The Role of Writers and Artists during Turbulent Political Times

I was requested to speak about the important role writers and artists play in the struggle against oppression and in the protection of democratic and human rights of the oppressed.

We all know that writers and artists hold strong views on political matters, though they may not be vocal at times. Some of them are fighters. They are not afraid to make choices and decisions if they are popular or not. In Sri Lanka, some have had to sacrifice their lives and some had to go into exile, because of their dedication to certain causes, with which we may or may not agree.

We had lived long enough to have experienced periods of the total abuse of democracy. In these periods we have witnessed writers, artists and intellectuals who try to push the envelope and make the world a better place. They are usually branded as troublemakers.

Let us consider a recent example in the post-apartheid South Africa. Lebogang Mashile, poet, performer, actress, presenter and producer, was the daughter of an exiled South African family who lived in the United States. Her poetry has been effective in bringing about attitudinal changes that were needed in the socio-economic and political transformation of society. Let me quote: The enemy isn’t really clear in the way it was before. It’s an incredibly sensitive, complicated struggle with many dimensions, but the site for that struggle is inside. … The language of poetry comes from a place where that transformation has to begin, that sort of intuitive, creative, spiritual searching place that will be the fuel for any kind of transformation process.

In my opinion, you cannot just simply be a writer or an artist. For their power rests in this humanity and their ability to write and visualise the complex world they live in. However, we know that defeating oppression is good for the soul but bad for the body. Frequently, writers and artists are subjected to physical danger.

This gives rise to several important questions. What is the role of writers and artists in times of crisis or social upheaval?  When peoples’ identities have been individually and culturally destroyed or are in the process of being deconstructed, how does writing and art help reconstruct such identities? Is it by being relentless campaigners for truth and freedom?  Or by contributing to escapist journalistic writing or art productions, which is also important for a social audience that is living in fear?

The many responses to these questions are formed by the world outlook one holds on these crisis situations. These questions boil down to one fundamental question: What is the moral responsibility of the artist and writer in the post-war period and how much is required of them when they see evil is going on?

I invite the audience to think about this important question.

During times of crisis and war, most people look forward to the moral guidance of writers and artists. I believe writers are more influential than artists in addressing political issues directly. In order to understand the work of a writer or an artist, one needs to become aware of the social and political context of the day, and the global outlook of the author concerned. For example, in France, those who had lived through the Nazi occupation of France sought refuge in the art of abstraction. And many writers and artists during that time preferred to forget and tried to escape from examining it until much later.

I believe this opportunity given to us to celebrate sixty years of Comrade Poopathy’s mature life provides us, expatriates, with an opportunity to discuss the role and contribution of writers and artists in order to build a better life for the people of our birth places. There have been many expatriates who believed that, after the military defeat of the LTTE, through a long term political and economic vision and agenda, an era of reconciliation will be on the cards. Nevertheless, reports coming out do not indicate a genuine desire or commitment for such reconciliation, which is sad and unfortunate.

In the country’s north, east and the south, it is not only necessary, but essential to address the physical and emotional scars left behind by the war on many thousands of families who lost lives and limbs of their members, relatives and friends. These people need help in coping with the disaster of separation and loss. In the north and east, employment opportunities have become major issues affecting their survival.

Comrade Poopathy was introduced to me in the late 1970s, during my interaction with late comrade H N Fernando, then president of the Ceylon Teachers Union and comrade Chitral Perera, its Secretary, who is now leading Jana Sansadaya in Sri Lanka. Comrade Poopathy was contributing to Guru Handa (Voice of Teachers), the news journal of this trade union. We have many shared views and opinions on many national and international issues, based on our perceptions of social justice and human rights. I am happy, that even today we continue to cherish that relationship.

Engaging in political polemics was not enough. The understanding of social reality as we saw it, made us see the power of song, poetry and drama. We felt the need to speak in one common voice, against discrimination, terror, and the violation of human rights. He has an extensive knowledge and understanding of Sinhala literature and writers. He displayed an enormous ability to cross cultural barriers and to express facts about the nature of peoples’ suffering, as exemplified by his writings about the Tamil nationalist struggle, about insurrections by the Sinhala youth and the suffering of many under those complex and extremely difficult circumstances.

When I was leading the Society for Socialist Culture of the then JVP, comrade Poopathy wrote about the immense social and cultural experiences of communities both in Sri Lanka and overseas in diverse artistic forms. The Society of Socialist Culture was instrumental in the public musical performance “Songs of Liberation” staged island wide including in Jaffna, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. Mr Poopathy translated some of these songs into Tamil, especially, songs written against chauvinism and racism.

