Thoughts on the Issue of the Author as Activist

American author William Faulkner famously said that fiction is a better conduit to conveying a truth than journalism. Faulkner’s adage has been confirmed time and time again through literary history where stories such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando have told us more about political and sexual oppression than any journalistic piece ever could.

Because fiction is such a powerful way of revealing the truth, the author as activist is arguably the most dangerous person to an oppressive regime. Just look at José Rizal (1861–1896) whose novel Filibusterismo was crucial to the Filipino independence struggle against Spain. Or the importance of Vaslav Havel’s (1936–2011) work to the fall of Communism in what is today the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Or the very latest example, Svetlana Aleksievich’s hybrid style of fiction and journalism that made the Lukashenko regime of Belarus label her as a non-existing individual and which earned her the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Rizal, Havel, and Aleksievich have in common that they are authors writing as activists against an oppressive society within which they themselves live their lives. Their work resonates because the experience they share is their own. This is the reason, I believe, why Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me made such an impact when it was published last year. Coates writes from personal experience and the reader feels this in the prose. There is no other option but to take him seriously and listen to him because there is no denying that—like Rizal, Havel, and Aleksievich—the experience he shares with us is his own.

But what about when the author as activist adopts the cause of a group to which he or she does not belong? When the author as activist speaks on behalf of someone else’s experience?

An example of this type of activism is the authors’ protest letter and boycott of PEN America’s decision to award French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in 2015. The reason given for the protest and boycott was that Charlie Hebdo targets a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.” This in referral to France’s Muslim population. In other words, according to the protesters, Charlie Hedbo‘s work is not reprehensible for its crude satire, but because it targets Muslims.

However, as I expressed several times on twitter while this controversy was going on, the authors that were involved in this protest made no mention of the fact that Charlie Hebdo‘s main target for their satirist cartoons is not Islam, but the Catholic Church. Neither did anyone seem to have a problem with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that targeted Jews.

I cannot speak for any of the authors involved in the protest but novelist Jennifer Coden Epstein’s request to have her name removed from the letter and the reasons stated by her for this request show the perils of becoming an activist for a cause that is not your own. In what I would refer to as a courageous statement, Epstein admits that she was misinformed and wrong about Charlie Hebdo‘s work and her assessment of the cartoons. Salman Rushdie tweeted that he hoped that other signees would follow in Epstein’s footsteps. Unfortunately, that seems not to have happened.

Making sure that you are fully informed of all the aspects and nuances is only one important aspect when you decide to fight for a cause which is not yours. Another important aspect is to be aware of the historical background of that cause and to know how to interpret a historical process in comparison to other processes.

An example of how an author undermines him- or herself as an activist when not understanding how to analyze history has been made evident in a round-table conversation published by Electric Literature. The round-table discussion concerned the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine where comparisons were made between the origins of the United States and Israel, making the argument that the two countries shared an origin as colonial settler states.

As far as the United States are concerned, there is an origin story of colonial settlement. From the first lasting settlement at Jamestown in 1607 until 1776 when the United Colonies declared independence from the British Empire, a colonial project of gigantic proportions, controlled and instigated by the British government, took place on the east coast of North America. Land was cleared for farming by European settlers, Native Americans were displaced, and Africans were brought in as slaves.

When it comes to Israel, until the end of World War I, the area that is now Israel and the PA was under the colonial rule of the Ottoman Empire. From the collapse of the Ottomans and until 1948, the region was under the colonial rule of the British Empire. During the decades leading up to 1948, this region saw an influx of Jewish immigrants. In 1947, the United Nations general assembly voted to partition the region between a Palestinian state and an Israeli state. On May 14, 1948 the British empire left the region for good and the UN resolution came into force.

When comparing origin stories, the only way for Israel to have a colonial settler origin such as the United States would be if the Jewish immigration prior to 1948 had been orchestrated by either the Ottomans or the British for their own gain. Or if a large immigration of one particular group to an area would constitute as colonization. If so, then consequently Europe is currently being colonized by Syrian refugees. Which, of course, it is not.

The author as activist is, arguably, one of the most important aspects of being an author. The author as activist has the opportunity and the ability to highlight and bring forward issues in a way that journalists and historians simply cannot. However, the fact that the author as activist is writing fiction does not give the author the liberty to disrespect facts or historical processes. When this happens, fiction no longer tells the truth better than journalism. Rather, it becomes the harbinger of untruths.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources
Karen Ordahl Kupperman The Jamestown Project (Harvard University Press, 2007).
The Guardian, “Two Dozen Writers Join Charlie Hebdo PEN Protest.”
The Guardian, “Novelist Says She was Wrong to Oppose Charle Hebdo PEN Award.”
Electric Literature, “A Conversation about American Writers and Palestine.”
Britannica Online, search term “Israel.”

