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A report by Finuala Dowling:
In a moving and rousing event to mark the World Day of the Imprisoned Writer last Thursday, seven South African writers ranging in age from a nineteen-year-old beginner blogger to a distinguished seventy-two-year old poet paid tribute to their imprisoned peers around the world.
Over a hundred people crowded into Kalk Bay Books to hear Beatrice Willoughby, Tom Eaton, Lauren Beukes, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Tim Butcher, Michael Morris and Gus Ferguson lend their voices to silenced writers with whom, in most cases, they shared an exact birth year: Tal al-Mallouhi of Syria, Ericson Acosta of the Philippines, Eskinder Nega of Ethiopia, Dolma Kyab of Tibet, Muharrem Erbey of Turkey, Mamadali Makhmudov of Uzbekistan and Chinese Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiaobo.
The local writers read poetry, prose and prison letters by the imprisoned writers, offering in turn words of reflection, consolation and support.
As always at PEN events, an empty chair symbolised the jailed writer.
‘Freedom of expression underlies all other freedoms,’ said Margie Orford, executive vice-president of PEN South Africa, in her opening remarks.
John Maytham, MC for the evening, reminded the audience of the many South African writers who were detained under apartheid, and echoed Orford’s warning that writers here could soon risk imprisonment again for telling the truth under the new ‘Secrecy Bill’.
Before describing the circumstances of each writer’s arrest and detention, Maytham quoted Nadine Gordimer (‘Art is on the side of the oppressed’) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn: ‘For a country to have a great writer is like having a second government. That is why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.’
Commenting on the fact that Ericson Acosta was arrested for being in possession of hand grenades when all he had on him at the time was his laptop, Tom Eaton said ‘This is a very telling detail, because to a regime, a laptop is a hand grenade.’
Michael Morris returned to this fear of the incendiary power of words when he read a list of items confiscated from Liu Xiaobo when the Chinese poet was taken into custody:
1. Notebook computer (IBM model T43), one
2. Notebook computer (Lianxiang model Chaoyang 700 CFe), one
3. Desktop computer (Lianxiang model Jiayue), one
4. Charter 08 request for comments draft (sealed together with the court papers), 7 pages+ .
‘We are lucky that we live in South Africa and can write what we like,’ said Lauren Beukes, before reading Chris van Wyk’s poem ‘In detention’ as a reminder of how this has not always been true.
Henrietta Rose-Innes too, chose a South African prison poem, Hugh Lewin’s ‘Wagon Wheels’, with its haunting memory of Eli Weinberg singing for the condemned men on their way to the gallows:
And if you stopped a moment
on your way up Hospital Hill
into the rising hum of Hillbrow
you’d have heard it -
only an echo perhaps
behind the walls and the double doors
hiding the nation’s underbelly.
Tim Butcher responded to Eskinder Nega’s moving fortitude during his continued imprisonment, and Gus Ferguson poignantly contrasted his life to that of his tortured ‘doppelganger’ Mamadali Makhmudov.
Beatrice Willoughby offered this simple, line-by-line response to her age-twin, Tal al-Mallouhi of Syria:
You will remain an example by Tal al-Mallouhi
I will walk with all walking people
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
A palm tree
A drop in a cloud
And a grave to protect me
This is more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise me
I would like to have power
Even for one day
To build the “republic of feelings.”
(Translated by Ghias al-Jundi)
Dear Tal al-
by Beatrice Willoughby
May you run with all running people
You will never be still
Never just watch the passers by
I know because in my homeland
A cloud on the mountain
And an old man’s promise to protect me
Our homelands are more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise us
Listen masters, to 19-year old girls
We too would like power
Even just for one day
To build our “republic of feelings.”
The evening was framed by song. Jacques Coetzee and Johann Kotze set the tone for the evening with an unplugged version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a wire’, and Emma Rycroft sent everyone home with the feeling that the gathering had, indeed, ‘gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing’.
Declan Burke from Crime Always Pays recently fired a few quick questions at me. In the following interview I reveal, among other things, the pitch for my next book:
What crime novel would you most like to have written?
WOLVES EAT DOGS by Martin Cruz Smith.
What fictional character would you most like to have been?
Arkady Renko (goes with the above). But some days I feel more like Cruella deVille. I never want to be Bambi’s mother.
This is going to be my last column for a while. My next book has a deadline gun at my head. So, like most people facing an immovable force, I am giving in. I am also conducting an experiment on myself; for the first time in my life I am going to focus on one thing, and one thing only. So, I have parcelled out all the other work I do and handed it over.
