‘Writers in Danger’ at the Sydney Writers’ Festival
Many of us presume free speech as the natural corollary of any liberal society. What happens, though, when it penetrates the public domain, and gathers political momentum against state authority?
The travails of writers facing persecution and their ongoing struggle against harassment in all forms, including censorship, incarceration and sometimes even death, was the focus of an engaging discussion, ‘Writers in Danger’, at the recently concluded Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Introduced by International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) ambassador Anna Funder and moderated by National Living Treasure, the outspoken Australian QC Julian Burnside, ‘Writers in Danger’ brought together North Korean defector Yeonmi Park (In Order to Live), erudite Chinese activist Xu Zhiyuan and Indian journalists turned novelists Samanth Subramanian (This Divided Island) and Deepti Kapoor (A Bad Character) for a candid, but philosophical examination of the risks faced by writers, be it free-spirited bloggers, news hounds or authors. Ultimately their drive and motivation to speak up against malevolent leaders, as well as callous governments, seems to outweigh personal risk.
Lauding courageous advocates of free speech all over the world for voicing opinions on behalf of the silent millions who despair against restrictive policies, Burnside admitted that it was a luxury to be able to show political dissent without grave consequences.
“Writers are canaries in the mind, who speak up against illegitimate regimes, showing the altruism in humans,” he said.
Despite facing a lifetime of oppression, defector Yeonmi Park has nothing but gratitude for her motherland and its oppressed lot. “I do carry a lot of hurtful trauma. Nevertheless, life’s all-important journey has taught me survival skills. I finally know what normal means, what it is to be human and that people do really care,” she declared.
Dubbed as a “propaganda puppet of the west”, the healing power of empathy and silent tears that roll down the cheeks of strangers ultimately restored her faith. “It also made me want to share my powerful story,” she said, poignantly.
“I certainly aimed to shock,” admitted Deepti Kapoor with refreshing candour on her raison d’être as a contemporary writer. “I wanted to challenge not only the smug Indian attitude towards women but the western perception of all Indian writers as exotica.”
As a journalist in north India, bribery, scandals and illegal trade have fired her imagination. Although she has never faced personal danger, she identifies strongly with those enduring persecution from misguided convictions and crony capitalism.
“It all depends on where or what you write. More journalists are killed in India than soldiers in Afghanistan. Sadly, we all hide behind the veil of democracy,” she lamented.
Often described as the “most intellectual Chinese of his generation”, Xu Zhiyuan (Paper Tiger: Inside the Real China) is on a mission to stir the collective Chinese conscience.
“Always treading a fine line, the ordinary citizen plays a lifetime game of artfully dodging taboo. Single-mindedly obsessed with the mundane job of making money, sadly Chinese people never discuss global issues and therefore have little interest in the wider world,” he stated, regretting his brethren’s provincial attitude to life.
Likewise, Samanth Subramanian sees himself as a conduit, whose duty is to waken disenfranchised people. “Journalists are no doubt silenced by unappreciative regimes, but it is my job to speak up and highlight the plight of the marginalised and sidelined sections of society,” he said.
Condemning state sanctioned violence, he also deplored the lack of backbone and moral fibre among the global leadership that ultimately fosters indirect instruments of suppression.
Interestingly, these discussions led to scrutiny of the role of the international community in raising awareness against governments that condone brutality through sheer neglect, as well as humans who don the mantle of assassins.
“For a long time, ICORN has been working towards establishing cities of refuge in Australia. The focus on ICORN and the situation of writers at risk at this important festival is an essential driver for our continuous efforts to recruit cities in Australia, to host persecuted writers and artists,” ICORN’s Helge Lunde indicated.