 

Advertisements

Svetlana Alexievich and the Politics of the Swedish Academy.

 

 

On December 10, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich will receive the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature at the Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Here is an article I wrote about how awarding the Prize, the Swedish Academy continues its tradition to support the work of dissidents within the region that used to be the Soviet Union.

Svetlana Alexievich and the Politics of the Swedish Academy

Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich

According to the last will and testament of Swedish inventor and philanthropist Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prize in Literature should be awarded an author “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” With her collected testimonies creating a history of emotions located at the intersection of fiction and reality, Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich fulfills this criterion in a way few other authors do.

Named as one of the favorites to receive the 2014 Nobel Prize, this year’s decision places Alexievich in the company of other literature laureates whose work has forced them into exile. Moreover, the Academy’s decision highlights the importance of sanctuaries for writers as well as the commitment of the Swedish intelligentsia in supporting the critics and dissidents of Belarus, Europe’s only dictatorship.

Born in 1948, Svetlana Alexievich grew up in the Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. Already at a young age she noticed the discrepancy between the personal experiences related by the adults who surrounded her and the official version of events put forward by the Soviet government. From the very beginning of her career as a writer, the urge to expose this gap has been her driving force.

To be able to do so, Alexievich has invented a new literary genre where real-life testimonials are written as prose. Her books are based on interviews with people who participated in important historical events, such as World War II, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

The interviews are detailed and in-depth; Alexievich estimates that it takes her between five and ten years to finish a book. Literary critic Kristoffer Leandoer writes in the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet how his wife, Elsa, became part of Alexievich’s source material when the couple was living in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in the late 1990s. Alexievich spent an entire weekend interviewing Elsa, going over details while drinking copious amounts of tea.

But telling the story of the everyday human experience as opposed to the narrative of a totalitarian system can be difficult and dangerous. Kajsa Öberg Lindsten, Alexievich’s Swedish translator, writes in the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten that the Soviet authorities banned Alexievich’s first book. Instead, Öberg Lindsten continues, War’s Unwomanly Face became the book that introduced Alexievich as a writer. Finished already in 1983, an edited version of War’s Unwomanly Face was published in 1985, riding on the wave of glasnost and perestroika.

Whereas War’s Unwomanly Face revealed the story of women soldiers at the Soviet frontlines during World War II, Alexievich’s second book, Zinky Boys, took on the subject of the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. The official death toll is 50,000 soldiers, but, as Alexievich says herself, everyone knows that number to be a fabrication.

Zinky Boys exposes the human suffering during a war that the Soviet government pretended did not exist as it was going on. When the book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1989, it caused an uproar. In 1992, Alexievich was put on trial in Minsk, accused of slander against the heroes featured in her book.

By the time of Alexievich’s trial, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist after Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine declared independence. In the immediate wake of the Soviet collapse, Belarus was transitioning towards a democratic society. But the mentality of the Soviet Union still lingered, and it was only because of international pressure that the charges against Alexievich were dropped.

But Belarus never became a democracy. In the 1994 presidential elections, former kolkhoz chairman Alexander Lukashenko took power and has ruled the country ever since. In a column in Göteborgs-Posten, Alexievich describes Lukashenko as a man attuned to the changing currents of politics. Once he stood side by side with Russian president Boris Yeltsin, speaking about democracy and western values. But as faith in democracy faded in the former Soviet states, Lukashenko changed his tune. Now, his greatest heroes are Soviet leaders Lenin and Stalin.

Under Lukashenko Belarus has become a society with no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly. Belarus imprisons and executes critics of the government. Authors, journalists, and human rights activists are persecuted. The secret police is still called the KGB.

After publishing her third book, Voices from Chernobyl, which contains interviews with survivors and evacuees of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, the pressure exerted by the Lukashenko regime became too much to bear. As the 1990s came to a close, Alexievich went into exile.

At the time of the disaster, Chernobyl was a power plant located in the Soviet Union. But Chernobyl is in fact located in Ukraine, in close proximity to the northern border of Belarus. The dramatic event of when the nuclear reactor exploded is arguably the largest peacetime disaster in modern Belarusian history. In spite of this, the Lukashenko regime is investing heavily in the region that took most of the radioactive fallout.

According to Johanna Lindbladh, senior lecturer in Russian literature at Lund University, the regime responded harshly to Voices from Chernobyl because by portraying the human suffering caused by the disaster, Alexievich exposes the weaknesses of the state. To a totalitarian regime that is not only a humiliating insult, it is also a challenge to the status quo.

