Poet in the City and Amnesty International organised an event in London on 15 November to highlight the connections between poets and poetry and human rights abuses. Hosted by Helena Kennedy, the distinguished human rights barrister, Tortured language: the poetry of human rights featured readings by three celebrated poets: Jack Mapanje, Yang Lian and Choman Hardi.
openDemocracy presents profiles of these three poets, plus an excerpt from Helena Kennedys introduction to the event, and exclusive audio clips of the poetry readings, which includes the poetry of Shi Tao, a Chinese poet and activist recently arrested by his government.
Excerpt from the introduction by Helena Kennedy:
Jack Mapanje, Yang Lian and Choman Hardi are three poets who really speak to the values of human rights. They really did have the courage (that often we dont have) to make those great courageous stands, but they have really taken language and used it as a way of connecting and of speaking to the pain that people can suffer.
Because human rights are really about knowing what it will mean to have your freedom taken away; what it will mean to be tortured; to use our imaginations to imagine the other; to imagine the horror of certain experiences that may be outside of our own; to imagine the indignity and shame of some of the things we saw happening recently in Abu Ghraib; the horror of exile and separation from people you love; the pain of being beaten by someone who is your partner in life all that human suffering that we can know and understand by just reaching into our own imagination.
So I want to turn to three great poets who are going to share their experience through their work through language with us tonight. And I know that we will take it with us as we go.
Shi Tao (read by Yang Lian):
I come from Malawi and I have been living in the UK for 14 years. I was imprisoned in my country for 3 years, 7 months and 16 days for nothing, effectively, as I was not put on trial or charged.
I was teaching at the University of Malawi, and then became head of the English department. I think someone thought I was getting a bit too ambitious! I have tried now for 14 years to find out why I was arrested, as I dont think I was a threat at all I had no real interest in politics.
But I think now that the problem was the presidents mistress. Around the time of my arrest, Hastings Banda, the president, had pretty much become senile. His mistress and her extended family were basically ruling the country. The principal at my college was the mistress brother, and her uncle was the chairman. Anybody who appeared to be clever was seen to be a threat. And if you were published, it was even worse.
I was not the first person to be arrested and detained without trial in my country. 10 years before I was arrested there had been a spate of arrests of academics. It has been almost 20 years now since my imprisonment, and Ive put together my stories and I am writing it up as a memoir.
I have discovered various things that happened during my imprisonment, including a letter written by Hastings Banda, which was a reply to a campaign letter sent by the University of Edinburgh about my imprisonment. I have managed to obtain the original copy of Bandas letter, and this is what he had to say:
Members of staff, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Your letter of appeal on behalf of Jack Mapanje was received. It is not necessary for me to burden you with a lengthy reply but if you must know the facts, teachers here who stick to their professional work of teaching students are not interfered with by anyone. Jack Mapanje has taught at a college for a number of years without doing anything wrong, just like all his colleagues, whether Africans or Europeans. But after all these years he changed his mind for his own personal reasons and he started using the classroom as a forum for subversive politics. This cannot and will never be permitted in this country, particularly in the University of Malawi. Therefore he had to be picked out and detained. This is Malawi in Africa and not any other country. Things have to be done according to the conditions and circumstances in Malawi, Africa. Signed, H. Kamuzu Banda.
Before I was released the post office was getting up to three bags of mail everyday and all of that was for me! And at that time they said to me, where did you get all these friends? In Africa protests came from Soweto to north Africa, and in the world from anywhere you pick letters were coming in from everywhere, so they were embarrassed. Banda by that time was just exhausted and, because of all the international pressure, there was no choice but to let me go.
