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Hate-mail and book burnings

May 07, 2012


I get fan mail. But I also get hate-mail. Some people are irked so much with my written word, that they put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Through gritted teeth, they tell me that as a foreigner, my understanding of the suffering of Pakistan is minimal and often I am criticised for being too soft on the country. In some extreme cases I am dubbed a “dangerous Paki-lover”.

But still I write. I have reached a stage where I can’t not write any more. And I have reached a stage where I want to encourage others to do the same.

There are some that write under far greater thunder and threat. Take a look at the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. One woman who stands out is Tabasom, who would walk four miles to deliver a poem and who has sadly lost her life. It’s also worth looking back at the struggles of Nadine Gordimer, South Africa’s first Noble Prize for literature winner who wrote during the apartheid era. But there are thousands of international examples of writers under fire, responding with literary expression.

Pen International campaigns on behalf of writers across the globe who are persecuted, harassed and attacked for what they have written, for having spoken out on behalf of others or simply for being a writer. They operate in dozens of countries – from Bangladesh, Bosnia and Brazil. One cannot write an article about the dangers of writing without referencing Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontiers) – who report that Pakistan is the single most deadliest country for journalists, begging the question why Pen doesn’t have a group there?

Writers are smart – we have the internet now – we connect and share. As one writer gets imprisoned another tweets about it – sometimes with meaningful results. And some writers cleverly use allegory in their fiction.

For critical writer Walter Benjamin, allegory is key concept – touching on the philosophical, religious, political and the historical. Allegory is a device used to deliver ideas, principals or politics in a literary form – but can also be found in music and the visual arts. As a teenager I poured over the works of George Orwell and Franz Kafka – only understanding their allegorical mastery as an older person.

Iranian literature is well known for allegory. Conference of Birds is an ancient Persian poetic text by Farid Ud-Din, laced with massive symbolism. More recently Samad Behrangi’s story Little Black Fish has become a famous allegory of social injustice.

Politics and poetry are no strangers to one another – and as I walk the streets of the city I live in – Cambridge in England – I often consider the many great writers this city has hosted – including the Pakistani poet and politician Sir Muhammad Iqbal.

Cambridge seems a fitting place for me to launch a social enterprise publishing house with a competition that invites writers from all over the world to write a short story. Walter Benjamin famously said that “the art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out”. The “epic side of truth” perhaps requires further picking apart, but if I can do anything to continue the art of story-telling, I must. The Afghan Women’s Writing Group go as far as to say that “To Tell One’s Story is a Human Right”.

Tragically Walter Benjamin killed himself in 1940 on the French-Spanish border, depriving the world of a master of the written word. He had the Nazi’s hot on his heels, so he was not without a real sense of persecution himself. But still he wrote.

The Nazis, like the Taliban, the USSR, China’s Qin Dynasty, Pinochet’s regime in Chile and many others all had policies of burning books. Perhaps because they understood the old cliché, that the pen is mightier than the sword. Maybe that is why I understand that even hate-mail is expression and in many ways a right. Should I set fire to my emails or persuade my hate-mailers to produce some poetic allegory in response to my words?

To learn more about Caroline Jaine’s short story competition and how to enter please visit the Askance Publishing website. Although a fiction writing competition, Askance particularly welcomes allegorical entries, and submissions from Pakistan and the Sub Continent – which are currently under represented. The competition is in support of ACT Charity which supports patients at Cambridge University Hospitals.

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found here and on facebook.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.