AUTODAFE is a collection of reports, interviews, correspondence, narratives, and stories from around the world. The review aims to be a place for debate and experimentation, a place where writers, silenced by censorship join voices with world-renowned writers. The contributors are all members of the International Parliament of Writers; the pieces are original to Autodafe. The journal's common themes are the reflection of social and political realities of the world, censorship, the interdict of language, and the effects of globablization among others.
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About the Author
The International Parliament of Writers (IPW) was created after an appeal launched in July 1993 by 300 writers from all over the world, in reaction to the increase of writers’ assassinations in Algeria. The signatories of this appeal affirmed the need for a new international structure capable of organizing a concrete solidarity with persecuted writers, in the form of a Cities of Asylum Network. The publication of their annual review, AUTODAFE, was a collaboration between various publishing houses around the world: Seven Stories Press in the US, Anagrama in Spain, Agra in Athens, Denoel in France, and Feltrinelli in Italy.
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On the Obligation to Smile
in Chinese Work Camps
by Gao Er Tai
GAO Er Tai (China) Born in Gaochun in 1935, this writer, painter, and art critic has been arrested many times. He was sentenced to forced labor in 1957, and again in 1966, after the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. In 1983, during the "Movement for the Eradication of Spiritual Pollution," he was forbidden to teach or publish. After being arrested again in 1989, he left the country in 1992 and moved to the United States. Since 1995, he has been working on his memoir. To Seek My Homeland.
Those who worked along the ditches in Jiabiangou created among themselves not only a smile but a running style that was unparalleled. As in the arts, creativity is not only the result of a long accumulation of many different factors working together but also of opportunity; ours came from an unexpected and soon-to-appear delegation that we didn't know anything about.
The camp commanders took these delegations seriously. On successive nights, they pushed the construction of basketball courts, as well as the organization of teams, dance troupes, choral groups, folk art societies and a section for the editing of wall posters. The day before the delegation arrived, we got off from work early, which gave us a chance to sweep and clean, shave, and get haircuts, but still the cadre members in charge of reeducation said the emphasis should be on "a lively workplace atmosphere manifesting happiness."
When the day arrived, the delegation didn't come to our work site, but we had, anyway, a good meal of steamed bread dumplings, green vegetables and sauteed meat, all in larger portions than usual. It gave an impression that was hard to forget.
After the delegation left, all those organizations and groups dispersed, however, four posters from the four large brigades still remained on the wall, competing with each other for attention.
One look at these posters and you could tell there were many talented workers at our site; the selection, design and decoration were all done as if by professionals, and the essays were copied, with a neat, well practiced calligraphy, in the Yang and the Yan style, the style of the Wei tablets and even in tire Slender Gold style. The first brigade selected a couplet from the poetry of Liu Yu-xi: "A thousand sails pass a sinking ship; ten thousand branches look fresh before a wilting tree." Crude yet forceful, the large characters looked as if they were by Ji Nong's hand.
The articles were mostly editorials. "The Party's Benevolence is Deep as the Sea," "Change Yourself from Inside Out," "Love the Camp as Much as Home but not Home as Much as the Camp," "To Dispute with the Party is to Use False Arguments." Their opinions were clearly stated and heartfelt, while the poetry was fiery and passionate. One title had three exclamation marks: "Ah! Ditch Workers! We are Born Again in Our Second Home!" The essay that left the deepest impression was: "Criticism of the False Statement 'Reeducation by Labor is Not as Good as Hard Labor.'" Its main point was: There are people among us who say reeducation by labor is not as good as hard labor, because hard labor has a set punishment term, while reeducation does not. To support hard labor means that you have a hidden agenda, or, at the very least, you lacked a basic political consciousness, and were confusing two incompatible things. Hard labor means oppression of the people's enemy, while reeducation by labor is to take the conflict between the people's enemy and the people and resolve it among the people; it represents the party's benevolence towards us. Not setting a definite punishment term is beneficial for reform, since, if the reform is not complete when the people's enemy is released, he can fall into even greater errors and keep backsliding, but with a punishment term that never ends reform can occur at any time. This shows the party's absolute love, concern, protection and benevolence towards us. If we are not grateful, we must be denounced as having no conscience, and so on and so on.
No one knew if it was serious or humorous, whether it was honest or a lie. Even the author couldn't tell. No, it really was that no one expected to make such distinctions. In the midst of confusion, everything was simple and easy.