My point is this: the struggle, the fight, the letters that you write, these do bother dictators.
|Listen to Jack Mapanje read Skipping Without Ropes (2.52mins)|
Skipping Without Ropes
I will, I will skip without your rope
Since you say I should not, I cannot
Borrow your sons skipping rope to
Exercise my limbs; I will skip without
Your rope as you say, even the lace
I want will hang my neck until I die;
I will create my own rope, my own
Hope and skip without your rope as
You insist I do not require to stretch
My limbs fixed by these fevers of your
Reeking sweat and your prison walls;
I will, will skip with my forged hope;
Watch, watch me skip without your
Rope; watch me skip with my hope
A-one, a-two, a-three, a-four, a-five
I will, a-seven, I do, will skip, a-ten,
Eleven, I will skip without, will skip
Within and skip I do without your
Rope but with my hope; and I will,
Will always skip you dull, will skip
Your silly rules, skip your filthy walls,
You weevil pigeon peas, skip your
Scorpions, skip your Excellency Life
Glory. I do, you dont, I can, you cant,
I will, you wont, I see, you dont, I
Sweat, you dont, I will, will wipe my
Gluey brow then wipe you at a stroke
I will, will wipe your horrid, stinking,
Vulgar prison rules, will wipe you all
The hop about, hop about my cell, my
Home, the mountains, my globe as your
Sparrow hops about your prison yard
Without your hope, without your rope,
I swear, I will skip without your rope, I
Declare, I will have you take me to your
Showers to bathe me where I can resist
This singing child you want to shape me,
Ill fight your rope, your rules, your hope
As your sparrow does under your super-
vision! Guards! Take us for a shower!
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|Listen to Jack Mapanje read Seasons Greetings For Celia (BC) (3.33mins)|
Seasons Greetings For Celia (BC)
They say when God closes one door
He opens a window to let in the sun,
Celia, your seasons greeting arrived
In time of despair, after I had sighed
My life out by signing the Detention
Order insisted upon by my Life President,
who wants us to rot, rot, rot forever
In this prison, but your white and red
Roses invoke that War of the Roses I
Battled to comprehend to achieve my
A-Levels; the green English landscape
Summons the Romantics I explored
Under the billowing smoke of paraffin
Tin-can lamps once upon the tough terrain
I thought I had left behind; and how did
You hope to be remembered when you
Mark your name merely as Celia (BC)?
If the parentheticals are the British Council,
10 Spring Gardens, London, I recall no one
By that name there; my British Council
Programme organiser with whom I shared
My London Magazine poems was called
Sheila, I think, and why, why of all those
Bags and bags of protest mail which harass
The Post Office Sorting Centre everyday,
As oblique couriers convey, why did only
Your postcard from London and another
From The Hague choose to slip past our
Strict mail sorters at this crucial moment,
What bribe did you provide the Office-in-
Charge of prison for him to chance me to
His office to peruse your mail from over-
seas, defying the edict from the life-despot
And risking his life and mine? No matter.
Your seasons greetings Celia have thawed
Our anguish furnishing these rancid prison
Walls with much sought after night jasmine;
Now the cliché glowers: somewhere some-
one we do not know cares and that dear
Celia is all the prisoner needs to know!
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I was born in Beijing, and I started writing poetry during the Cultural Revolution. My work became more well-known during the 1980s, partly because I was involved in a new movement of a modern style of poetry writing. But, despite the interesting new poetry, China during the 1980s was still a deeply flawed place, and, until 1989, lacked any real political and cultural introspection.
In 1988 I was invited by the Australian Arts Council and Auckland University to join a year-long writers program. So I was actually in New Zealand at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre (4 June 1989). But, from where I was in New Zealand, I led many campaigns about it. It did mean that at the end of 1989 all my books were banned in China, and that effectively was the start of my exile. Since then I have travelled around the world, and finally settled in London in 1997. I am also now a New Zealand citizen, so I can go back to China, but as a foreigner!
It is difficult to be a poet-in- exile. You are far away from your own country, your friends, and your readers. But, to be in exile is also a very positive thing, as you have been forced (some of it based on your own choices) to be purely individual and to really think about the reason why you write. It is really important to develop your writing based on new experiences, and this adds hugely to the strength of the poet.
Being in China in the 1980s was very important for me, as I went through a crucial process of developing my own thought. My friends and I were questioning everything reality, history, tradition, language, the self, and on each of these levels we would go back to the root of culture, and of life. This way of thinking and writing, and constant analysis was very healthy for my mind.
For many people in the west, China is still an exotic fantasy, a strange, faraway country. They cannot understand China, but somehow those people will never understand themselves.
