Freedom to Speak: An Interview with Sampsonia Way’s Silvia Duarte

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Photo by dreamwhile.

In her essay “Forbidden,” this week’s guest writer, Katie Booth, writes about her experience teaching writing at a university in Guangzhou, China. As an American, she struggled to find texts that wouldn’t be seen as subversive in the eyes of the Chinese government. In the classroom, she skirted around words, unsure of what was acceptable or if she was making a reference to a political event that she shouldn’t have been speaking about. She even took a class trip to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with her students, and not once did anybody reference the 1989 massacre. She wasn’t even sure if they knew about the events, or if the censorship in China was so effective that it had wiped it from the population’s general knowledge.

While in China, Booth sometimes fantasized about shouting censored words like “Tiananmen Square” out into the open; she fantasized about “liberating” her students in the classroom “through knowledge” via “small, sly gestures.” But these fantasies were quickly replaced by paranoid visions of being monitored by officials and caught. Even through the vague haze of not really knowing the consequences, Booth knew that there were consequences, had been consequences.

And so, for the most part, Booth comes to understand her role as an American in China:

“I was to keep my first amendment mouth shut.”

Booth’s essay on censorship and freedom of speech couldn’t be more timely.  As the United States National Security Agency’s surveillance scandal broke news earlier this month, some politicians, like Michigan’s Democratic Representative John Coyners, claims that the US may be “on the verge of becoming a surveillance state.” In the US, we’re quick to think of these issues as common in countries like China, or in the Middle East, but we haven’t always been so quick to recognize these issues as common in our own country.

Silvia Duarte, editor of the freedom of speech magazine Sampsonia Way, put it this way:

“In the United States, we look at how dirty our neighbor’s house is, but we don’t look to see if our own house is clean.”

I had a chance to speak with Duarte recently in order to shed light on issues regarding censorship and freedom of speech and how these affect the lives and safety of writers and journalists. I was curious to know what the consequences that Booth hints at might be—especially for writers who are from and still living in oppressive countries. What are some of the most repressive countries, and how do writers proceed fearlessly, even when their lives might be at stake?

The magazine Sampsonia Way began in September of 2009, five years after the organization City of Asylum set up roots in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood. City of Asylum’s main mission is to provide sanctuary to persecuted writers from around the world. The writers live in houses that City of Asylum provides on a street in the Northside called Sampsonia Way, City of Asylum providing stipends and the housing for these writers for two years. Sampsonia Way magazine follows City of Asylum’s mission by providing virtual sanctuary to persecuted writers.

The magazine hosts a column called Fearless, Ink., in which nine writers from various countries participate, and it also publishes in-depth articles, interviews, and excerpts of literary work by persecuted writers.

Duarte, who is Guatemalan, worked as a journalist and an editor in her home country before coming to the United States. She has always been a proponent of freedom of speech, and feels lucky to be able to put her knowledge to work as editor of Sampsonia Way.

Next month, the magazine, a non-profit organization, will launch a Kickstarter campaign. Duarte encourages readers to subscribe or to become a fan on Sampsonia Way’s Facebook page, or to participate on their freedom of speech wall. These are all ways to help, she says.

So, as Booth struggled to find a way to keep her “first amendment mouth shut,” Duarte brings us news of what happens when writers—particularly those still living in repressive countries—don’t.

“There’s nothing worse to persecutors from a really oppressive government,” she says, “than saying you are not afraid of them.”

–Amanda

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What are some of the top reasons, currently, that writers are persecuted?

Well, from working at the magazine, I have come to understand that it is so difficult to name the reason without identifying the country. I’m a little afraid of generalizations. The reasons are really different depending on the country you are talking about. So in China, for example, writers go to jail when the government sees these writers writing about democracy. But the topics that put some Chinese writers in jail are really varied. So it can be from denouncing corruption to talking about the Tiananmen Square massacres, or criticizing governmental measures of the one-child policy, or the labor reform. So, the reasons in China are all different.

In some other countries, criticizing religious issues or religious icons can put you in jail. We just published an article about a month ago by a cartoonist from Bangladesh. His name is Arifur Rahman. He drew a cartoon about a young boy introducing his cat as Mohammed Cat. And this cartoon was published during the Ramadan holiday, and this brought protests across Bangladesh in 2007. So, society was protesting this guy and the government put him in jail. Now he is out of prison, but he is not able to publish his work inside Bangladesh. For religious issues. Censorship from religion is growing now. The government in Turkey for example—and this is a secular country, according to its constitution—is trying to transform Turkey into a Muslim state. Writers who criticize that measure are persecuted. And Tarık Günersel, one of our columnists in Fearless, Ink., has written about that change in Turkey.

But, we have to also remember that to write about corruption in Russia, or some country in Latin America or Africa, will bring you problems with criminal groups that can kill you at any moment. Drug trafficking cartels can be your worst enemy if you are a Colombian, Mexican, or Guatemalan journalist.