Our message was clear. If one’s artistic talents are not used to dispel the distrust among our peoples, and to develop a mutual understanding, to stop the brutal violence and to assist in developing a just and dignified peace to all, then such talents would become futile.

Literature is not a way to merrily spend one’s time, but a way to awaken society. Writers have a social responsibility to tell the truth that may help the progression of society, he believes. His writings are not limited to issues of social justice though; He has written short stories, novels, critiques, children’s literature and travelogues also depicting extreme moments of human emotion, love, sorrow and happiness.

In a way, he rejected the conventions of classical literature, identified more closely with the achievements of the industrial era, and created greater awareness of human brutality and suffering under colonial and repressive regimes. He believes in creating socially responsible literature that would compel one to examine one’s own prejudices and to obligate one to engage with our communities for a more dignified co-existence.

In addition to being a journalist, short-story writer, critic and author, comrade Poopathy had been campaigning for the release of political prisoners. In the seventies when many thousands were killed, many thousands were held behind bars without being charged, and some were selectively convicted under specially framed, retrospectively applied laws, many organisations and individuals from diverse professional, political, social, economic and cultural backgrounds campaigned for protection of human rights and fair treatment of all.

In 1978, he was associated with the formation of Movement for Inter Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE), of which I was also a founding member. In 1979, when The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which later became a permanent feature of the law statutes, was implemented, we strongly agitated against it.

In 1981, we remembered the burning of the Jaffna library. Comrade Poopathy was one of the leading members who agitated against this cowardly act and other atrocities and rights violations committed during that period. At that time, as a leader of the JVP, I also took a lead role in these protests. Moreover, both of us donated large amounts of books to refurbish the Jaffna library.

This brings our attention to the relationship between culture and politics, specifically the position taken by prominent artists and writers during the times of oppression.

Writers and artists have struggled and continue to struggle to come to terms with reality during times of war and conflict, and there are certain things that they tend to keep silent about because to speak about those issues would undermine the struggle and the fight for democracy. So until democracy returns in some form or another, they would find difficult to express their genuine views suppressing what they feel to be true in their hearts.

Let me digress for a moment, to tell you about France in the 19th century.

The German occupation of France was a far more testing time for French artists and writers and the debate between resistance versus collaboration went on, with only a relative few of them voicing their resistance, the rest being supine.  Most of those within this majority were awaiting a definitive outcome to the war and tried to go about their lives as normally as possible. They wrote and published, sang, danced, performed on stage and painted. And most Parisians were glad they did so, it is said, because culture offered them a welcome respite from reality.

Let me pose another question.

Should a writer or an artist be judged by that individual’s work or personal behaviour such as collaboration or resistance? For example, left wingers such as Sartre and Albert Camus were willing to accept German censorship as the price of publishing their books and plays. Regarding this situation, an essayist Jean Guéhenno, has added this personal note:

The species of the man of letters is not one of the greatest of human species. Incapable of surviving for long in hiding, he would sell his soul to see his name in print. He can stand it no longer. He quarrels only about his importance, the size of the print in which his name appears, its ranking in the table of contents. It goes without saying that he is full of good reasons. ‘French literature must continue.’ He believes that he is French literature and thought that they will die without him.

Let me continue with this digression and take you now to several South African writers and artists, who were role models in defeating oppression of the apartheid regime.

One of the most prominent was Dr Mongane Wally Serote. His work was so intense and reflected his uncompromising commitment to political liberation. His poems reflect his commentary on the apartheid era in his life. There is a section of a poem he had written in 1972: Ofay-Watcher, Throbs-Phase, meaning blacks must learn to talk; whites must learn to listen. This has almost become a South African proverb. Something we can also reflect on.

Mandla Langa, born in KwaZulu-Natal, grew up in a township. While at university, he became actively involved in student politics and his studies were disrupted by political strikes taking place at the time. In 1976, while in jail he started writing poetry. In exile, Langa became a journalist and worked to expose what South African media at that time were unable to because of state censorship.

Before going into exile in 1961, poet, educator and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile helped establish the ANC’s Education, Arts and Culture programs. He also worked in the underground structures of the ANC under the command of its political and military council. His poetry touches on from the political and public to the lyrical and confessional. He believes in the symbiotic relationship between poetry and politics, whereby the poet articulates the dream of a people to be free and the liberation movement fights to make those dreams a reality.

