by Aki Schilz
“They said, “You are a savage and dangerous woman.”
“I am speaking the truth. And the truth is savage and dangerous.” ”
The Writers in Prison Committee 50th Anniversary Celebration took place on Friday 16 April, in the Wolfson Theatre at LSE. The event was chaired by Michela Wrong and featured Georgian activist and performance poet Irakli Kakabadze (winner of the Oxfam/Novib Pen Freedom of Expression Prize) and esteemed Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi. In the tradition of the International Pen festival, one chair was left empty, in honour this year of Chinese political dissident Liu Xiaobo, who is currently in prison serving an eleven-year sentence for the ‘subversive’ content of his writing (see my Writers In Prison blog). Michela explained; “for prisoners, the thought of being forgotten is equal to spiritual death”. The empty chair is a reminder of his presence, his spirit and of the campaign for his release and the release of the countless other wrongly imprisoned or persecuted writers whom International Pen support.
Mary-Jane and I got the chance to interview Kakabadze before the event. Since he is such a prominent political activist, we wondered what he thought of the political apathy the youth of the UK are so often accused of, and how it differed to the political atmosphere in Georgia. He smiled and shrugged, as if to say “all in good time”. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kakabadze explained, Georgia has been reinvigorated with a spirit of revolution we here in the UK, he suggested, have not been pushed to, enjoying as we do relatively peaceful living conditions, relatively low levels of crime and a democratic system of election and government; the people of Georgia on the other hand, youth and older generation alike, are united in the “struggle against authoritarian thinking”, the kind of thinking that has led to a severe lack of opportunity, which Kakabadze blames for the high levels of crime and violence; “[Georgian] society does not provide, it takes opportunity […] a structure of violence hangs above [the youth of Georgia]”. They cannot help but be entrapped within this structure, and sink into what he calls the “subaltern”, the marginalised under-generation that live in shadows but whose actions and thinking shape the society that burgeons above it.
Kakabadze himself got embroiled in precisely this lifestyle at a young age. He left a life of gang violence behind when, aged just 15, he was stabbed so badly he nearly died. At the age of 19, he became actively involved in politics and peaceful campaigning. He went on to study philosophy and sociology at university and completed an Mst in Crisis Resolution, on which he currently lectures at Cornell University. The focus of his thinking and his campaigning has always been to reach resolution through peaceful means; performances of his poetry are often collaborative, involving music; he practices a method he calls ‘Polyphonic Blues’, which seeks to incorporate different ‘voices’ in a musical microcosm of the diversity of voice that exists in the world. Kakabadze believes that the best weapon against corruption and repression is an informed mind and continued expression of diverse voices, even in the face of adversity (Kakabadze has been subject to several attacks and has been arrested four times; one arrest led to a month-long prison sentence, with no fair trial preceding the sentencing). Thrown out of Georgia, he lives in Ithaca now with his wife and son, continuing to campaign for freedom of expression and political transparency in his home state.
There are many things that are not talked about, things relegated to the peripheries of rumour, suppressed for the very reason, Kakabadze thinks, that to talk about things is to open up channels of communication and to move if not towards resolution then towards the peaceful co-habitation of diverse views. Things are repressed that pose a threat. Nawal el Saadawi spoke at the event about the guards at the prison she was sent to banning her from having pen and paper in her cell, since these, they told her, were more dangerous than if she were to possess a gun. The fear of these prison guards is telling. To debate is to find a platform, and even if the views expressed are disparate, they are still launched from a common ground. If we communicate, we make connections, and these are the very connections that repressive governments and institutions seek to prevent or splinter. “The old rule of divide and conquer”, el Saadawi remarks drily. But no single person, however tyrannical, can rule the sway of an entire people. We must arm ourselves against deception, against corruption, against misinformation, even against physical force. “Health is a decision”, El Sadaawi says. “To live is a decision; to fight is a decision; everything is a decision“.
To have thoughts is instinct. To voice them is choice. To share them, imperative.
“Writers”, Kakabaze insists, “have an obligation to say the truth… even if the truth is painful.”
“Writing: such has been my crime ever since I was a small child. To this day writing remains my crime. Now, although I am out of prison, I continue to live inside a prison of another sort, one without steel bars. For the technology of oppression and might without justice has become more advanced, and the fetters imposed on mind and body have become invisible. The most dangerous shackles are the invisible ones, because they deceive people into believing they are free. This delusion is the new prison that people inhabit today, north and south, east and west…We inhabit the age of the technology of false consciousness, the technology of hiding truths behind amiable humanistic slogans that may change from one era to another…Democracy is not just freedom to criticize the government or head of state, or to hold parliamentary elections. True democracy obtains only when the people – women, men, young people, children – have the ability to change the system of industrial capitalism that has oppressed them since the earliest days of slavery: a system based on class division, patriarchy, and military might, a hierarchical system that subjugates people merely because they are born poor, or female, or dark-skinned.”
— Nawal El Saadawi (Memoirs from the Women’s Prison)