I saw that cartoon issue, and it was really surprising because I hadn’t thought of it—asylum for cartoonists in the same sort of way as for journalists. But it seems like political cartoonists are always satirizing somebody or some government, so I could see how they could be persecuted.

Some people wonder why we include cartoonists. Well, they are fighting with words, right? Sometimes, with just a few words, they are saying more than anybody else. And they also have more exposure than other writers, because more people are looking at the cartoons.

But back to the reasons of why writers are persecuted. Many governments from Ethiopia to the United States—of course on different levels—are using the threat of terrorism and the need for national security to justify surveillance and persecutions. In Ethiopia, many independent journalists had to go into asylum after the government accused them of being terrorists. And here in the United States, when President Obama was asking where his justice department went too far in grabbing phone records of AP journalists—he answered that he couldn’t comment on a “pending case,” but he could speak “broadly about the balance we have to strike between press freedoms and national security. But as a citizen or resident in the United States, you really want to know what the limits of that balance are.

What are some of the top countries experiencing literary/artistic/free speech repression?

Reporters Without Borders has an annual Press Freedom Index. I am mentioning Reporters Without Borders even though they just concentrate on journalists, because you have to remember that journalists are the most persecuted writers because they have the most exposure.

The countries that are the most dangerous (the ones at the bottom of the index) in 2013 are Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Syria, Somalia, Iran, China, Vietnam, and Cuba. But, of course, there are other countries that are close to these ones, like Pakistan, Turkey, Ethiopia, Egypt. And something that is interesting in this index is that the United States is number 32. It rose fifteen places from 2012. So in 2012 it was number 47. And you wonder: Why was it in that place? It was because of the crackdown on journalists during the Occupy movement. And my guess is that in 2014 we are going to see another drop-off of the United States (meaning it will get worse), because of the AP and the Fox scandals. Both accused the government of surveillance of journalists.

According to this index, the safest places for journalists are Finland, Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg, and Andorra.

Do you think it’s surprising for people to think of the US as high as it is on that list?

As high as it is? Well, it’s not that high if you remember how proud the country is of its first amendment. Of course, it’s still in a good situation if you compare it with the last countries on the list. But I think some people are going to be surprised, those who think it could be in a better place. But depends on how much you read. People who are reading newspapers every day won’t be surprised.

The writers you work with, and the writers at Sampsonia Way, how do they go about seeking asylum? I imagine it’s different for every writer, and I imagine it’s different for every country.

Yeah, because you have to think that when writers have to leave their country because they are persecuted, it’s not like there’s a form they can just fill out. They are running away because they are trying to save their lives. Sometimes they can contact an organization or another government. Or sometimes they can just contact a friend. But there are organizations that deal with these issues. Many organizations. Two that I would like to mention are ICORN—International Cities of Refuge Network, which works in Europe. They also offer a stipend and a house for writers around the world in different cities of Europe. And the second organization is City of Asylum in the United States.

And the City of Asylum, is it just a network of people in various countries?

City of Asylum is inside the United States. There are programs in Las Vegas, Ithaca, Miami, too—but City of Asylum [in Pittsburgh] is a grassroots organization, whereas the others work more closely with universities.

You’re not connected with a university?

No, it’s more of a grassroots organization. Pittsburgh, and specifically the Northside neighborhood, have been really central. City of Asylum provides the sanctuary to persecuted writers, but without the help of the Northside community that wouldn’t be possible.

What do they do specifically to make it a community for these writers?

Well, some of them are volunteers or attend City of Asylum events, and all of them are neighbors to the writers, and they have been really open to them.

Can you speak at all to the psychological repercussions of exile? I’m just wondering how many of these writers that you see coming to City of Asylum, and that you meet through Sampsonia Way—how many of them get to go home? And if they cannot, what is the sort of psychological way they cope this? Is writing, do you think, a part of that?

Well, I think that from the writers’ perspective, there are specific issues they deal with that are different than other asylum seekers’ experiences. Sometimes they’ve lost the possibility of publishing in their country. In some ways, they’ve also lost their connection with their former network of readers. Sometimes they haven’t been translated into the language of the country where they are in exile—in this case English. And this creates an additional kind of anxiety for them as opposed to a regular exiled person. City of Asylum tries to help as much as it can. And like you mentioned in your question, some of these are psychological and depend on each writer. Huang Xiang, from China, and Horacio Castellanos, from El Salvador, have gone back to their countries. But how they cope with that depends on each writer. Some of them don’t really want to go back, whereas some of them are just really waiting for the moment they can go back.

How many writers do you have who are living in a repressive country who manage to contribute to the magazine, and how do they do that under the radar?

We have interviewed and written about many writers who are still living in those countries and still publishing there, or at least trying to write in these countries. But as for regular contributors, we have four, from Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, and Cuba. We have come in contact with these writers in many different ways. Some through City of Asylum, but most of them have been previous sources before.

