ko ko thett is the co-editor of Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, a new collection of “witness essays and poems from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021.”
Justice Through Literature
Can We Save the World With a Word?
I am not only a writer. First of all I am a reader. And as both jointly, I truly believe that literature — great literature to be specific — can be the means for understanding as well as for creating our world by teaching and reinforcing society’s laws, articulating its values and applying the social glue that unites us as a culture. In a certain way, it is from literature that our current ideas and feelings about justice, family, marriage, race, gender etc have been generated. On this credo is based the so called Law and Literature movement. Its first premise is that poets and novelists are the principal teachers of law. In other words they believe that literary works, especially those focused on certain legal conflicts, can offer lawyers and judges insight into the nature of law. A classic example here is the famous ancient Greek tragedy Antigone.
But this is only the very obvious side of the matter. Literature can also become a catalyst for changing social norms, and therefore an instrument of social justice-- actual justice or poetic justice. But let me explain myself: literature not only draws from life but seeks (consciously or unconsciously, that is) to guide society through each writer’s vision. It is thus a major instrument of social reform in any age when it comes to the issues at stake in the collective existence of a people.
I will be more specific. Literature can challenge everybody to confront the injustice of social barriers which separate human beings from one another, and to examine the role of prejudice and stereotypes in sustaining these barriers. In other words, literature has the ability to engage people in a critical discussion of complex issues of race, class and gender. Typical example: Nora or A Doll’s House by Ibsen. This play stirred a huge sensation because of its sharp criticism. It was the first feminist play, and for 19th century Europe this was absolutely scandalous. Marriage was then, as we know, sacrosanct, and to portray it like that was absolutely unacceptable. I remind you that Ibsen was even forced to change the ending. In it Nora’s husband gives her another chance after reminding her of her responsibilities to the family!
Second example: The Yellow Wallpaper, a novella that changed the way western society treated mental illness. Or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, this notorious novel, not published in London until 1960. The trial of its publisher, Penguin Books, was a major public issue. Thank God it was an era of changing social norms; the prosecution was ridiculed for asking «Is this a book you would wish your wife or your servant to read? » and the verdict was 'not guilty.(1) In any case, this trial resulted in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing explicit material in the UK. In the US the free publication of this very novel was a turning point in the era's sexual revolution.
As far as social action is concern, I remind you of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1852. This novel had a profound effect on the world’s view of slavery, so much so that people (and Abraham Lincoln himself) have said that the book laid the groundwork for the American Civil War. As a matter of fact the book is credited with helping to fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s.
But again I believe this is only the most obvious social effect of literature. There are other functions in this direction, less obvious but nonetheless very effective. There are cases where literature attributes — sometimes in a very forthcoming and other times in a subtle way — what is called poetic justice. Because the only justice an outcast could count on is poetic justice. I will focus on a very significant "Other" in Greek society — the East European and Balkan immigrants who came in massive numbers to my country in the 1990s… and they keep coming. I will try to make a few points about their social status and their place in contemporary Greek literature.
In real life if somebody hurts you, you can usually count on justice. But not all of us. If you are sentenced to survive at the borderlines of the system, if you are a member of a marginalized group, an outcast of some kind, you can usually forget about human justice…. If you are Albanian, Turk, Macedonian, Roma etc, justice usually turns a blind eye on you. Because you are the 'Other.' An enemy in the worst case, a would-be threat usually, a cheap worker with no rights whatsoever in the best case. The worst enemy of the Greek petit-bourgeoisie today are the Albanian immigrants because there are so many of them. The Greeks believe that Albanians are the source of all evil in our country — from unemployment to the rise in crime rate. Society is deeply hostile to them. The police can beat them up for no reason, the boss can avoid paying their social security, the school teachers marginalize their kids in class, and TV mainstreams their image of criminal stereotype. Thus, the only justice this marginalized group could count on is poetic justice. And this is where literature comes in.
The truth is that in the Greek literature which began to appear after the end of East European communism and with the flood of the immigrants that followed, we see a reality that's almost upside-down. As compared with the mass media’s reality, of course — that which is accepted by the masses as the only reality (or, to use an absurd terminology, the real reality).