Support for Lindbladh’s conclusion can be found in an article in Politico, written by Joerg Forbrig, director of the Fund for Belarus Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Forbrig claims that Alexievich has been able to tap into the post-Soviet era mindset of the Homo Sovieticus. It is this mindset that has given rise to the development seen in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

The former Soviet Union looks the way it does, Forbrig explains, because of a “social consciousness that remained widely unreformed and that dragged down attempts at building open societies and polities.” This social consciousness fosters an attitude of cynicism, hatred, and suspicion. Its moral compass has stopped functioning and in its stead a longing for power, respect, and stability has developed alongside a genuine fear of change.

Alexievich would go on to spend the next twelve years in exile. Two of those years were spent in Gothenburg, Sweden, which has been a city of refuge for persecuted writers since 1996. Alexievich herself has declared that without cities such as Gothenburg, she would not have been able to continue her work as a writer. Moreover, Alexievich’s stay in Gothenburg served to strengthen the already established ties between the Swedish and the Belarusian intelligentsia. Because of these ties, Alexievich has become a regular contributor to Göteborgs-Posten, whose main office is located in Gothenburg.

In 2012, Alexievich decided to voluntarily return to Belarus. She says she moved back because she needs to hear the voices of the Belarusian people and spend time among them so that she can finish what she considers her life’s work–a book about love in the former Soviet Union.

Alexievich’s reason for returning home underlines a recurring misconception about her work, namely that she is a critic of Russia and Vladimir Putin. It is true that the sharp point of her pen often points in the direction of Belarus’s neighbor and its leader, but Alexievich is a Belarusian author. It was the Belarusian regime that forced her into exile, not the government of Russia. It is the Lukashenko regime that has banned her books from being distributed and prohibited her name from being mentioned in public. It is the Lukashenko regime that considers her a non-existing person.

It is within this post-Soviet Belarusian context that the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Alexievich the Nobel Prize should be viewed. Since the first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901, the Swedish Academy has given four dissident writers from the now-defunct Soviet Union the Nobel Prize in Literature. The first one was Ivan Bunin in 1933, who at the time lived in exile in Paris. In 1958, the award went to Boris Pasternak. Still living in the Soviet Union, the authorities pressured him into declining the award. In spite of this, the official records of the Nobel Prize still names Pasternak as the recipient of the 1958 award. In 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize, but did not accept it in person until he had gone into exile in 1974. The last of the Soviet Union dissident writers to receive the Nobel Prize was Joseph Brodsky in 1987. Forced into exile in 1972, Brodsky lived most of his life in the United States where he passed away in 1996.

By naming Alexievich the 2015 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy has used the international prestige of the award to back Lukashenko into a corner, forcing the regime to acknowledge her existence. Following the announcement, Belarusian state media mentioned Alexievich’s name for the first time. On October 9, Alexander Lukashenko issued an official statement, congratulating Alexievich on the award, saying that her “creative art has touched Belarusians and readers in other countries alike.” He claimed to be happy for her success and expressed hope that the award would benefit the Belarusian nation and its people.

Furthermore, the Swedish Academy’s announcement could not have been more opportune. On October 11, presidential elections were held in Belarus. Leading up to the elections, Lukashenko presented them as fair and open. A number of political prisoners were released to show his good intentions. In order to maintain this facade, Lukashenko had no other choice than to congratulate Alexievich on the award.

Moreover, the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Svetlana Alexievich the Nobel Prize comes at a delicate time in the diplomatic relations between Sweden and Belarus. In 2012, the Swedish ambassador to Belarus, Stefan Eriksson, was asked to leave the country and the Swedish embassy was closed. The Swedish government answered in kind and the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm closed its doors. The Swedish foreign minister at the time, Carl Bildt, was quoted by Reuters, saying that the actions taken by the Lukashenko regime “is about Sweden being engaged in democracy and human rights in Belarus.” The Swedish embassy in Minsk reopened in 2013, but it is not until this year that negotiations concerning the Belarusian embassy in Stockholm are underway.

Even though the Swedish Academy has been criticized for pandering to totalitarian regimes–the latest example being Chinese author Mo Yan as recipient of the 2012 award–this year’s decision is a clear statement in favor of democracy and freedom of speech.

Meanwhile in Minsk, Svetlana Alexievich held a press conference after the award had been announced. She told reporters that the eight million Swedish kronor that come with the award would buy her the freedom to complete two more books that she is planning. When asked about the presidential election, she answered that she would not participate in an election where the result is predetermined.

As voting began on October 11, reports of voter fraud immediately began pouring in. By the end of the day, Lukashenko had won a fifth term as president with more than 80% of the votes.

Freedom from dictatorship might seem far off in the future for the people of Belarus. But with every author given the freedom to write–be it at home using the money from a prestigious award or in exile in a city of refuge–the day when the dictatorship will come to an end is still within our grasp.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

 

 

The 20th Anniversary of the Democratic Constitution of Belarus

During the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine, one European former Soviet republic has kept a low profile. I am talking about Belarus. Belarus borders on Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland and is a dictatorship run by Aljaksandr Lukashenka. But twenty years ago, Belarus was headed in the direction of democracy and on March 15, 1994 adopted a constitution to fulfill that goal. What happened?

