I’ve thought a lot about the beheadings of the journalists, aid workers, and tourists in the Middle East lately. I’m a proud member of PEN Canada, which is related to PEN International. The organization is made up of writers who envision a world, as the mission statement says, “where writers are free to write, readers are free to read, and freedom of expression prevails.” Living in Canada, it’s almost too easy to take these freedoms for granted. You forget sometimes how blessed we are to live in a country where it’s okay to read what you want to read, or write about what you want to write about. These barbaric beheadings just pull me back to the realization that writers have the power to speak up, and out, about issues that aren’t always popular. Even if you disagree with a blog or newspaper article, you have the ability to access and read it, for the most part. For people in some countries, like China, Iraq, Syria, and many others too numerous to name, the act of thinking, questioning, researching, and writing can spell out a time of great torture, or even a horrific death sentence.
The first time I heard of PEN Canada, I was working on my Master’s degree in Literature at Carleton University in Ottawa, way back in 1994-95. Moving from Sudbury to Ottawa was a wake up call in terms of consciousness on a more global level. I met people from everywhere, opened my mind up to new ideas and questions, found my infant sea legs as a poet and writer, and was able to hear a number of well-respected writers read their work on campus and in local bookstores. It was a buffet of ideas for my mind. As I began to publish my own poetry, I applied and was accepted into PEN Canada’s folds. It was important to me, to become a member of PEN. The more I read about the injustice done to writers and thinkers in other countries, the more upset I became.
Before I even joined PEN Canada, though, I read Seamus Heaney’s collection of essays titled The Government of the Tongue. Part of its deep impression on me actually led to the naming of this blog. In the collection, Heaney wrote of Eastern European poets who had struggled with oppression. There is one essay in that book that speaks of a writer who had to bury his poems in milk bottles in his back garden, so that people wouldn’t rifle through his house, find his writing, and imprison him for questioning his government’s dictatorial and cruel policies. That stuck with me. For over twenty years, the image of a poet burying poems, all to avoid persecution, still sends shivers down my back. I can’t imagine living in a place where the words I put on paper could be so threatening. Still, all the more important for us to realize the sacrifice those journalists made in covering wars and humanitarian crises in places far from home. They knew that just shedding light on certain dark corners of inhumanity could help to dispel it. Not in a magical, instantaneous way, but in a way that made people around the world more aware of what happens in other places. Sometimes, growing awareness is the start of spreading light.
Some of it seems so hard to believe, to see those men silhouetted against desert and sky, speaking words scripted for them when that is the last thing they would have chosen to do. They would never have spoken those words without being under duress. I can’t imagine the dread they must have felt, but I am impressed, every time I see those horrible clips on the news, without ever seeing the act itself, with the calm they seem to embody. How could they be so very calm in the face of such horror?
Each week, it seems, there are others named…threats sent across the Internet or television. For each man, for each aid worker or journalist or tourist, there are families of people who love them dearly. I pray for them. So, today, in the face of all the chaos in the world, I am thinking of the brave work that James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines did. I will also think of Herve Gourdel, a French tourist who was kidnapped and then killed as a pawn in a deadly game. How this will end is anyone’s guess…but I’m afraid it will continue. There seems, lately, to be less and less compassion in this world, less humanity. (I can’t imagine anyone’s creator would want any of this to continue.)
As readers, we must continue to pick up and read books that others might think are controversial. We must fight against any crusade to ban books, speaking up for the words that convey thoughts on paper. As writers, we must stand united with organizations like PEN International and PEN Canada. We must try to support fellow writers who simply cannot speak up because of fear of torture and death. For we know, as writers do, that our words are powerful and dangerous, but we also know, with hearts full of sadness and hope, that our words might someday change the world in some small way. Ripples move outward from the centre, and so we must cast our words out from our own quiet, sure centres and then watch the ripples extend–lighting up dark spaces and minds, forever hopeful that speaking up, that the seemingly simple act of writing down our thoughts, in the face of terror, is something worthy and important to the world.
Below, I’ll leave you with PEN’s statement on the executions. It speaks for itself; powerfully so.
“Since March 2011, well over 100 citizen journalists have been killed in Syria, most by government snipers, or as a result of torture. Increasingly, they are being targeted by armed opposition groups like Islamic State. Dozens who have done nothing more than to witness, report, film, and photograph acts of violence have been arrested and many have been subjected to enforced disappearance. Writers and journalists are amongst those at risk of political and sectarian violence from government forces, pro-government militias and armed opposition groups, both in Syria and neighbouring countries.
PEN calls on all groups detaining journalists to immediately release them. Freedom of expression is particularly important in times of war, as only through access to a wide spectrum of reporting can people come to understand the reality of what is happening. Without the evidence that journalists gather, documentation of human rights violations including war crimes and potential crimes against humanity is made more difficult, leaving victims and their loved ones without access to justice in the future.”