There were times when things didn't go easily, but, when you thought about it, you didn't know who to blame. One time our brigade was under the command of Cadre Member Wang. Just decommissioned from the army, he still wore his old uniform. He wasn't refined but he was sincere. He squatted around the work site, sucking noisily on his brass tipped, bamboo pipe, not saying much. One day, after squatting awhile in our section, he looked at his watch and said, "Rest a little, take it easy, you all look tired." Everyone felt their hard work had received official recognition and were, of course, pleased, so they said they weren't tired and worked even harder. The former Chief of the Provincial Propaganda Bureau, Ideology Section, Wang Hsia-liang stopped digging, placed one hand on the small of his back, slowly straightened up, and, supporting himself with the other hand on the pig iron pick handle, said abjectly: "The leaders have fallen behind the people, heh, heh, heh. This is the present Great Leap Forward's most important principle."
A look of embarrassment shot through Cadre Member Wang's eyes; he didn't answer, but, lowering his head, he alternately tapped his pipe and cleaned it with a bamboo rod, then he tapped it again on the bottom of his shoe, got up, patted his backside, and went away without turning around, leaving an aroma of tobacco.
We all felt deflated and a bit uneasy. Things were friendly before but little of that remained, and an old saying came true, "A scholar cannot reason with a soldier." How rigid he was! How confusing! Fortunately, Cadre Member Wang was shortly transferred, and Cadre Member Han took his place. Mean and controlling, everything went according to plan. Rigidity and confusion became simplicity and ease.
When we were preparing for the delegation's arrival, we were under Han's command. A lively workplace environment was the result of assaulting our emotions, also an entirely simple and easy thing. As before, when we held our study meetings, the cadre members in charge of reeducation already had gone home, leaving the meetings entirely in the hands of each brigade. Everyone spoke enthusiastically and to the point. If anyone had a mournful expression: Who are you unhappy with? If anyone didn't have much to say: What dirty tricks are you up to? If anyone staggered with his load: Who are you showing off for? And so we criticized and exposed each other, until we all came to a consensus: if your thinking is not reconstructed you will be among the happy but not know happiness. And so everyone underwent self-criticism, guaranteed they would change and become happy, and asked everyone else to supervise them.
With this resolved, the atmosphere of the work site changed. In all the brigades, small, medium and large, everyone smiled, smiled from morning to evening, smiled wherever they were or whenever it was. They smiled brandishing their hoes and using their picks, smiled carrying their loads up the slope, smiled all the way down. They ran, smiled and sang work songs. At first they were chants to keep in time with the steps, Hai, Hai, Hai, Hai, but some soon improvised matching chants; the one in the rear would call out and the one in the front would answer, Hai, Hai. The words were all improvised. For instance, if they were carrying their loads along the road and passed Zhen Zhi-bang, they chanted:
Zhen Zhi-bang, neHai, Hai!
Good lead-er, neHai, Hai!
If they passed the lazy Zhang Wu-qin, they chanted:
Zhang Wu-qin, neHai, Hai! Tele-phone-pole, neHai, Hai!
Outsiders sometimes have poetry contests or folk song contests, but the ditch workers in Jiabiangou competed among themselves with work songs.
However, unlike our emotional states which we ground razor sharp between ourselves, analysis of the words to these songs often didn't come to anything. For instance, that same day, someone pointed out that the chief of the large brigade was still undergoing reeducation and couldn't be called a leader. It would be better if the line went, Good Mod-el, neHai, Hai! Another pointed out that, since he hadn't been released, you couldn't say for certain that he was rehabilitated, so he couldn't be a model, and the line should be, Good Work-er, neHai, Hai! This seemed to work, but Zhen Zhi-bang himself mulled it over and said that it wasn't good for anyone to stick out, so we couldn't use that line either. Because of the real risk of difficulty, our heated enthusiasm gradually cooled, and a simple and easy Hai, Hai! was reestablished. This seemed best, so everyone at the work site ran around smiling and calling Hai, Hai!, manifesting their happiness.
But, to speak of it again, our smiling and running weren't the same as normal smiling and running. The basis for a normal smile is happiness, and for normal running is strength. These must be presupposed. Each of us carried on a long and bitter struggle within themselves. When the eyes narrowed, the two corners turned downward; when the mouth opened, its two corners raised up: all this was squeezed together, so the slanted wrinkles on the face became straight, and made a smiling face. It was strenuous and to maintain for a long time took a great effort. The smiles showed the strain and looked a little like crying.
Running was even more difficult. The back foot should spring forward and be lifted high, causing both feet to be in the air at once, in order to make a longer stride, but we were too weak and needed to place one foot down before lifting the other, which made our running no different from walking. In order to compensate, each of us, without consulting the others, increased the curvature of our lifted leg as much as possible and then straightened it out all at once. This bending and stretching gave an almost elastic appearance, and so these people ran up and down, suddenly tall, suddenly short. Although, by this method, you couldn't attain any speed, you did save energy and could carry a dripping load of mud from the ditch up the slippery incline and down again, so everyone adopted it.
