Since the 1980s PEN International has used Empty Chairs to represent writers who couldn’t be present at events – because they were imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened or killed. The Protest and Rebellion session at the Melbourne Writers session began with moderator Omar Musa (WrICE 2015) dedicating the empty chair onstage to Andy Hall, who’s awaiting trail after publishing a report on alleged abuses of migrant workers in Thailand.
It was a fitting start to the session: an inspiring discussion about the power of writing and art as a protest tool.
Molly Crabapple started as an artist, drawing pictures as a way of making sense of the world. But she came to prominence when she was arrested during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. “Everything changed for me when Occupy Wall Street occurred,” she said. “I thought protests like that only happened in places like Egypt and the Middle East. I wasn’t aware it could occur in New York.”
Molly started doing art of the Occupy movement. She drew protest posters and gave them to the protesters, and her art appeared on the street the next day.
When the Occupy protest got shut down, she started exploring other protests around the world, first as an artist, then as a journalist.
Eliza Vitri Handayani (WrICE 2016) grew up under the Suharto regime in Indonesia, when there was no freedom of expression or freedom of press. “This creates a culture of fear,” Eliza said. “Everyone knew everything in the media was lies, but they had to live with those lies.” She talked about how her parents had to read her homework to make sure she hadn’t put anything incriminating in there.
Students protested Suharto’s regime for months, and on 21 May 1998, after tens of thousands of university students demanded his resignation, Suharto finally announced his resignation. Eliza was around 16 at the time and she was amazed to be part of a movement that made such a big difference.
“It meant more than a change of government; it meant that it’s okay to be yourself and that you can speak the truth,” Eliza said, adding that, suddenly, people could talk about everything: sexuality, politics and alternate versions of history.
This led Eliza to question what it means to be free, to break away from all things that constrain us, like habits, genetics, parents and so on. She explored this theme in her book From Now On Everything Will Be Different.
Her book caused controversy in Indonesia for its critical stance on the government, and the launch of her book at the Ubud Writers Festival was cancelled. But that didn’t stop her. “I printed sections of my book on t-shirts and wore them as a form of protest.”
During the session, Eliza, Molly and Omar discussed the theme of censorship, which often occurs when governments try to silence voices, views or opinions. But it also occurs when writers and artists self-censor, afraid that if they criticise or write about certain themes they won’t be published, or they won’t receive funding, or their opportunities and tenure will be affected.
“There’s a big difference between censorship and silencing,” Omar said.
Eliza did whatever she had to do in order to be heard, and when her book was to be published, she insisted on seeing the proofs before it went to print. “There’s always the risk it could be changed or censored,” she said.
Molly said, “When you have subverting ideas, to defeat stigma you have to speak louder and lift these people higher; otherwise they get marginalised and the pool of people thinking like that becomes smaller and smaller until those ideas are erased.”
This session was a reminder that in Australia, for the most part, we are very fortunate to enjoy freedom of expression and thought and press.
* You can support this Banned Literature in Translation campaign to help feature short works by writers (from Indonesia and around the world) who have experience bans, censorship or persecution.
Story: Ara Sarafian