Sometimes panels like the Writing and Censorship session, featuring exclusively Asian writers, risk relegating issues like widespread censorship and defective democracies to non-Western societies.
Arnold Zable's efficient moderatorship ensured that the writers, more than anyone else in the room, had ample presentation time. The writers rose to the task, speaking clearly and thoughtfully about how the sinuously sinister erosion of fundamental freedoms happens, and can happen in all societies, not just the currently defective democracies outside the West.
The first speaker was Miguel Syjuco, Filipino novelist and journalist, known mainly for his multiple-award-winning first novel Ilustrado, about the anxieties of writing for and about a country where people don't read, where the people who do are consumed by what can and can't, should and shouldn't, be said. His presentation expanded on themes in his piece “Beating Dickheads” in the Griffith Review's New Asia Now collection of work by Asian writers under 45. He spoke of how we should not be deceived by the apparent freedom of internet usage and journalistic work in the Philippines. Defamation of public officials in the Philippines is punishable by up to six years imprisonment, and thanks to recently introduced laws, criticising public officials on the Internet might become punishable with even more jail time. Considering how 44.2 million Filipinos (out of a population of 100 million) use the internet, and 90% of this number have active social media accounts, the potential curtailment of free speech and especially the freedom to criticise government officials and government policies, is staggering. With an upcoming presidential election in mid-2016, citizens need opportunities to access independent information about their future leaders, and to communicate in no uncertain terms what they require of their government – and these defamation laws risk taking those opportunities away.
The second speaker was Beijing-based Sheng Keyi, author of six novels, the latest of which, Death Fugue, is a daring satire challenging official party lines about Tiananmen Square. Often she made references to the empty chair on stage, testament to the haunting absence of writers who are being imprisoned, tortured, or murdered because of what they've written. “Censorship,” she said, “is like an empty chair, a ghost you don't see.” Whilst censorship in China today is no longer as repressive as it was in the Cultural Revolution, it is still a serious problem. Public intellectuals and human rights lawyers risk imprisonment or the public shaming, such as exposes of their sex lives. Critiques of the government are blocked as soon as they make it onto the Internet. The problem is so bad that in order for the Chinese people to know what's actually happening in China, they have to learn English and read about their own country in the English-speaking global press.
The third speaker was Nyein Way, an experimental, avant-garde poet from Myanmar. His philosophical musings rounded out the discussion, reflecting on how the question of censorship and unfreedom keeps everyone shackled, powerful and powerless alike. “What is power?” he asks. “Poetry is power.” Indeed, rather than fetishise the citizenry's woeful blindness to the machinations of political elites, he offered a more dialectical approach to understanding power and freedom. “I wanted to see kangaroos,” he shared. “I know they're dangerous. But when I was in Castlemaine, I saw a kangaroo and it ran away from me. I realised that I was more dangerous than the kangaroo.” Indeed, if the erosions of civil liberties grows more ferocious, more persistent, it can only be because the puppetmasters grow ever more terrified, ever more paranoid.
The session ended with a sense that it should have lasted longer, that there should have been time for the audience to engage with the writers. Lacking that, the packed venue so early in the day suggested that the writers' efforts to bravely and searingly tell the world about their governments and their people's struggles might not be in vain.
Edited by Wayne Stellini
Edited by Wayne Stellini