Later, I hear feathers rustle inside
as annapakshis stomp along the border,
protesting in endless circles.
— ‘Birds at the Border’ by Meera Ganapathi, included in Speak OUT! Issue 1
Working on this Speak OUT! collection has given me an opportunity to learn about the experiences of writers from countries most of which had once been ravaged by the colonial encounter. Along with my co-editors, as I traverse vast terrains of these lands and islands, both imagined and real, what strikes me first is how much we have in common with each other. Free speech is one of those areas where the similarities in our socio-political contexts manifest themselves most starkly.
The stories of our successes, quite unsurprisingly, do not make headlines on a global scale. The stories of our failures, conversely, travel quite fast and frequently across the globe due to Western media’s persistent reporting on our shrinking democratic space, poor economic performance and so on and so forth.
Against this backdrop, one question constantly gnawed at me while I was sifting through the stories and poems published in the four issues: Is freedom of expression experienced differently in regions outside the centres of Europe and America? The answer, without a shred of doubt, is yes, but the way it is reported is flawed. Racism is rampant in the West and continues to be one of the biggest threats to freedom of expression for ethnically and racially diverse people, but European and North American media outlets are far more interested in reporting on issues that relate to violations of rights in countries from the Global South.
Not that the content of their reporting is false, but the treatment and underlying tone are such that they reinforce various stereotypes about these countries. This bias reminds me of Binyavanga Wainaina’s response in the magazine Granta, Issue 92: The View from Africa. In his piece entitled ‘How to Write About Africa’ (2005), in his acerbically sarcastic tone, Binyavanga describes white writers’ tendency to stereotype African countries: ‘Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.’
Things are further complicated when religious extremism on a social level and the government’s heavy-handed approach on a political level, in these once-colonised countries, increasingly force writers, activists and journalists to self-censor their thoughts and actions.
Speak out we must! But the challenge of describing ourselves in a language that refuses to cater to the needs of the Western gaze while also speaking truth to power in our own countries is at times insurmountable.
Reading and re-reading the pieces in this collection, however, has strengthened my conviction that writers tackle this challenge by carving out their own literary and political paths. It is noteworthy that many of them choose to begin by challenging the very notion of English as a language. In so doing, they create their own Englishes by deconstructing and reshaping the language inside out, as if to send out a message loud and clear that the language handed down to them during colonisation not only smacks of a colonial past and portends neo-colonial traps, but is also utterly inadequate to capture the realities they seek to portray and communicate.
Nowhere is this sentiment more loudly pronounced than in the poems, published across the four issues, ‘On Mimicry and Dream Dangling a Dead Bird’ by Sujash Purna (Bangladesh), ‘Dis Language Ah Speak’ by Hannah Singh (Guyana), and ‘Camera’ by Tao Howard (Barbados). This linguistic recalcitrance is also evident in the stories ‘Things must Change’ by Lloyd D’Aguilar (Jamaica) and ‘I Will Always Love You Like Whitney Houston’ by Som Adedayor (Nigeria), even though the former depicts a poor man trying to steal food for his family and the latter is a flowing tale about an LGBTQIA+ community member coming out. Language also becomes the site of experiment for writers and poets of LGBTQIA+ communities, most spectacularly in the poems ‘Nonbinary Worship’ by Nnadi Samuel (Nigeria), ‘Archipelago’ by Andy Winter (Singapore) and ‘Fish’ and ‘Merchant’ by Topher Allen (Jamaica), and in the story ‘The Brief Life of a Beautiful Thing’ by Fui Can-Tamakloe (Ghana).
The poem ‘Do You See Them?’ by Lisa Suhair Majaj (Palestine) is apt to remind one of Mahmoud Darwish, the Arab Palestinian poet, who wrote exquisite poems about how Palestinians were forcefully displaced from their lands while the West promoted, and continues to endorse, democracy in other parts of the Middle East. As the Israeli forces were, and are still, complicit in erasing Palestinian people’s history, Lisa Suhair Majaj strives to keep her family’s memories of displacement alive through her work.
In his nonfiction piece, Bangladeshi publisher Ahmedur Chowdhury tells us about the price he paid for publishing books on atheism and LGBTQIA+ issues. He and a fellow publisher were brutally attacked by members of a self-proclaimed Islamist outfit. Although he survived, the other publisher didn’t. As Ahmedur refused to bow down to the tactics of instilling fear in those who promote free speech and planned to resume his activities, he received more threats and finally realised that he was left with no protection other than that promised by a foreign land which offered him asylum. Although he now lives thousands of miles away from his country, Ahmedur continues the fight through his new publishing ventures, creating new avenues for Bangladeshi writers as well as those from any corner of the world who share his commitment to free speech.
We must speak out and send our stories out into the world, first to make an impact in the country we live in and secondly, to share them with readers and activists across the world. These pieces deserve a wider audience. Every writer lives within the geographical boundaries of a community, but their imagination defies the dictates and absurdities of geopolitics.
In a world where people are increasingly being polarised along the lines of race, gender, sexual identity, religion and politics, these pieces are like birds that, while making nests in their countries, have the potential to find new homes in other places, thus building bridges among cultures and artists and writers for a more coordinated fight towards the cause of freedom of expression.
So, let these birds fly.
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