this or about that, about homosexuals, about Jews or Israel, about Muslims or Islam, about insecurity in the neighbourhoods. Censorship is so pervasive across democratic societies that speaking up will lead to criticism and reproach or even physical violence and litigation. Ironically, silence has become a form of freedom. Saying nothing is saying it all but it is also depriving yourself of any action while the struggle for freedom requires, first and foremost, a practical commitment.

To sum up, I feel the following questions should be examined: How can we fight censorship? How do we delegitimise its arguments? And how do we convince society that the excesses of freedom will always be less serious than those of censorship?

©Boualem Sansal, 2013

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SANSAL – Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/sansal-censorship-today/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/sansal-censorship-today/#comments Sat, 18 May 2013 10:40:31 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=4359 Etonnants Voyageurs, St Malo Sunday 18 May 3pm CEST Censorship Today Keynote by: Boualem Sansal]]> © Le NYEtonnants Voyageurs, St Malo

Saturday 18 May 3pm CEST

Censorship Today

Keynote by: Boualem Sansal

Participants include: Gilles Lapouge, Olivier Weber, Patrick Rambaud, Atiq Rahimi, Michel Le Bris, Velibor Colic, Gary Victor, Henri Lopes, Mbarek Beyrouk, Maryse Condé, Sorj Chalandon, Serge Bramly, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, Didier Decoin, Anne Nivat, Paolo Rumiz, Pete Fromm, Maylis De Kerangal, Nick Stone, Yahia Belaskri, Jean Teule, Noo Saro-Wiwa, Mark Behr, Julien Mabiala Bissila, Deon Meyer, Hakan Günday.

Author Biography:

Boualem Sansal was born in 1949. He trained as an engineer and has a PhD in Economics. He occupied different jobs as teacher, consultant, and head of a company. He became a high-ranking civil servant in 1995 in the Department of Industry but he was dismissed in 2003 because of his criticisms of the system.

He was encouraged by his friend Rachid Mimouni, the writer, to write and publish his first novel, Le serment des barbares when he was fifty years old. The novel was acclaimed by both the critics and the readers as soon as it was released in 1999. His other works include L’enfant fou de l’arbre creux and Dis moi le paradis.

His book, Poste Restante, published in Algiers in 2006, is a short scathing open letter from Sansal to his compatriots. It was immediately censored by the Algerian government and so it never reached those it was meant for. He is a merciless witness of Algerian society today of which he paints a vivid picture in his very personal condensed and boisterous style. Boualem Sansal still lives near Algiers.

Sansal has won the Grand Prix de la Francophonie, Prix de la Paix des Libraires Allemands, Grand Prix RTL-Lire, and Prix Edouard Glissant.

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John Burnside on the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Jaipur http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/john-burnside-on-the-edinburgh-world-writers-conference-jaipur/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/john-burnside-on-the-edinburgh-world-writers-conference-jaipur/#comments Mon, 04 Feb 2013 12:48:45 +0000 tanyaandrews http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=3748 burnside girl.jpg largeJohn Burnside is one of Scotland’s finest and also most prodigious writers, with an oeuvre that straddles the genres of poetry, novel and short stories. His most recent work is Something Like Happy, a collection of short stories. Last week he participated in the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference: Jaipur, and we caught up with him on his return to chat about the dynamism of India, the long game of dissident politics and the Dalai Lama’s incredible laugh.

EWWC: You took part in the EWWC event at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India last week. What was that like?

JB: There was huge energy there, it was buzzing – I came back buzzing! It was my first time in India and the overwhelming sensation I had throughout, from the moment I arrived, was a sense of dynamism. A sense of people with really passionate beliefs pursuing things with great dynamism. One guy I met worked for a software company; he had sat down and said to his boss: ‘I want to set up a book club here. I want to do it in office time and I want you to pay for it.” and the boss said “Yeah!” So he went out and bought books for people and it grew from one person to a hundred.

The thing that I heard over and over again from people is you can become prosperous but if you don’t keep your culture, if you don’t keep your intellectual and spiritual values, what use is all that prosperity? I was heartened to hear that because from the outside, people will see a country like India as pursuing just its material prosperity – and god knows they deserve it, they’ve been denied it long enough – but it’s nice to hear people saying let’s not forget our traditions, let’s not forget our values, our art and culture.

And – I saw the Dalai Lama, which was amazing! He has an incredible laugh; it made me believe everything he said.

EWWC: Any downsides?

JB: One thing I didn’t get a chance to do, which was a bit frustrating, was some birdwatching. There’s a wonderful area about 70 miles away from Chennai where you get painted storks and flamingos and all sorts; it was tantalisingly close. But it was an amazing place and whole new experience for me.

DSC02450.smallEWWC: How did the discourse of tone the debate [Censorship Today] compare with the one in Edinburgh?