Writing poetry is what I do, and it is the root of my entire mind. Poetry is self-discovery, and I treat it as a journey to seeking myself and a way of connecting to others. My new book Concentric Circles, took me three years to complete. It is based on that idea of concentric circles, which could represent lots of things China and the rest of the world, history and the present, myself and others, language and realities all these things are concentric circles, and at the centre of this is the question of poetry. Its philosophical but, at the same time, very real, as its based on my own life experiences. At the end, what I have done in my poetry is maybe the best part of it.
Poetry is the root of all language and culture. If you knew how exciting Chinese poetry websites are, especially compared to western ones, then you will see that poetry has never left young Chinese people. Even so, publishing is getting more and more commercial. But websites do play a very important role. For instance, I just directed a large web discussion between a group of English poets and Chinese poets. We were up in an Arts Centre in Scotland and linked up with a literary website in China, and hundreds of people took part, and we had over 600 questions in 3 hours! I have always been a bit wary of the internet, but I have been getting more involved with online projects, and now I am even building my own website!
So, would I ever go back to China? I feel now that the borders are not so important, and that shared ideas are much more important. So now, I wont go back to the old China, but the new China which is against the government. I want to be able to support these people.
I am always trying to push for change in China on all sorts of levels, but especially political and cultural. China has already gone through enormous change and, thankfully, some of the changes have been very good. Even now, with an ever-increasing commercialism, individual consciousness has been woken up. There are a lot of young writers and young people who now have access to more open information, and they are doing some really interesting things. There are political movements held by peasants and workers, and there are millions of people now who understand these actions.
A lot of people, especially the cold war ideologists, had this theory that communists could never run an economy well. So now, with a lot of economic success, China has become this weird case: a communist system with a growing economy. How did this happen? Is the theory wrong or is China just special? China is not special, and the theory was right. What has happened is that as capitalists, China and the Chinese government are behaving even worse than they were as socialists. Look at the new rich, and how terrible the lives of the new poor are, and it is actually much worse than it ever was.
So its our responsibility, not only Chinas but the wests too, to fight against the union of selfish interest and individuality, and to fight for unity between humanity and individuality. This is the new reality that we are facing.
|Listen to Yang Lian read 1989 in Chinese, and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (2.45mins)|
who says the dead can embrace?
like fine horses
My father is a poet, and so poetry wasnt new to me. I started writing poetry when I was 20, here in Britain, and thats when I fell in love with it.
Kurdish is my mother tongue, and so it was natural for me to write in that language. I tried to translate some of my poems but they really didnt work! Kurdish belongs to a very different literary tradition its a lot more colourful, elaborate and abstract, whereas contemporary English poetry is very understated, and quiet. So when I first started to write poetry in English five years ago, I was still following the Kurdish tradition, but as I read more contemporary English poetry it gradually changed.
Languages also have this tendency of switching, and the language that you use more becomes more active. Gradually, English has become a much stronger language for me. But its important to keep Kurdish alive and to give it cultural life, to reach out when nobody knows about our story. I still have people asking me Why cant you settle down in Iraq and Turkey, whats your problem? Poetry can do what journalism and history cannot; it can really bring back those little things which really make up a persons relations, it gives you the bigger picture.
I went back to Kurdistan about two and a half years ago. Its a bit of a difficult relationship with the homeland. There is a poem in my book that describes it:
places we come from / stay in our memory / they haunt us and appear in our dreams / forever tempting us to go back / only to drive us away when we get there.
Youre always idolising your homeland and when you get there, youre disappointed, and you want to run away, but then after a few years you want to go back. So theres this constant cyclical push, but really, that place you left will never exist again. That world is gone, and you keep searching for it, thinking that when you go back youll find it, but you never do.
Writing in a second language is also a form of distancing. Nostalgia is very difficult in poetry: strong emotions can really turn people off. Its important to have a bit of distance in time and space, and using another language will allow you to write about it a bit more neutrally. Its important to distinguish between poetry that is emotional and poetry that is informed by emotion.
Emotional poetry is like people shouting in your face, but poetry informed by emotion is where emotion is infiltrated into the poem in a more subtle way. And thats what I try to do, I try to capture in words all the myths that make up this nation, the Kurds; our identity; what do we think of ourselves; the stories and legends. I might forget it myself in twenty years time, so I can always look back and say thats why I did that.
|Listen to Choman Hardi read At the border (2.12mins)|
At the border, 1979
It is your last check-in point in this country!