We soon forgot about the delegation, however our smiles and running style, which were imposed upon us, now were part of us, and gathered from our need to survive and our supervision of each other an immense power, became habitual and difficult to get rid of. All the eyes of the thousands of people at the work sites looked out large and blank from their deep sockets and narrowed. I carried my load bouncing up and down with everyone else in the crowd and passed by chanting Hai, Hai! But at times my nerves would give out without warning, and in my confusion all the familiar surroundings became strange, and I wouldn't know where I was. Dawn came as it always had. I had just carried my first load of dirt to the new pile on the side of the ditch's slope and met the sun. Nestled in the long and straight horizon, the deep red sun, large and round, seemed as if it couldn't shine; nevertheless, on the cold, desolate and uneven surface of our own star emerged slate blue shadows, and I saw, in one delicate and long shadow, a crowd of ash-gray beings dig bit by bit an impoverished surface, and slowly, going up and down, remove its dirt further, becoming less distinct, until they disappeared into an ancient and primitive landscape, and I suddenly felt an unspeakable astonishment.
I thought if someone came, who didn't know what had gone on before, and was suddenly faced by this strange landscape, his mouth would fall open and wouldn't close for a long time. Even these numberless frozen smiles alone would be enough to make his hair stand on end.
And I thought, if an earthquake happened now, and we were all suddenly buried and turned into fossils, archeologists from another time wouldn't be able to explain what these unparalleled smiles and running postures actually meant. If they would theorize that they were the mysterious rites of some kind of irrational sect, or imagine they were the ancient customs of a remote, barbarous and extinguished race, or conclude they were distorted, cultural metaphors like flattened Mayan heads or the strange masks of New Guinea, I wouldn't blame them. They couldn't know the history of these forms. No one could explain these strange symbols.
Translated from the Chinese
by Robert Dorsett
Toward a Cultural Alternative in Cuba
by Rogelio Saunders Chile
Rogelio SAUNDERS CHILE (Cuba). Born in Havana in 1963, Rogelio Saunders Chile has been part of the alternative artistic movement, Espirogira, since 1984. Since 1993, he has worked on the journal Diasporas. He is blacklisted by the Cuban authorities, as a "problematic" intellectual. Saunders Chile has been living in the Asylum City of Sabadell, Spain, since December 1999.
If I look back for a moment (employing that special ability of the gaze to turn time into space) and try to surveyor examinethe last ten years of my life in Cuba in order to understand what I did (or what strategy I used) in the face of the apathy and destructiveness of totalitarian power, I see that my resistance (only half consciously) consisted above all in contrasting my own increasing lucidity to the increasing obscurity which was spreading across the landscape of social life in my country, turning it into what it is today: a real black hole in the geographic map of humanity. A place where no light can enter and from which no light emerges, but which is disguised by the opaque sheet of saccharine submissiveness of the totalitarian government, created for those people who refuse to see the truth even if it is right before their eyes.
During those years, I drew increasingly into myself, moved by the cultural suffocation which grew as the debacle of socialism as an ideology and an economic and political system became more evident. The totalitarian Cuban government developed its own strategy of resistance Faced with the inevitable, it countered with the impossible: the absurd and disastrous strategy of sinking completely into a medieval mindset, pushing the whole country into a vicious spiral beyond the margins of history, turning it into something like a sordid night club on the outskirts of town combining worn-out revolutionary slogans in bright neon with old American automobiles and fifteen-year-old prostitutes.
But this distance I created was not enough to be able to thoroughly observe what was occurring before my eyes. In addition, I created my own mask to hold up to the many masks of power (you can never know what lies behind the face of an official, or even the real face of your neighbor). Concealed by my anodyne job (one of the few that offered me what I needed the most time, solitude, perhaps some darkness, autonomy), I was able to watch from up close (from below, in a matter of speaking) the structure of the totalitarian system of authority. Having at one time been a member of this gray, barren religion, I could compare what I had been with what I now was and every past action with a recent one. This study eventually became a systematic and millimetric vivisection (or a deconstruction or destruction) of everything I had believed in. The more I observed, the more I understood, and the more I understood, the more I was horrified by it all. Even so, one of the observations that contributed the most to opening up my consciousness was the understanding that what occurs in a totalitarian state affects all of us. Things that are obvious in a totalitarian state are not so obvious in a democracy (a word which should always be written in quotes), but exist there as well. Fascism does not begin (nor, of course, end) with the existence of the totalitarian state, it is engrained in the very texture of human behavior, in man's relation with man on the simplest and most basic level: here, and now.