For example, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is from Cuba. I contacted him at first for an interview. He was kidnapped with Yoani Sanchez, who is another well-known blogger from Cuba. I was trying to write an article on them, and I contacted him, because he was my source for an in-depth article. I invited him to be a columnist, and he accepted. Orlando has been in jail three times. And still he is writing about what he considers to be crucial for a democratic future in Cuba.

Each time he was arrested was for something he wrote?

Yes. Or for something they were afraid that he was going to write. But, yes.

So sometimes he didn’t even publish something but they were afraid?

The thing is that now with Internet, even though just a few people in Cuba have access to the Internet, the Internet access has grown a bit. You don’t have to wait to publish in an official press. So they can write more, and the government, depending on the situation, might have more to fear.

So, the writers who are regular contributors writing from inside their countries—they are really, really brave. And we always say to them that if they want to publish anonymously, they can do that. It’s not going to be a problem for us. But actually, they want to publish with their names. Depending on what the country’s going through, they might practice a little bit of self-censorship, because there might be something that they can’t let you know. But normally, these are people to whom their society is more important than themselves. So they decide to write even though they know they could be at risk.  Like I was saying about our columnist from Cuba—who, by the way, is now in the United States, just for a period of time—he’s been in jail three times and he doesn’t stop writing on the issues he considers crucial for a Cuban democratic future.

When facing censorship in his/her country, what choices does a writer have? Is it always a risky choice, or are there more subversive ways a writer can go about getting her message out—for example, underground publications, etc.?

The choices that they have? The choices that they have are either to remain silent or speak their truth. And luckily, we work with writers who are masters at speaking their minds.

I love that the column is titled “Fearless, Ink.”

I will say that it’s a provocative name. There’s nothing worse to persecutors from a really oppressive government than saying you are not afraid of them. But of course, some of these writers still experience fear. The difference is that they overcome their fear with bravery.

What do you think it takes to do that?

What it takes is to live in border situations—these writers live on the edge. If they don’t do something, if they don’t speak out, if they don’t create awareness in an international way, if they don’t move themselves to provoke changes, well, their lives can be miserable.

By that point prison doesn’t mean very much if you’re living in a society—

—where that society or its government is a prison.

Right. Exactly.

But, you know what? That’s to put words in the writers’ mouths. I will say that they’re not going to answer in the same way. Sometimes it’s really difficult to understand if you aren’t in this situation.

Do you have any specific stories you’d like to share where Sampsonia Way had a direct change—whether politically, culturally, or sociologically?

We have a columnist from Ethiopia and one from Egypt. If you go to our Facebook page, you can see that many of our fans are from Ethiopia and Egypt. This is a good example of how sites like Sampsonia Way help democracy. In the Ethiopia case, they don’t have an independent press, so a lot of the readers from inside of Ethiopia are coming to the magazine to see what is happening there. And creating this network, this readership, is crucial for a democratic movement or a democratic future in any country. Sampsonia Way is growing in numbers, and as a result we have 40,000 page views per month. Our work has been shared and translated by many other publications.

Overall, I think that the Burmese poet Khin Lun is a good example of the effect that the magazine has had. Khin Lun was living in a Thai refugee camp when we interviewed him via Skype three years ago. And after that publication, an Australian minister became interested in his case. And so Khin Lun was given the chance to go to Australia as an exiled writer. This kind of thing happens.

So readers are finding out about their own countries via Sampsonia Way?

Yes, especially with Ethiopia.

We also have a writer from Pakistan—and like the other columnists, she publishes bi-monthly. If you go to her column, you can see a bunch of posts that have generated a good debate. So the magazine is also a forum, and that is also essential for democracy.

Just having that space where people can talk about these issues.

Yeah, you can see these conversations, and sometimes you can really learn about the issues from these debates. People are fighting about one issue—or just giving good reasons, not just complaining—but it gives you first hand knowledge of the issue. Something that is really important to emphasize about the magazine is that normally we read about these countries through mainstream media. Typically what happens is that they [journalists] go there and they write about what they see. But here we have people who are from there, writing about their own countries. So that is really important.

Any other things that you would like a general US audience to know about exile, censorship, or freedom of speech?

What is really important is that we are always informed, that we are always reading newspapers and that we are seeing what is happening in the world. I think some people think that social media can be worthless or not useful, but it’s a way to create awareness. If you use social media, why not use it to share this kind of information? It really helps—little by little.

But another thing that I would say for an audience in the United States, we look at how dirty our neighbor’s house is, but we don’t look to see if our own house is clean. It’s really important that we see other countries and try to support them, but it is also really important that we see what is happening in the United States, that we don’t believe everything is going great just because we are not ranked so low in the indexes. Sometimes we think we are better than other countries. Sometimes you risk losing the values you already have, and freedom of speech is an important value here, and I think as a society we have to defend that.

About Amanda Giracca

Amanda Giracca writes about place, animals, work, and the environment, among other topics. Her recent work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Fourth Genre, Flyway, Terrain.org, Passages North, and has been anthologized in Imagination & Place: Cartography. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaGiracca.

Thoughts?