Monday, November 15, 2010

Courage Day and writers


"The writer cannot be a mere storyteller; he cannot be a mere teacher; he cannot merely X-ray society's weaknesses, its ills, its perils. He or she must be actively involved shaping its present and its future." Ken Saro-Wiwa (1941-1995)


Freedom of speech and supporting persecuted writers is remembered around the world each November. Called Courage Day in honour of two New Zealand writers, James and Sarah Courage, whose writings were suppressed in the early 20th century, this New Zealand name is also appropriate because of the bravery required by those authors who face opposition in its many forms

James Courage’s book 'A Way of Love', about a homosexual relationship, was banned in New Zealand for some years. His grandmother, Sarah Courage, wrote 'Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life', in which descriptions of her neighbours were so unflattering that many copies were destroyed.

PEN, (which is loosely aligned with Amnesty International) stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within, and between, all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression.

In 2006, as part of Courage Day, the NZ Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc.) and PEN International remembered the Nigerian television producer, writer of satirical novels, children's tales, and plays, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Born in 1941, he was the eldest son of a prominent Ogoni family, and after leaving university pursued an academic career. He later became a novelist and television producer: his long-running satirical TV series Basi & Co was purported to be the most watched soap opera in Africa. Throughout his work he often made references to the exploitation he saw as oil and gas industries took riches from the beneath the feet of the impoverished Ogoni farmers, and in return left the land and water polluted and the people disenfranchised.

Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned by dictator Sani Abacha for defending the rights of the Ogoni, and criticising his government's oil policy with Royal Dutch Shell. Despite international protests, Saro-Wiwa was hung after a show trial with other eight activists in Port Harcourt, on November 10, 1995. To remember his death, Courage Day is being commentated on the 10th rather than the usual 15th November. As recently as September 2005, Ogoni people, who continue to defend their rights, stormed a Nigerian oil platform, after the arrest and possible sentence of execution, of one of their leaders.

Worldwide, writers continue to be persecuted for their writings: one of Turkey's best-selling novelists, Orhan Pamuk, is charged with insulting the Turkish Republic with statements published in a Swiss newspaper on February 6, 2005. In Afghanistan journalists were abducted, arrested, and threatened in pre-election violence, while the New York Times researcher Zhao Yan has been in custody in China for over a year, and recently, in Khatmandu, Nepal, almost 90 journalists were arrested. And, on September 22nd the award-winning war journalist, Robert Fisk, was banned from entering the United States to speak at a public meeting.

Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world, as well as upholding the right of the public to be informed - in accordance with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On the 1st January 2005, it reported 107 journalists and 70 cyber-dissidents were in prison around the world and, for the second year running, Iraq was the world’s most dangerous country for journalists: nineteen reporters and 12 media assistants were killed there during the year. Terrorist strikes and Iraqi guerrilla attacks were the main cause, but the US army was also held responsible for the death of four of them. (U.S. troops are reported to have killed 13 journalists since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003.) They also report that around the world at least 53 journalists were killed in 2004 while doing their job.

Apart from Chaucer, Shakespeare appears to have been expurgated more often than any other English language author – starting with Elizabeth 1st who had a passage cut from performances of his play, Richard 2nd - and even today cut editions of his work are read in some schools.

And censorship continues: at the end of September, a Liberal Australian MP called for 'an outrageous book' (The Bad Book by Andy Griffiths) to be withdrawn from school libraries.

New Zealand is not exempt from censorship either. As recently as 2003, Malcolm Evans, the New Zealand Herald cartoonist, was, it seems, dismissed for refusing to stop addressing the Israeli - Palestine conflict in his work.

Other books that have been banned, censored or suppressed in New Zealand include Ettie Routs 'Safe Marriage' and the children's reader, "Washday at the Pa' - with Ans Westra photos - which was withdrawn from schools and pulped in the early sixties. Jean Devanny (born Nelson, 1894) had her novel 'The Butcher Shop' banned because of its supposed obscenity and detriment to New Zealands immigration policy, along with 'a most vivid description of the symptoms of delirium tremens.'

Even one of New Zealands twenty Living Icons, Hone Tuwhare, had some of his first works banned by the Maori Affairs Department, apparently because of his early communist affiliations. Another New Zealander, William Taylor, author of numerous novels for children and young adults, is one of only a few Kiwi who have had their work banned by the American Library Association.

On Courage Day  2010, its well worth remembering them all again

I’ll tell you this, I may be dead but my ideas will not die.
Ken Saro-Wiwa 1941-1995
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