The work of Don Mattera is representative of the political and cultural life between the Sharpeville massacre and Soweto uprising. Before becoming a journalist, he was a gang leader in Sophiatown, South Africa. Later he became a renowned journalist and published collections of short stories, children’s stories and plays. His writings were banned under the apartheid South Africa. He won the Steve Biko Prize for his seminal autobiography, Memory is the Weapon. In 1997 he won the World Health Organisation’s Peace Award, an honour bestowed by the Centre of Violence and Injury Prevention. In 2006, he was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Literary Award.

What a diverse group of writers and artists who can still inspire us!

Now let us return to comrade Poopathy. He was playing an active role in community work as a member of the National Council of the Sri Lanka Progressive Writers’ Union and secretary of its Colombo branch. He saw that the people in Sri Lanka, irrespective of their ethnicity and religion, had common social and economic problems.

He saw how peoples’ lives had been affected by the gap between the haves and have-nots. He wrote in art form what he saw in social reality. He became popular among the Tamil working people. Literature took his heart towards the people. He wanted to tell the country about the lives of these people. His commitment to social justice became evident from his very earliest writings.

His writing started with his first short story “Kanavugal Aayiram” (Thousand dreams), a coagulation of his life as a student and in his interactions with fisher folk on the beaches of Negombo. His widely acclaimed short story collections “Sumaien Pankalikal” (Partners of burden) and “Samantharangal” (Parallels) are based on his rich real-life experiences at the Negombo beaches.

When cyclone hit the Eastern district in 1978, he was there in Batticaloa to help the victims. He was there to make arrangements to assist the tsunami victims which struck the island in 2004. When the armed conflict in the island came to an end, he visited those areas and has been assisting those people ravaged by that cruel and inhumane war.

I can remember the time when we discussed a name for the JVP’s Tamil organ. With his contribution, it was named as Shen Shakthi. In many ways, he assisted the publication of the paper. However, when I was detained for ten months under the pretext of being behind the black July riots in 1983, the intelligence sleuths interrogated me about this Tamil writer. With difficulty I was able to cover up for him. However, in 1989 he had to flee Sri Lanka.

Each of the communities of people has its language, its traditions, and its cultural and psychic distinctions. These distinctions are the contribution which every community makes to the global cultural capital, while adding and enriching it. As a result, works of writing and art will bear the stamp of the cultural distinctions of people, while expressing the demands, the struggle, the efforts and the dreams of the people. Therefore, the principal source of inspiration for works of writing and art is made up of problems linked with life, the work, thoughts and actions of people who are struggling for their rights under oppressive regimes.

As members of society, writers and artists cannot be neutral towards events they observe in their environment. To live in society and at the same time to be free of society is impossible. So works of writing and art bear a definite social stamp embodying its respective ideals and demands.

A Zimbabwean-born writer Elinor Sisulu has said:

The challenge is there for writers. When we fight oppression … we must speak, and much of the fight is [in] making information available. People don’t see that deepening democracy requires a fight. … Deepening democracy is a complicated thing. It is easy to fight your enemy but it is not easy to fight your friend.

In conclusion, I wish our friend comrade Poopathy many an opportunity to further continue his outstanding contribution to world literature and to the cause of social justice. It is through the efforts of people like him that the place of conscience in our peoples’ artistic landscape can be restored. I take this opportunity to wish him well and a long and fruitful life.

Thank you.

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Copy of a talk given in July 2011 at a function to celebrate 60 years of Mr Muruga Poopathy’s life.

  • Vino Gamage

    Thank you, Lionel.

    I would like to start here:
    I appeal to Sri Lankan Buddhists to make 16/17/18 the compulsory minimum age to become monks:

    ”A novice monk(an infant) seeking alms near the Slave Island police station on Wednesday” – http://www.island.lk/ – accessed 04.08.2011.

    http://www.equinoxjournals.com/ROSA/article/view/3519/2212

    ”Chandra R. de Silva implies that Buddhist monastic opposition to a non-unitary state has contributed to the conflict. He appreciates the reasons for this, but pleads for a system of monastic education that would expose monks to other religions and cultures. ….
    I have no hesitation in recommending this volume as a serious contribution to the understanding of one of the most complex and intractable conflicts in the world’’, Dr Elizabeth Harris(Liverpool Hope University), Review(2007) of Buddhism, Conflict and Violence in Modern Sri Lanka(2006)

    ”expose monks to other religions and cultures” is, as far as I am concerned, is completion of a minimum of decent secondary education.

  • xy

    Beautiful reflection on writers and artists and politics.