Book Reviews

Another Sky: Voices of Conscience

Lucy Popescu and Carole Seymour-Jones (editors) 2007

This volume is an absolutely stunning record of the voices of those persecuted for their writings.  Among those published in this book are Reza Baraheni, whom I've previously blogged on, Liu Jinsheng, Anna Politkovskaya, Orhan Pamuk, Aung San Suui Kyi, Harry Wu, Chris Abani, and Ken Saro-Wiwa the last three are among the number of writers published here who were executed for their writings.  

In all, 49 writers separated into those who have been imprisoned, exiled or executed are included in this volume.  Some of the publications are essays, others are journal entries from time spent in torture and others works of poetry.  Themes of despair, hope, anguish and loss of sanity run throughout these works with many writers recounting their experiences with some of the worlds most oppressive regimes.  

The writers are introduced before each work, and also in the forward by Sir Tom Stoppard, and four other introductory notes from various writers and editors.  Some of these works are essays and they feature their own references and citations.  

While this volume certainly contains lots of terror, I find it incredibly hopeful as well.  I suppose that the type of person who keeps writing despite the threats, intimidation and violence are truly a special breed of human being.  This volume truly captures that unique quality which causes these people to keep fighting the darkness.  

As these works are so diverse, it would be hard to really give you an image of this volume without reviewing each individual portion.  Rather than do that, I will periodically blog on specific works published in Another Sky.  For now though, let me give you a few samples: 

Anna Politkovskaya:

I am a pariah.

That is the main result of my journalism throughout the years of the Second Chechen War, and of publishing abroad a number of books about life in Russia and the Chechen War.  In Moscow I am not invited to press conferences or gatherings which officials of the Kremlin Administration might attend, in case the organizers are suspected of harboring sympathies towards me.  Despite this, all the top officials talk to me, at my request, when I am writing articles or conducting investigations--but only in secret, where they can't be observed, in the open air, in squares, in secret houses which we approach by different routes, like spies.

The officials like talking to me.  They are happy to give me information.  They consult me and tell me what is going on at the top.  But only in secret.

You don't get used to this, but you learn to live with it.  It is exactly the way I have had to work throughout the Second War in Chechnya.  First I was hiding from the Russian federal troops, but was always able to make contact clandestinely with individuals through trusted intermediaries, so that my informants would not be denounced to the top generals.  When Putin's plan of Chechenization succeeded (setting 'good' Chechens loyal to the Kremlin to killing 'bad' Chechens who opposed it), the same subterfuge extended to talking to 'good' Chechen officials , whom of course I had known for a long time, and many of whom, before they were 'good' officials, had sheltered me in their homes in the most trying months of the war.  Now we can meet only in secret because I am a pariah, an enemy.  Indeed, an incorrigible enemy not amenable to re-education.  

p. 217-218

Mrs. Politkovskaya was murdered on October 7 2006, likely by those wishing to suppress her journalism.  

Ken Saro-Wiwa:

Physical torture did not kill me.  Nor did mental torture.  Then, one night, the ghost arrived.  Tall and gangly, dressed in ragged Nigerian Army camouflage uniform, his bones shooting out of holes in his uniform, his brown teeth as huge as tusks projecting from enormous lips, he came to me, automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, a little drum, an Ogoni drum called 'Ekoni', in his hand.  He sounded the drum, Ken-ti-mo, Ken-ti-mo, Ken-ti-mo!

The familiar sound of the little drum woke me up.  At the sight of the ghost, I laughed.  Annoyed by my laughter, he dropped the drum and laid hold of his automatic weapon.  He pointed it at me at close range.  I did not flinch.  He cocked the weapon and fingered the trigger.  I did not bat an eyelid.

"Who are you?" I asked

"I'm General Jeno Saidu."

"Sounds like genocide to me,' I said. 

"You should know."

"What do you want?" I asked.

"I'm here to finish you," replied he, in a gruff voice.

"General, stop swaggering.  You do not impress me".  

"You will be impressed.  I've finished all your Ogoni people-- men, women and children.  Once I deal with you, my task is done."

pages 135-136 in Another Sky.  

Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested in 1994 on charges of attempting to incite murder.  He was executed by hanging in Nigeria on November 10, 1995.  

The full text of these two entries make this  work well worth the price, and these are just two of the many writings.  I highly recommend this volume.  

The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin

 I read this book about a month ago and I have to say that it was absolutely captivating. A coworker suggested I read it. He told me the basic premise and I was intrigued, but I have to admit that my expectations were rather low as it is a science fiction novel written by a sci-fi/fantasy writer. But, LeGuin is truly something far beyond a simple fiction writer. She has a very erudite understanding of the nature of social structures and the heartwood that exists within society.