The forced passing of the “secrecy” Bill – it would be ridiculous if it was not so frightening – briefly derailed my ambition to be a wallflower. However, South Africa’s grasping rulers have underestimated how pissed off the electorate is with them. Those in power, sheltered from reality as they are, seem to have swallowed their own Orwellian doublespeak and that South Africans have experience at fighting injustice, mendacity and state crime. They will get their come-uppance as people who do wrong sometimes do.
This is one of the things I have learnt during the time that crime has absorbed my writing attention and these column inches for some time. And this column has taken me places. A year ago I was sailing with my family off the Tanzanian coast. We had planned a route further out into the beckoning, blue Indian Ocean, but because of raiding Somali pirates we kept inside the reef that protects Zanzibar. It was fabulous, but the limitations caused by the collapse of the Somali state irked me, although I see that Wilbur Smith – never a man to miss a moment – already dashed a book out about piracy, a distressed, blonde damsel rescued by manly men in khaki.
So, I fly up to Jo’burg to take part in celebrations for Nobel-laureate Nadine Gordimer’s 88th birthday. The taxi-driver, who took me and the group of writers I was with, was pulled over and extorted in central Jo’burg. Having an enormous man with muscles rippling up the back of his shaved head climb into the front of your mini-bus and tells your driver to get out and hand over cash does that to one. The driver, a sensible and experienced man, did so at once. He peeled off notes three times before Muscle Head let us go. It made me feel dirty, knowing that it is so easy to be rolled over and ripped off.
But be that as it may, last Friday was the day the Mail & Guardian did the time warp. They blacked out of a story about arms, secrets and lies that they had been prevented from publishing. The reason? The journalists were threatened with arrest for publishing a story that was clearly, fairly and squarely in the public interest. The censored pages were an instant flashback to the 1980s when censorship by a vicious and paranoid state, aware that power was slipping from its bloodied hands, reached a feverish pitch.
The laws governing freedom of expression and the press were draconian then. They were designed to silence the public and to keep secret what officials were doing. That was all swept aside in the euphoria of the early nineties, and freedom of expression – the right to the truth, I suppose – was enshrined in the constitution. We all should have lived happily ever after but there was to be a twist in the ending of this tale.
It was called The Arms Deal. Despite a lot of complicated detail, the story is mind-numbingly simple in essence. Senior party and government fleeced a trusting and hopeful nation by ordering obsolete, unnecessary weapons at inflated prices. Kickbacks from arms manufacturers were brokered and money flowed into Swiss bank accounts. It has felt a bit crazy for a while. They know they did it. We know they did it. They know we know they did it. We know they know we know they did it…
Courtroom dramas are in a little bit like science fiction or romance. There are cult followers who follow the increasingly (to me, a prosaic crime writer rooted in science, motive and evidence) weird narrative twists that take place.
John Grisham is the undisputed king of the fictional courtroom drama and his books capture the socially agreed voodoo that is necessary for a justice system to work: the rigmarole of the robes, the standing and rising for judges, the wood paneling, the gavel, the hand on the bible stuff, the swearing to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth – as if that were remotely possible. All this ritual makes us believe the justice system is rational and fair and real in fiction.
Reality is altogether another matter and, seeing as I am not writing a book at the moment, it has diverted me from the plausible world of fictional justice. The cases currently before bemused-looking judges presiding over South African courts belong more to the world of Stephen King than jurisprudence. For example, there’s the case of the high court judge murdered in his luxury apartment Cape Town. His hell-hath-no-fury wife is on trial his brutal slaying alongside with a young man who seems to have confused the roles of toyboy/handyman with hitman. The presiding judge is looking nervy. My advice to him would be that he buys his own wife flowers on the way home.
I have to confess to developing a little bit of a crush on big, brash, bad-boy Jozi. Different cities produce different crimes. The psycho-geography of a place shapes its inhabitants – criminal or not – as it does its crime writers. You leave South Africa’s mountainous Mother City, sedate, and somewhat purse-lipped on a chilly Cape day and a couple of hours later you are landing in Johannesburg. It is like another world.
Johannesburg rushes up at you as the plane banks and circles where the township houses are corn-rowed over the stripped, red earth. As you drop down towards the airport the traffic glints in golden ribbons in the afternoon sun. The swimming pools are blue squares in suburban gardens. The sky is hazed with dust, smoke and pollution. A comforting reminder that the gritty engine of South Africa’s economy is still working.
We slip into the traffic. Jo’burg drivers, by the way, are much better than Capetonians who have a frighteningly creative approach to the rules of the road. The city, the biggest manmade forest in the world is gorgeous in spring. All the jacaranda trees have flowered at once, purpling the streets with blossoms. Even the man-eating potholes look pretty. I am enchanted by the combination of concrete and this extravagant and ephemeral beauty.