Belarus is approximately one third of the size of Ukraine and has a population of 9,441,000 (2013), 1.9 million of which live in the capital Minsk. Belarusians constitute the largest ethnic group, followed by Russians. Before World War II, Jews were the second largest ethnic group in Belarus. The Belarusian language is the official language but Russian is used on all levels of society.

1346635
The location of Belarus is marked in red.
Source: Nationalencyklopedin

Throughout history Belarus has been a region located in between the cultural and economic regions of the Baltic and the Slavs. From the middle of the ninth century, the area that was to become Belarus was part of the state of the Kievan Rus, originating in present-day Ukraine. Kievan Rus collapsed when the Mongols invaded and during the thirteenth century, Belarus constituted the western-most part of the Mongolian realm. Meanwhile, Lithuania on the Baltic increased in political power and during the course of the fourteenth century, Belarus instead became a part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in 1386 entered into a political union with Poland. This political union lasted until the three partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) when the Polish-Lithuanian area was divided in accordance with Russian interests.

Due to Polish-Lithuanian governance, Belarus became integrated into the Polish-Catholic cultural sphere while distancing itself from the Slavic-Orthodox. This development is confirmed by the fact that during the Middle Ages, Belarusian towns and cities adhered to the so-called Magdeburg Law. The City of Magdeburg, today located in east Germany, was an important trading place at the intersection of the Germanic and Slavic regions. Towns and cities of lesser importance and stature adopted the city laws of major cities to be able to participate in European trade and exchange. Magdeburg was a city whose law was adopted by several other cities. Lübeck, on the German Baltic coast, was another such city. The fact that Belarusian cities adopted the Magdeburg Law indicates their affiliation with the European continent rather than the landmasses ruled by Kiev and Moscow.

Following the partition of Poland, Belarus became part of the Russian Empire and continued as such until the Empire’s collapse during the Russian Revolution and the ensuing Russian Civil War (1918–1920). During this period, Belarus, together with Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, declared independence. Belarus became part of the Soviet Union, once again after being divided, this time in accordance to the borders between Russia and Poland as constituted by Poland’s First Partition in 1772. The new borders of Belarus was determined by the Treaty of Riga, signed by Russia and Poland in 1921. Of these new-born independent states, Finland was the only one not to become part of the Soviet Union.

800px-Flag_of_Belarus.svg
Current flag of Belarus.
Source: Zscout370

800px-Flag_of_Belarus_(1991-1995).svg
Flag of Belarus, 1918–1921, 1991–1995.

The Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991. The reason why the Soviet Union collapsed was because the Soviet Republic of Belarus, together with Ukraine and Russia, agreed to create a Commonwealth of Independent States instead of the Soviet Union. Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were soon joined by other Soviet Republics and the CIS began functioning on December 21, 1991, with its administrative center located in Minsk.

Soon after independence work on drafting a constitution began. While working on the new constitution, the legislators looked towards the legal foundations of sovereign states such as the United States, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden, while constructing a legal system based on the principle of the Russian Federation. The constitution was adopted on March 15, 1994.

450px-Constitution_of_Belarus
Constitution of Belarus. Title written in Belarusian, followed by Russian.
Source: Zscout370

The constitution created the office of President as the new nation’s leader. In July 1994, Aljaksandr Lukashenko was elected to the post and has ruled the country ever since, amending the democratic constitution through two non-transparent and highly criticized referendums in 1996 and 2004, respectively.

Today, Belarus is the only dictatorship in Europe. The country has no freedom of speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom of organization and its domestic economy is in shambles. Its prisons hold political prisoners and the government has executed several of its imprisoned dissidents.

To stay in power Aljaksandr Lukashenko needs both Ukraine and Russia. Lukashenko needs Ukraine because that country is one of Belarus’ main trading partners. Therefore, Lukashenko needs to stay on friendly terms with whomever is in power in Kiev.  Lukashenko needs Russia because Russia is one of his few supporters. But Russia’s support of the Lukashenko regime is based on strategic interests. If Russia loses interest in Belarus as an ally, Lukashenko’s days are numbered.

And that is why no voice on the Ukrainian crisis is heard from Minsk.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Nationalencyklopedin Vitryssland
Nationalencyklopedin Litauen: den ryska tiden
Nationalencyklopedin Magdeburg
Britannica.com Belarus
Britannica.com Commonwealth of Independent States
Wikipedia Constitution of Belarus
Belarusbloggen Varför tiger Lukasjenka om Krim?

Note:
There is no standard set for transcribing Belarusian names in English.
Images of Belarusian flags and constitution downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.