The novel has a physicist, Dr. Shevek from the anarchist world of Annares travelling to the neighboring world of Urras. Urras contains many nation states including a state socialist state, a capitalist state, and a developing state being manipulated by the state socialist state and the capitalist state in what is undoubtedly a reference to the cold war. Shevek (a name assigned, as all names are assigned, by a random computer naming system on Annares) is a highly capable physicist who has been working on a new way to engage in high speed interstellar travel.

 His home world and his people are the subject of the title of the book. They are dispossessed because they are "owning nothing and being owned by nothing". Their system runs through a system of syndicates with what they claim to be no government, no real legal system, and a voluntary system of shared labour, housing and family arrangements. But, during his life on his homeworld he witnessed first hand the eventual creeping in of centralized control. The planning committees excluded those they didn't like, and suppressed Shevek's work. They also tightly controlled contact with other worlds out of fear of invasion and mutual agreement with other worlds.

 In fact, they were only allowed to survive due to a mining agreement with capitalist forces in the neighboring world of Urras. Shevek maintains secret communication with Urras and begins a conversation with scientists and academics in the capitalist nation of A-Io. He eventually is allowed to travel to A-Io to share his work. He doesn't realize that he is being manipulated by economic interests for he himself has never owned anything, as is the anarchist system on Annares.

 He comes into contact with secret agents of the State Socialist nation, and also rejects them for their belief they can be free without removing the state. Now, I won't give you a synopsis of the whole book, as that would ruin it. But, let me talk about the politics for a moment. On Annares, Shevek and his wife (though his language contains no personal pronouns or any terms of ownership whatsoever, so he would never refer to the woman he cohabitates with as "his" as his people don't have the word "his" and believe the concept of ownership to be extremely distasteful), have already broken the rules by staying together with their young child. They wouldn't describe it as a "rule" but it is a social convention and considered desirable.

 But, there is no real ability to entirely force anyone to do anything. So, they still do have much more freedom than a person living in a state system. Shevek also talks a fair bit about the economic system. That those in the capitalist system are owned by things. That they work for objects so that they can in turn be owned by those objects. They spend their lives fighting for survival as the systemic forces always keep a small number rich and a much greater group of workers poor in order to allow the rich to maintain their decadent life-style.

 But, Annares is a rugged, arid world that barely produces enough. At times, they have been in severe shortage during periods of drought. It is this realism that sets Le Guin apart from either Utopian fiction or distopian fiction. The state world, Urras has strong points and good people. They have almost their entire population living with more than enough. They seem to be recovering from their environmental catastrophe from their industrial age. But, dire poverty does exist. People communicate and live behind closed doors and thick mental walls.

As Shevek notes, everything they say is from behind that wall. They don't share themselves. They hoard themselves. They fight against their neighbor to acquire more, and more. They enslave people to the state. They enslave workers to their bosses. The people of A-Io are mostly wage slaves, and slaves to the externalized constructs. Instead of recognizing that the spiritual, the justice, the scientific, the social, and the animal are all a part of the internal psyche of the individual, they externalize these things by building governments, by making objects out of being, by creating a legal system, police, armies, bombs, churches and temples and other structures.  They reify concept and turn them into structures that they cannot see outside of. They speak in cliche.

 But, on Annares the people recognize that all of the individual's "modes" are part of the individual. The sense of justice, of mysticism, of fraternity are all parts of the person's nature. Owning nothing and being owned by nothing sets the person free from all external compulsion. But, Annares struggles with shortage. Annares is not always open to new ideas, and the state seems to be creeping back in through supposedly voluntary work assignments which can be refused, but only with great social stigmatization. Thus the structures that Annares fought to be free of are creeping back in.

 Perhaps LeGuin is right that we will always have these structures and forces pushing themselves on the people. LeGuinn sees society for what it is. A brilliant person, Odo, the long dead moral leader of the anarchist movement has followers on the state-run world as well as her world of Annares, but others have partially co-opted her true movement for anarchy, for this is the nature of humanity.

 This book is simply brilliant. Le Guin is an amazing writer whose work should be digested slowly and partly in what Shevek might call the mystical mode. I'd recommend this book for anyone interested in sci-fi or fantasy, but even more so for those interested in politics, political science, sociology, anthropology or simply in how societies develop. Her academic background, including her father who was a noted anthropologist, and her mother an educated writer, shines in every line she writes. Oh, and as I don't live on Annares, I do value money. I get a
cut if you buy this book from the Amazon links on my site.  The red one is the e-book and the blue one on the right is the physical book.

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