In response to the execution of Iranian poet and activist Hashem Shaabani, Poetry Editor Charlie Bondhus reflects on privilege, writing, and poetry’s function as a tool of social change.
Writing in the First Person World
Recently I gave a seminar and poetry reading at Georgetown University. The students asked incisive, penetrating questions, which gave me a great chance to discuss some of the issues I’d been considering as I wrote and had published my second poetry book All the Heat We Could Carry (Main Street Rag, 2013). The book deals with a gay veteran returning from Afghanistan and his attempts to readjust to civilian life even as memories of war loom large.
I have never served in the military—a point I made clear from the start of the seminar—and the facts of the book are based on research and interviews. I was happy, therefore, that one student asked me a question which dealt with poets writing about worldwide injustice while at the same time occupying a safe position in the First-World middle class.
In response to the young woman’s question, I spoke about the poet-as-witness, the important role which poets—and other writers—play in inviting people who have lived well to experience and on some level empathize with the sufferings of those who are beyond their purview. As the saying goes, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
At the heart of this question is the issue of privilege—and perhaps also a certain degree of guilt. How can I justify sitting and writing sonnets while Afghan civilians are being killed by U.S.-led drone strikes, North Koreans are living in the shadow of Kim Jong Un, Russian LGBT folk are being summarily erased from public existence by Vladimir Putin, and, within the United States and elsewhere, class warfare is being waged every day?
It’s tempting to dismiss poetry as a luxury item, a waste of time—a fallacy my classmates and I fell prey to on September 11, 2001, at 11:15 AM, as we trudged to a, at that moment, seemingly irrelevant class in seventeenth-century British poetry. Such was also the attitude of German philosopher Theodore Adorno who, exiled by the Nazis, stated “After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”
It would be very difficult, however, to say such things to the family and friends of Hashem Shaabani, a poet and activist from Iran, who belonged to the Arabic-speaking minority, the Ahvazis. Shaabani was executed by hanging last Monday, after enduring nearly three years of prison and torture. His crime? Either “threatening national security” or Moharabeh—“enmity against God.” More likely, Shaabani was executed for the same reason that other Iranian poets—among them, Sa’id Sultanpur and Rahman Hatefi—were killed; his politics and his writing.
According to Human Rights Voices, Shaabani worked “to extend spaces of individual freedom within the despotic Khomeinist system.” In his final letter from prison, Shaabani himself wrote:
“I have tried to defend the legitimate right that every people in this world should have which is the right to live freely with full civil rights. With all these miseries and tragedies, I have never used a weapon to fight these atrocious crimes except the pen.”
Though some American academics have recently published smug articles on “the death of poetry” and questioned its continued relevance, theirs is a myopic position. Poetry clearly mattered greatly to Shaabani, Sultanpur, Hatefi, and to the “more than a dozen writers and poets” executed under former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. I can only speculate, but based on what I know of these writers’ politics and aims, they saw poetry as a potential agent of change, something worth risking life and freedom. And, of course, their poetry also mattered enough to make the mullahs who ordered these executions nervous.
So what about those of us who live in the so-called First World? To return to my response to the student at Georgetown, those of us who are free to write without fear of imprisonment, torture, and execution ought to consider the roles we can play as advocates of social justice, writing in a critical, respectful way about the atrocities we learn about in developing nations and at home.
Of course, this is a thorny issue. We who write from positions of privilege run the risk of aggrandizing ourselves on the backs of the suffering. We run the risk of sensationalizing. We run the risk of misrepresenting. We run the risk of exoticizing and stereotyping.
This is why research is so important. Indeed, research is always an important part of the writing process, but even more so when dealing with fraught issues such as these. Know what’s going on. Read more than one article from more than one media outlet. Read books and firsthand accounts by people who have experienced these horrors. If possible, talk to people who have been there.
Of course, if one is still uncomfortable with writing about the struggles occurring in places that are geographically distant from oneself, there is no shortage of injustices in the “First World.” Wealth inequality in the United States is staggering. The middle class is disappearing. The poor are being demonized. War is being waged over who gets to control women’s bodies. Systemic racism hides behind a veil of uncritical “tolerance” which most often takes the form of a “color blindness” which ignores the very real inequalities people of color face, both as a result of historical racism and as a result of present-day discrimination.
Perhaps if we wrote about these things with the same passion that Shaabani and others wrote about injustice in Iran, we might effect change. Perhaps we should question more energetically the myth—popularized two centuries ago by the British Romantics—that the poet is a quasi-mystical being who exists and composes in isolation. If we are going to ransack Western history for archetypes, perhaps we should take up the much older idea that the role of the poet is a public one.
I would also add that, in addition to supporting the cause of justice, this kind of work makes us better writers. The cliché “Write what you know” may be true to an extent, but it ought to be amended to add the provision “Expand what you know.” One of the most important steps a writer can take on her or his journey is to get beyond her or his own story. Broadening one’s understanding of the world, of human nature, of experience beyond one’s own, produces both a more engaging writer and a more nuanced thinker.
Some might say that residents of the First World have no business writing about the suffering of others. However, if it is done with honesty, compassion, and with enough background information, and if it incorporates, as much as possible, the voices of those affected, I would argue that this kind of writing represents a leveraging of our privilege to just ends. Privilege cannot really be erased; it can only be used for good or ill. We ought to use ours for good.
“Amir Tahiri: Rouhani Orders Execution of Arab Iranian Poet.” Human Rights Voices. 2 February 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
Staff, Harriet. “Iranian Poet and Activist Hashem Shaabani Executed.” The Poetry Foundation. 6 February 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
Weinthal, Benjamin. “Rouhani orders executions of Iranian-Arab poet, rights activist.” The Jerusalem Post. 3 February 2014. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
Image Credit: Poetry Foundation
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