Between the end of 1985 and the beginning of 1986, my friend Reynaldo Alfonso Jiménez founded a cultural movement in Cuba by the name of "Espirogira." He brought together a number of young people (from all over the country) around a magazine of the same name which he edited. We had both been involved in the distinguished Cuban military presence in Ethiopia and had returned from there full of ideas and projects and, more importantly, believing in the possibility of creativity within the Socialist state (but outside of the official institutions). In other words, we thought that it was possible to createpropose, buildalternatives. It was (or was soon to be) the time of perestroika and glasnost. There were great expectations, projects, and discussions all over (especially among the young). Now I know that we were living in a dream (within the other, vaster dream which is life itself, that fictional realitas), and that this dream (like all dreams) would not last. The power structure appeared to us sub specie in the form of a polite, open, young, and almost dreamy civil servant. Believing him to be so, we entrusted him with all of our dreams. And, in doing so, our dreams came to an end, as have all dreams of creation (alternatives, personal liberty) within the structure of a totalitarian state. Nevertheless, this dream was important for two reasons. First, because it shook up the cultural apparatus of the totalitarian state (now, almost fifteen years later, we can say this with all certainty), which was subsequently forced to create new cultural structures which could encompass the enormous number of unknown arts and artists which would otherwise have become uncontrollable. It brought, at least for a short while, a small renewal of the artistic and literary landscape of the country, and the rise of other movements which were in turn destroyed and dispersed by the energetic and deadly reaction of the totalitarian state to everything that is not unconditional approbation and unquestioning revolutionary spirit. And secondly, it revealed to us, once and for all, the real nature of our everyday reality, and of the so-called "goodness" of the revolutionary government (of the Socialist state), eliminating forever (and for this I am grateful) all hope for real change. Because the one thing which would have to change is that which, by definition, can never change in a totalitarian state: the very mode of government.
Now I see that this movement that my friend Reynaldo Alfonso conceived (and created) was much more important than we realized at the time. It was a real strategy of resistance (and not only cultural) against the obscurantism imposed by the Nomenklatura. And it coincided with the creation of the first organization for the defense of human rights in Cuba, which makes it part of a larger process. It is one of the acts by which, throughout history, Cubans have tried to shake themselves free of the totalitarian noose.
A few years later, however, this failure has taken on a positive significance (I can still remember what I felt then: a sense of profound disappointment and bitterness), because it was one of the things that contributed most to my waking from the sinister dream of the never-ending revolution (which is nothing more than a massive fraud), and to the terrible truth of censorship, of the impossibility of expression and the emptiness of socialist rhetoric. It is no surprise that Cuban jails are full (and most of all, full of political prisoners who are not even recognized as such, which is one of the most terrible violations of human rights), and that the government creates harsher and harsher laws against any kind of criticism or protest; these are the natural consequences of its internal structure, which is based on absolute control. If we are surprised (as if there were any real contradiction in this) it is because we confuse this kind of power with something it is not. In other words, because (like my friend and I in the mid-eighties) we are dreaming.
What this movement (and the consequent run-in with the powers that be) showed me was the importance of alternatives. In the written word and elsewhere. In the State and beyond its boundaries. There must not be only one inside and one outside. (The totalitarian state is completely inclusive; everything is inside, and nothing is outside.) What occurs in a totalitarian state not only concerns us all, but it is an almost pure model for the mechanism of social control in any given space. No one is ever outside of the reach of the power structure (in other words, outside of its gaze). By definition, power maintains itself, or is maintained. And in order to make this possible, it must constantly be on the alert. But we mustn't see the power structure as something completely outside of ourselves, since it is nothing but the solution that we ourselves have found to the complex problem of coexistence. Even so, I believe that we should search inside ourselves for the reason why it is so. In other words: why the predominant way of regulating coexistence is the institution of an invisible and omnipresent system of vigilance and control sub specie by a bureaucracy which we ourselves elect and pay. (In the totalitarian state, of course, we also pay that bureaucracy, but we do not have the right to elect it). Here, then, is the problem of representation: what it represents to us and how it represents us. This is also the artist's dilemma (the dilemma of language, of form and style), but the artist knows that there is no single answer. Some balance (harmony) must be found between speaking and silence. Because it is invisible, power is also infinitely astute. In Cuba, for example, censorship goes by degrees. And there are many different types and forms of exclusion. You may never know what it is that keeps you from being published, because interdiction can be mistaken for real (or "natural") obstacles. But almost nothing is natural when everything exists beneath the all-knowing gaze of a permanent eye Until the creation of Diásporas by Rolando Sánchez Mejías, there was no truly independent literary magazine in Cuba. And today a movement like Espirogira in 1985 would simply be impossible. In my case, apart from my increasing lucidity (sharpened further by seeing what was before my eyes, undeniable), my active resistance consisted in writing an essay on fascism, in which I describe the power structure in my country as fascist. And not surprisingly, almost everything I have written in the last ten years has remained unpublished (for "natural" reasons, obviously) and I and several writers from my generation in Cuba were considered "cultural hippies." Or, as the illustrious official Cintio Vitier so elegantly put it, "young nihilists." And we young nihilists, as he himself proclaimed, have absolutely nothing to offer.