JB: It was very focused on free expression and the notion of taking offence. It could have gone on for four hours and no-one would even have noticed, because there was just so much urgency and the questions were so impassioned. The questions were very bound up with Indian politics; there was a lot of discussion about various local issues which were of strong urgency to the people there. The two local writers on the panel [Basharat Peer and Shoma Chaudhury] directly shared a lot of the concerns of the people in the audience. It seems that a certain section of the population in India does take offence very easily.

It made me think about the writer Shirley Jackson in the United States. She wrote this wonderful story called ‘The Lottery’; for her it was just an intriguing idea that was published in the New Yorker, but then she just started getting sacks of mail, often from people who felt somehow that she had offended them or even that it shouldn’t have been written. [The story was about a woman who was stoned to death to preserve the wellbeing of the community]. Things can be interpreted the wrong way; but you can say ‘it’s not for me, I don’t care for it’ without feeling offended.

EWWC: I’m interested to know what you think about literature festivals and the role they can play in society, particularly given your recent experience in Jaipur.

JB: The first thing to say about Jaipur [Literature Festival] is it’s free. It was great to see school kids, students and other young people from all walks of life, all highly engaged – it adds a certain vibrancy to the atmosphere. People often had quite strong feelings and strong opinions, and it’s nice to hear them.

I had the chance to go and see Javed Akthar, the poet and Bollywood scriptwriter; I’m very interested in the ghazal song and verse form, which he talked about. I can’t think of any poet, not even Seamus Heaney, who would get on stage and sing or recite in his traditional form and people in the audience would be really participating in such a spirited way, calling out and bursting into spontaneous applause. His message was, ‘let’s always listen to our hearts. Let’s use our brains and make ourselves more prosperous but let’s also remember the natural world and people’s traditions.’ It felt very ‘real’, the reactions there at Jaipur; quite different from the kind of simple liberal consensus you might get in other places.

EWWC: In Edinburgh at the EWWC you spoke several times about the role of writers as dissidents. In the debate on ‘Should Literature be Political?’ you said “Maybe the question should be ‘should literature be dissident, rather than political? I follow Emerson in that I believe every state is corrupt. Our duty is to resist it.” How does that statement square with your experience of larger perhaps more complex societies, such as India?

JB: The thing I get most worked up about is the environment. There was a lot of interest in that India, and of course people like Arundhati Roy have made big sacrifices and have done a lot to try and raise awareness. But there are a lot of other questions and issues that are so urgent in there, that questions about the environment seem to have to wait.

But I do think the writer has a duty one way or another to play a political role. Whether it’s to give a model, such as ‘I refuse to accept the BS that they’re giving me. I’m going to investigate it for myself and find out what’s really going on.’ Or whether it’s simply what a poet does, which is insist on the more sophisticated, subtle and meaningful use of language as a way of not capitulating to the kind of forces that make language simplistic, so they can control the market or control the way we think about things. I think that’s what all writers do: they renew language. And that’s a start, a fundamental, the biggest building block of them all.

I think also we have a duty as citizens to be dissidents. To question ‘Well, is that so? Is that the best thing for us? Best for the 1% or for the 99%? I’m not saying that writers should be going on marches all the time, but that they should be asking questions, even if that is in quite indirect ways. It can be boring if a writer stamps around overtly proselytising. In my writing, mostly in fiction, I’ve tried here and there to make people aware of issues to do with, for example, pollution. During the Conference discussion in Jaipur we were discussing the kind of things that are being done to people by the state or police, where real physical human rights are being taken away from people. My message was this: once they’ve given up doing that to you, this is how big business or whoever it is will do it next time. But it’s not much use to the people there now who have much more urgent things concerning them, such as getting colleagues or family members out of jail.

EWWC: You were one of the most actively engaged of the 50 writer participants during the EWWC week in Edinburgh last summer. Five months on, do you have a view on the potentiality, usefulness or otherwise of that concentrated series of writers meetings?

JB: Even if nothing concrete had happened, nothing at all, there were still some good discussions. I’m not suggesting that some writers getting together and signing a petition is going to turn everything around just like that, but when Junot [Diaz] raised the issue about what was happening in Arizona, and we decided we wanted to put our names to an objection to that, at least it made people aware about the situation; a lot of people don’t know that sort of stuff happens in America, the land of the free, so that itself was a result.

I think in politics we tend to think too often about the kind of result you get in sport; are you breaking the record or winning or losing the race. In politics it’s a lot slower. It’s about awareness raising and consciousness raising, and it takes a long time. At the moment I’m researching a novel that has at its centre the politics that started in the late 50s in the United States. Many people think that those politics died out in the mid 70s – the civil rights movement, students for democratic society, the peace movement – that they formed a cycle and died with the Reagan years. But that’s not how it is at all. People who are activists now in many ways are inspired by or have had conversations with the guys who started it all and who we think of as historical. For example Bill Ayers; he’s still a political figure, just focusing on it in a different way, through education. It’s a much bigger and longer picture; there have been breaks here and there but the line continues in some other way, it meanders, it’s not straight. I think that’s important, that chipping away. It’s that old sandpile thing, how many grains of sand before it becomes a sandpile? I think that’s how politics works. You keep on going. It may not feel like you’re making any progress but any time you raise anybody’s awareness – even just one person – that’s a step forward.

