I understand what it’s like to struggle to find time and space for your writing. In February 2009, my oldest daughter turned nine years old. My younger daughter was seven. During those years of working full time with tiny kids underfoot, I was hanging on to my writing life by one bloody fingernail. But that year—a few days after the birthday party—I made the decision to enroll in an MFA program. I wasn’t even really sure why. I didn’t have the time or the money. I didn’t have any academic or professional aspirations that required the degree. The closest I can come is that I was at loose ends, and it felt like some kind of desperate commitment to take my writing seriously.
But here’s something to consider. While I was feeling sorry for myself about having to write at the kitchen table in the middle of the night, on February 22, 2009, the Eritrean authorities raided the office of Radio Banta in Asmara. And though we don’t know all the details of what happened, we do know this: On a Sunday morning, a group of poets and journalists and other writers were at work at the educational radio station in the capital when the police swept the station and rounded everybody up. They arrested all fifty people who were at work that day. Some people were released, but several of those writers—including essayist Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu and poet Meles Negusse Kiflu—were held without being tried, or even charged, until they were released without explanation just this last January. Those writers had been held along with dozens—probably hundreds—of Eritrean journalists and writers who have been detained off and on since Eritrea separated from Ethiopia in 1993. One of those still being held is journalist Dawit Isaak, a dual citizen of Eritrea and Sweden, who has been held without charges since 2001. His family commemorated his 5,000th day in custody earlier this summer.
I tell this somewhat in the tone of the stereotypical suburban mother–“Finish your peas; you know there are starving children in India.” Except in my case it goes something like this: “Don’t be whiny about your writing problems. At least you don’t live in Eritrea.” I used to tell my students that they should get over themselves—that they live in the freest country in the world, and they should take advantage of it. As it turns out, I was wrong. The US is ranked 49th on the World Press Freedom Index. Finland is the freest country in the world. But if it is any consolation, Eritrea is dead last. For the eighth year in a row.
Despite that, if it helps, if you find yourself tempted to whine, “I don’t have any time to write; no one’s paying attention anyway,” go ahead and let my voice ring in your head: “At least I’m not rotting in an Eritrean prison.”
But even more than an admonition against whining, I tell you about Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu and Dawit Isaak to remind you that they are out there, and—like them—you are engaged in a serious business. There will be lots of times you won’t feel serious are as you are sitting at your dining room table wearing a spaghetti-stained sweatshirt, eating pickled beets out of the jar. You may not feel serious when your mother announces to her bridge group that she’s so relieved that you finally found a hobby. Or your sister drops off her sick toddler since “you aren’t working today anyway.” Or your own kids tell their friends in carpool, “my mom is a ‘poet,’” using their very best air quotes.
These people may not take you seriously. And your boss might not either. Or your dentist or your best friend from middle school. But you who does take you seriously? Dictators. Dictators take you very seriously. Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Augusto Pinochet, all rounded up writers and artists in short order. They could not afford to have the unpredictability of literature at large while they were trying to create a totalitarian state.
Right now, I know some of you are thinking–come on. Pol Pot does not take me seriously. I am not a political writer. I am a lyric poet or a YA novelist or a devotee to historical romance. But listen. Before you get too smug in removing yourself from the threatened list, consider this: Alice in Wonderland and Grapes of Wrath and Song of Solomon have all been banned in the United States. And Doctor Zhivago set off an international incident when the CIA helped publish it in Russian and Boris Pasternak received a Nobel Prize. Yes, that Doctor Zhivago. The one with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. The one with star-crossed lovers and fur-lined sleds. Though the book had very little content that could be construed as directly anti-communist—in fact nobody came out looking very good, Bolshevik or not—it was seen as a threat to the totalitarian regime because, as the Soviet Division Chief of the CIA put it:
Pasternak’s humanistic message—that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being . . . poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system.
How’s that for subversion? Having some novelist (or poet or playwright) assert an individual consciousness—in and of itself—is a profoundly threatening act if you’re a dictator. And you know what, it’s also a radical and destabilizing act in a culture where our most cherished identity is that of “customer.”
So yes, you are to be taken seriously. I take you seriously. The community of writers takes you seriously, and we know you are up to it. And if that is not enough and you need another voice in your head cheering you on in the face of the discouragement and despair and self-hatred that will inevitably pass through, try out the voice of Joseph Stalin: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks… And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.”
So go out there and give the dictators hell. We’re cheering for you.
This is an adaptation of a graduation address given to the graduating class of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University on August 9, 2015.