The death penalty is one of those conversational cleavers; it will divide any dinner party neatly into those for and those against. Compelling arguments for revenge and for compassion will be made, but it is unlikely that one side will persuade the other that hanging is right. Or wrong.
Crime writers generally have taken the easy way out of this dilemma. Killing fictional people is our core business, as is the restitution of fictional law and order. Few readers are willing to wait out the length of a trial to see a violent criminal get his come-uppance, which probably explains the high numbers of killings of the bad guys in the final chapters of many crime novels. There is of course that visceral, Old Testament thrill we feel when someone truly bad pays the ultimate price for their sins. This is an unofficial death penalty, a kind of literary vigilantism, that elides the complexity of a democratic society’s desire for punitive and its simultaneous aspiration towards restorative justice.
The spectre of judicial murder has never left South Africa. This is a country that executed a vast number of people. Between 1921 and 1989 at least 4003 convicted murderers, rapists and political prisoners were hanged at Pretoria Central Prison. According to a report in the Sunday Times, at least 130 political prisoners were executed there. But calls for the return of the death penalty are frequent and loud.
South Africa’s constitution outlawed the death penalty and in 1996, two years after the first democratic elections which ushered in Mandela as president, the notorious gallows were dismantled. They have now been restored and will be unveiled on the 8th of December. The Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, whose department has been driving the initiative, says that the restoration and the unveiling was her department’s ‘small contribution towards paying homage and tribute to all South Africans who were executed. I would want SA to see this as part of a healing process and part of nation-building.’
The names of all the executed prisoners – common-law and political – will be commemorated. “We don’t want to leave out the names of common-law criminals who were also executed,’ the minister said, ‘because we are saying that this [apartheid] was a system that was unjust, cruel and inhumane.’
This attempt at bringing ‘closure’ bears witness to the bureaucratic horror of the state’s killing of its citizens. The cupboard with its seven ropes, the yardstick for measuring the height of those about to be hanged, the fan to cool sweating officials as they prepared the prisoners for death. Because, according to this report, up to seven executions used to take place simultaneously.
The world is pissed off and rightly so. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that have swept the world in the past couple of weeks are testament to exactly how pissed off, how desperate ordinary people are. Jobs have been lost, savings have been wiped out, homes have been lost. The robber barons that run the speculative and morally bankrupt banks that are condensed into the moniker ‘Wall Street’ have knowingly perpetrated this economic pillage. Zombie banks is what the Pulitzer prize-winning author and journalist, Chris Hedges, calls them.
Many of them have made money hand over fist during the prolonged fiscal crisis of the last couple of years. They have been bailed out by the American treasury and now European governments are trying to stave off defaults amongst the poorer members of the EU. It looks to me like the money-emperors are stark naked. And it looks like they don’t give a toss.
How to right this situation? How to write it?
My money is on John le Carre. He is able to hold together tales of corporate greed, think The Constant Gardner, as deftly as he held together the moral ambiguity of the Cold War in Smiley’s People.
I even have a title for him – The Men Who Crashed the World. Nicked, I confess, from Al Jazeera. They have run a brilliant series of analytical pieces on the wave of indignation that has swept protesters from every walk of life into their city squares.
Australia does exist. Every single South African was rudely reminded of that fact last Sunday when the Springboks were pipped (criminally) to the post by the Australians in the rugby world cup. I was forced to watch the slaughter of dreams from a bar in Melbourne. It did not inspire the most neighbourly thoughts in me, I have to confess.
The reason for this sporting torture is that I’ve been at SheKilda in Melbourne, a crime writers’ festival hosted by the Sisters in Crime, a bloodthirsty group of Australian women who seem to have an infinite capacity for gore, alcohol and crime fiction.
The endless flight to this remote part of the globe has introduced me to a whole new world. Australia, like Sweden and Norway, is an astoundingly law abiding country by my rather jaded standards. Drivers wear their seatbelts, the stop at red lights, and they don’t seem to kill each other all that much. There was a mini-spate of mob killings in Melbourne recently, but that seems more like a service to humanity than a crime. And a great saving for the taxpayer too.
There would appear to be an inverse proportion of crime writers in a country to the numbers of actual crimes committed. Consequently, South Africa, with its spectacular display of crime has produced a handful of crime novelists, while Australia is bursting at the seams with them. Perhaps an increase in the number of crime novels in South Africa will bring our crime stats down. I find it difficult to commit crimes while typing. However, a crime reduction in South Africa seems as unlikely as a sunny day in Sweden.