One human family against evil empires

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Background image of ripped pages: Nik on Unsplash

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It is, of course, understandable for an author, in our age of vigorous cancel culture, to succumb to such group pressures.
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The literary controversy by author Elizabeth Gilbert, of the popular book Eat pray love, seems to have passed unnoticed on South Africa’s literary scene. Gilbert’s new book was due to be published by Riverhead, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House this month. She delayed its publication indefinitely after receiving flak from Ukraine supporters and citizens. This is what the author says on her Twitter account:

Last week, I announced the upcoming publication of my most recent novel, called The snow forest, which is set in the middle of Siberia in the middle of the last century, and is the story of a group of individuals who made a decision to remove themselves from society to resist the Soviet government and to try to defend nature against industrialisation. But over the course of this weekend, I have received an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers, expressing anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now – any book, no matter what the subject of it is – that is set in Russia. And I want to say that I have heard these messages and read these messages and I respect them, and as a result I am making a course correction and I’m removing the book from its publication schedule. It is not the time for this book to be published, and I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced, and who are all continuing to experience, grievous and extreme harm. So, that is the choice that I have made, and I’ve got other book projects that I’m working on, and I’ve made a decision to turn my attention to working on those now, so I just wanted to let everybody know that. And thank you very much.

It is, of course, understandable for an author, in our age of vigorous cancel culture, to succumb to such group pressures. I don’t know whether I myself would have taken that easy way out, as she did, instead of facing up to the backlash that would follow my refusal to buckle under the pressure. Even with the knowledge of a predictable opposite pressure, this route is probably the less strenuous thing to do. But her actions, the withdrawal of the book from its imminent publication schedule, sets a dangerous precedent that is not acceptable to me as a writer. I share the sentiments of Pen America, who said: “Gilbert’s decision in the face of online outcry from her Ukrainian readers is well intended. But the idea that, in wartime, creativity and artistic expression should be preemptively shut down to avoid somehow compounding harms caused by military aggression is wrongheaded.”

Added to that, I personally make a clear distinction between Putin, the Kremlin administration and the Russian people. I would never seek to punish Russia for the sake of the cruel actions of its mafia state government. In fact, I believe that the majority of Russian people should also be regarded as victims of Putin’s authoritarian state. In a similar manner, most Zimbabweans should be treated as victims of the ZanuPF regime.

Even if I had no dog in this fight, I would still feel Gilbert’s action to be unfortunate and regrettable. As an author, and one whose recent book is partly set in Russia in the 1980s – which I published through Kwela Books in June 2021 – I urgently caution against actions by writers of succumbing to misdirected sentiments of cancel culture. South African literature, as literature of resistance in particular, has deep roots in Russian literature. I urge those who wish to familiarise themselves with this to read the seminal book by associate professor of English at Hopkins University, Jeanne-Marie Jackson, South African literature’s Russian soul: Narrative forms of global isolation. In her equally brilliant essay, Coetzee’s Russians, Jackson showcases how South Africans use Russian philological and literary history, making an example with JM Coetzee’s writings: Coetzee turns to Russian writers to elaborate a vision of self-awareness as self-entrapment, through which he also thereby enforces a more controversial, continuous reading of Russian history spanning its imperial and Soviet periods.

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It would be a sad day and very much unnecessary for our association with Russian literature if it had to be severed by Putin’s actions of aggression against Ukraine.
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On a personal note, my writing also owes a lot to Dostoevsky, especially concerning psychological insight. It would be a sad day and very much unnecessary for our association with Russian literature if it had to be severed by Putin’s actions of aggression against Ukraine.

South Africa also owes a lot to Ukraine, especially when it was still under the Soviet Socialist Republic. Many of our comrades in exile were stationed and studied in Ukraine. From the start, I was, and still am, a vehement critic of Putin’s aggression against the sovereignty of the Ukrainian state – not only that, but the floundering manner in which our own government has not been able to act in a principled manner and on moral high ground on the issue, by refusing to compromise the geographical sovereign integrity of Ukraine, even if they feel more association with Russia as part of Brics. I’ll say nothing of preferring the hegemony of Western democratic states to the growing federation of dictators Putin seems set to create. Or occidental socioeconomic imperialism over Russo-Slavs that is imposed by force.

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I fully support the Ukrainian resistance towards independence. But I shall never allow that support to compel me, as a writer and equal lover of freedom, to self-censor my own writing.
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Lastly, I suckled my love of Ukrainian literature and history from Taras Shevchenko’s writings, whose oeuvre is mostly a compendium of Ukrainian trauma under the oppressive czarist empire Putin wishes to revive. The poet chronicles masterfully both imperial czarist abuses as well as an unquenchable thirst for freedom among Ukrainians, whose demonstrations we have been witness to in recent months. In his writings, Shevchenko combines the vernacular of his people with folk rhythms of their traditional songs to capture and embody the sufferings and deepest strivings of his people. It is not an exaggeration to say that the identity of independent Ukraine is heavily galvanised and shaped by Shevchenko’s poetry. What Homer is to the Greeks, Mickiewicz is to the Poles, Pushkin is to the Russians, and Mandela is to us, Shevchenko is to Ukrainians. He infused his poetic soul into their national psyche by promoting universal basic humanity and encouraging sympathy for all the downtrodden and oppressed. This, for me, must also include Russians who currently suffer tremendously under the bloody mafia state and lunacy of Putin.

The covenant, Shevchenko’s most popular poem, is also informally Ukrainian’s second anthem. In it, Dnipro and the steppes become emblems for Ukraine, for which the poet longed when he was exiled by the czarist empire. I am sure that, as we speak, the poem/song is sung by Ukrainians in the trenches, basements and fields of death which Putin started forming in 2014 when he invaded Crimea. I fully support the Ukrainian resistance towards independence. But I shall never allow that support to compel me, as a writer and equal lover of freedom, to self-censor my own writing. All our democratic freedoms and our humanity, which includes that of many Russians, are intertwined with successful Ukrainian resistance against Putin and his Kremlin thugs. Let us never allow our anger and griefs to obscure our ultimate human solidarity and interconnectedness.

See also:

Age and content advisories for Afrikaans books for children: results of a first qualitative and quantitative investigation

From Jy-is-’n-drol to Je-suis-Charlie

The removal of art at UCT: interview with Edward Tsumele

Tweespraak van Yves T’Sjoen met Alwyn Roux: Beyond close reading. Politieke en sociale implicaties van literatuur

Hugo Claus betower en bekoor steeds ná vier dekades

Hoogste Hof van Appèl moet besluit oor "Kill the Boer"

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