There were some surprises at Edinburgh too. I think it was Janne Teller who said that ‘All I want is to make a living from my writing’; someone in the audience said ‘Well, get a job then’ – so writing’s not a job for that person? We’re a culture that doesn’t respect the intellectual; if that had happened in Italy, for example, that guy would have been laughed out of the auditorium. I don’t have much time for writers and thinkers who don’t do their homework, who don’t do their best to be informed and say ‘Well I’m going to say something, and it might not be a very big thing, but I’m going to try anyway.’

EWWC: And do you think that a group of serious, engaged writers have real power in that sense?

JB: I’m not sure if they have power but they have the power of the word and of conscience. There was a picture in a newspaper in India of women in the street who had tied black blindfolds over their eyes as a symbolic gesture of defiance against the systemic problem of misogyny. Two pages later there was a story about how some boys had harassed a woman in police uniform. So for those women to stand out in public with symbolic blindfolds over their eyes in a place where even the women police officers are harassed – that’s exemplary, that’s something amazing. Will it change things? Maybe a little bit, because it changes consciousness.

EWWC: And finally … If you had to be exiled permanently to one of the EWWC cities – Edinburgh, Berlin, Cape Town, Toronto, Krasnoyarsk, Cairo, Jaipur, Beijing, Izmir, Brussels, Lisbon, Port of Spain (Trinidad), St Malo, Kuala Lumpur & Melbourne – which would you choose and why?

JB: I would choose Berlin. Because I love it so much, but also because due to a stupid accident I missed the Berlin Conference event I was scheduled to take part in. I have had an immense affection for Berlin for a few years now. It’s such a great place, there’s so much going on – again there is that sense of dynamism and creativity in technology and the arts. There are some who want to turn it into another Munich; the Tacheles cooperative, that’s something that Berlin should be proud of – but instead they’re shutting them down. But as long as it retains some of that dynamism – and also there are some damn good writers in Berlin – I’d go there.

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Burnside, Peer, Kampfner, Chaudhury & Figes – Censorship Today http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/burnside-kampfner-garton-figes/ http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/censorship-today/burnside-kampfner-garton-figes/#comments Sat, 26 Jan 2013 12:30:52 +0000 maceymarini http://www.edinburghworldwritersconference.org/?p=2505 Jaipur Literature Festival Saturday 26 January 12:30pm IST Freedom of Speech and Expression With John Burnside, Basharat Peer, John Kampfner, Shoma Chaudhury & Orlando Figes. In conversation with Timothy Garton Ash. ]]> JBJaipur Literature Festival

Saturday 26 January 12:30pm IST

Freedom of Speech and Expression

Keynote by Basharat Peer, with John Burnside, John Kampfner, Shoma Chaudhury & Orlando Figes. In conversation with Timothy Garton Ash.


Author Biographies:

John Burnside‘s last two books were the novel, A Summer of Drowning, shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Prize, and his poetry collection, Black Cat Bone, which won both the 2011 Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. His Selected Poems was published in 2006, alongside his memoir, A Lie About My Father. The second volume of his memoir, Waking Up In Toytown, was published in 2010. His new collection of short stories, Something Like Happy, has just been published in the UK.

Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night, an account of the Kashmir conflict, which won the Crossword Prize for Non-Fiction and was chosen among the Books of the Year by The Economist and The New Yorker. He has worked as an editor at Foreign Affairs and was a Fellow at Open Society Institute, New York. He has written extensively on South Asian politics for The New Yorker, Granta, Foreign Affairs, Financial Times magazine, and The Caravan, among other places. His next book about religious politics and the aftermath of the Partition of India and Pakistan will be published by Random House in India and Simon and Schuster in the United States.

John Kampfner is Adviser to Google on freedom of expression and culture. A journalist of long standing, he was Moscow and Berlin bureau chief for the Daily Telegraph, then after spells at the FT and BBC became Editor of the New Statesman in 2005, taking the magazine to 30-year circulation highs. A documentary maker for TV and radio, he is also Chair of the board of Turner Contemporary, one of the UK’s highest profile art galleries. He is working on a new book on the history of the super-rich. His previous books include, Freedom For Sale, and the best selling Blair’s Wars.

Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started Tehelka.com. Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting.

Orlando Figes is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London, and the author of seven books, including A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (1996), Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (2002), The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2007) and Crimea: The Last Crusade (2010). His latest is Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag (2012).

Chair/Moderator of the ‘Censorship Today’ event, Timothy Garton Ash is the author of nine books of political writing which have charted the transformation of Europe over the last thirty years. He is Professor of European Studies in the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His most recent book is ’Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade without a Name’. He is currently leading a major Oxford University project on global freedom of expression in the internet age: www.freespeechdebate.com

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