Does Protest Rejuvenate or Limit Literature?

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Two recent PEN pieces — an event called “Literary Activism: is poetry the strongest form of protest?” and an essay by short-story writer Rasha Abbas, “Art and Culture from the Frontline: In the hope that Syria Speaks even more!” —  both address the relationship between literature and protest:

The PEN event, an extract of which is available on SoundCloud, featured four writers: Ukrainian poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan, Indian Tamil-language poet and activist Kutti Revathi, Turkish Kurdish-language poet and columnist Bejan Matur, and Egyptian hip-hop artist and poet Mohamed El Deeb.

An “instrumental” approach to poetry would oversimplify viewpoints, but as El Deeb said:

I was never an activist before the revolution. I used to write as an Egyptian who lived abroad. I lived in the Gulf for a while and I moved back in 2005, which was a real heated year for Egypt, it was when Mubarak wanted to be re-elected for the sixth time. … Things started to escalate, and hip hop was one of the new tools at the time; it was used by the youth to express themselves. It was our way to express ourselves and just talk freely. Of course we weren’t that free, in terms of the words we were using, so we’d have to you know sugar-coat a lot of our lyrics. I could never say the word Mubarak, for example, I’d be locked up. So I had to be very creative in how I choose my words.

It was interesting to see the revolution in 2011, and I had to be there, I had to join as a protester before a performer, because I’d be a hypocrite if I don’t.

Bejan Matur suggested that politics and poetry could not be separated. “But that doesn’t mean I’m using political terminology in my poetry.”

Kutti Revathi was the most direct: “Of course you are a poet, you are a novelist, you write well, but what are you going to do with that?”

They generally also spoke about poetry as being of the moment, not for posterity. El Deeb on why he wouldn’t be sad if his poetry didn’t outlive the moment:

…because there’s new things to talk about. Linked to what Bejan was trying to say, once she has that poetry, she gets rid of it, she doesn’t need it any more. So for me, I don’t stay attached to my work. I always look for new inspiration, for new ideas.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the English PEN website, Syrian short-story writer Rasha Abbasm, a contributor to the collection Syria Speaks, had an interesting perspective on both use (and abuse) of people’s suffering in creative writing and on shattering of old ways of writing:

Nobody is at all shy anymore, it seems, to make use of the misfortunes of their fellow human beings as material for a creative writing drill. I hope that the opposite will transpire, that this ongoing political and social storm will rage through the predictable, tired fixtures of literary expression and sweep them aside, healing one of the worst things that the long years of subjugation have resulted in for Syrians: the loss of individuality. Individual artistic inclination was treated with such contempt, and was so successfully abased, that many of us were too intimidated to engage with ideas that really touched us personally or strayed from the prescribed set of major stock themes. Our individuality was melted down into a unified mass and then recast in a compulsory conformist mould.

And then everything that we have kept silent about will be addressed, at last. Perhaps it is difficult for this to unfold right now, and perhaps the wave that has swept over thousands of Syrians still needs some time before it can have such an obvious (and hoped for) impact on the stagnation which has pervaded Syrian creativity for such a long time.

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