We grabbed a drink
soon everything would taste different.
The land divided by our feet continued
divided by a thick iron chain.
My sister put her leg across it.
Look over here, she said to us,
my right leg is in this country
and my left leg is in the other.
The border guards told her off.
My mother informed me: We are going home.
She said that the roads are much cleaner
the landscape is more beautiful
and people are much kinder.
Dozens of families waited in the rain.
I can inhale home, somebody said.
Now our mothers were crying. I was five years old
standing by the check-in point
comparing both sides of the border.
The autumn soil continued on the other side
with the same colour, the same texture.
It rained on both sides of the chain.
We waited while our papers were checked,
our faces thoroughly inspected.
Then the chain was removed to let us through.
A man bent down and kissed his muddy homeland.
The same chain of mountains encompassed all of us.
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|Listen to Choman Hardi read My fathers books (1.44mins)|
My fathers books
It was autumn 1988
when my fathers books dispersed.
One by one they came off the shelves,
cleaned themselves of his signature
and grouped, choosing different fates.
The books with conscience divided.
The stubborn ones set themselves alight,
too rebellious in their objection
they chose death over a life in the dark.
The others preferred a hiding place.
Hoping to see the light again
they packed themselves into a luggage bag,
buried themselves in the back garden,
to be recovered many years later
crumpled, eaten by the damp.
The rest chose more stable homes
where they wouldnt be abandoned again.
They shone on other peoples shelves
keeping their secret to themselves.
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|Listen to Choman Hardi read My mothers kitchen (1.53mins)|
My mothers kitchen
I will inherit my mothers kitchen.
Her glasses, some tall and lean, others short and fat,
her plates, and ugly collection from various sets,
cups bought in a rush on different occasions,
rusty pots she cant bear throwing away.
Dont buy anything just yet, she says,
soon all of this will be yours.
My mother is planning another escape,
for the first time home is her destination,
the rebuilt house which she will furnish.
At 69 she is excited about
starting from scratch.
Its her ninth time.
She never talks about her lost furniture
when she keep leaving her homes behind.
She never feels regret for things,
only for her vine in the front garden
which spread over the trellis on the porch.
She used to sing for the grapes to ripen
sew cotton bags to protect them from the bees.
I know I will never inherit my mothers trees.
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|Listen to Choman Hardi read Summer roof (1.50mins)|
Every night that summer
when we went to bed on the flat roof,
I stayed awake
watching the opposite roof
where he was,
a tiny light turning on
every time he puffed his cigarette.
Once I was shown his paintings
and I went home
and wrote his name all over my books.
I kept imagining what he would say,
how I would respond.
I imagined being married to him,
looking after him when he fell ill,
cooking for him and washing his hair.
I imagined him sleeping on the same roof.
A whole year went by and we never talked
then suddenly an empty house opposite us,
an empty roof not staring back
and sleepless nights for me.
Years later we met again
the same man with a few fingers missing,
bad tempered, not able to paint.
We never spoke,
we remained on our separate roofs.
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|Listen to Yang Lian read Shi Taos poem June, and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (1.28mins)|
My whole life
Will never get past June
June, when my heart died
when my poetry died
When my lover
Died in an abandoned pool of blood
June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth changes shape, the river falls silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead
9 June, 2004
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Pain, by Shi Tao (text unavailable)
|Listen to Yang Lian read Shi Taos poem June, and an English translation performed by Peter Forbes (2.45mins)|
On 24 November 2004, Shi Tao, a 37 year-old Chinese writer, poet and journalist was detained at his home in Shanxi province and later charged with illegally divulging state secrets abroad. His crime was to notify overseas media contacts of a central government order forbidding media organisations in China from commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. This was subsequently reported on an overseas website.
On 30 April 2005 Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. His appeal was rejected on 2 June and he has since been held in Changsha prison in Hunan province.
The English translation of Yang Lian and Shi Taos poems is performed by Peter Forbes, a distinguished English Shakespearian actor who has just completed a season of A Winters Tale at the Globe Theatre.
With special thanks to Graham Henderson of Poet in the City
Shi Tao (read by Yang Lian):