In our current literature, the immigrant is presented as a victim of the Greek nouveaux riches, as cruel evidence of the distortion that can occur in the soul of a recently poor society as soon as it becomes relatively rich and powerful. The migrant Albanians, Russians, Bulgarians, Kurds, and Turks usually cannot read (or have no time to read, since they work long hours to survive) but if they could, they would be surprised by their image in the mirror of contemporary Greek literature. In it, they are almost idealized. In today’s Greek writing, the authors depict foreign men and women as innocent, earthy survivors. One could almost call them biased.
This is not surprising. Instinctively they have turned a loving and protecting eye on the 'Other' because nobody else did. I have done so myself as well. Writing my novel Enikos Arthmos ('Singular Tense'), a book dealing with the unbearable ideological and personal loneliness of the human being in the 21st century metropolis everywhere, I decided to have my protagonist Ira return to her hometown and seek refuge not in her family but with an Albanian family renting the half-ruined little house where her grandmother used to live.
I did so without paying much attention. I asked myself where this wounded girl would go to be healed, to find shelter. Home. And where is her real home? Her frivolous, callous, rich mother’s house? No, her real home is her grandma’s house. But grandmas’ old houses in Greece are now being rented by Albanians, or Pakistani refugees. Who else could stand it in such ruins? In the empire of terror where we live, who else would provide room and board to a perfect stranger without fear? Those whom we ourselves fear, the Albanian immigrants.
Then I noticed that the same thing was happening in the Greek cinema. The image of the other is always positive, an image of the innocent victim. Last year’s main prize at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, The Brides, by Ioanna Karistiani and Padelis Voulgaris, is about poor young Greek women traveling en masse to America in order to marry Greek immigrants – perfect strangers, that is! This is based on a story Ioanna Karistiani was inspired to at Ellis Island. Last year, as well, Fotini Siskopoulou won the first prize for script and direction of her film Ratcinka, a moving story of a Dostoyevskian girl from Russia who seeks refuge in Greece and finds another kind of misery. This year exactly the same happened: the big winner was Eduard, a film about an Albanian immigrant who lives through absolute terror and subsequent transformation.
This phase will go on for some time but not forever. The second and the third generation of immigrants will grow older, and eventually satisfy their hunger. Then it will be their soul’s turn to be hungry. They will start to read, enjoy painting, watch movies and plays. And then, soon enough, they will start to write plays and novels and direct films. Their experience in Greece will become transformed into art. Then it will be easier for us, the Greek authors, to represent them as neither saints nor devils but as the controversial, complicated beings that all humans are. And until that time comes, we shall continue their defense in the utopian court of our novels.
A footnote before I rest my case: the problem of immigrants has proven easier to handle than the problem of Greece’s own minorities — whether religious, racial, ethnic or national. It has only been very recently that we have begun to have images of these minorities in Greek literature. I will here mention Basilis Butos´ novel about the Jews of Corfu during WWII, and Maros Douka´s excellent novel about the Turks of Crete. (Mind that half of my students did not know that once, not so many years ago actually, 40% of that island’s population was Turkish!)
The question is, of course, why. I am not sure I can provide a really good answer. Let me try a working hypothesis: we could approach the matter as similar, mutatis mutandis, to the representation of Arabs in the Israeli literature. Two years ago in Kalamata, in the middle of the first Greek-Israeli literary conference, I asked the Israeli participants about the representation of Arabs in their literature. The answer they gave me was that there are not so many Arabs in their books. Why? Because they don’t see them so much, they don’t meet them, they don’t live with them. I think, though, that this is only part of the answer. Because even if this is the case for people in Tel Aviv, I suspect this is not the case for people living in Jerusalem, or in the occupied territories. The hidden part of the answer is that they grew up used to consider Arabs a serious danger for their national and personal life. So as writers they have mixed feelings about them –it’s a deeply controversial situation, politically and psychologically.
The same thing is happening with Greek writers facing the problem of minorities. Of course, minorities in Greece are not a personal threat for us these days but we are brought up to consider them to be very much a national threat. So the easiest way out of such dilemmas is to avoid the issue.
Before finishing I want to make one thing clear. I believe that literature plays a formative role in shaping social reality but that this has nothing to do with the intentions of the author. Nadine Gordimer, for instance, is a very political person and she has used some of her novels very consciously as a weapon against apartheid. Other writers don’t. A typical example: you all know the wonderful dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. As a reader I had always the impression that Bradbury wanted to talk here about the major concerns of his time (the thought-destroying force of censorship in the 1950´s, Stalin’s suppression of authors and books etc). To the contrary — Bradbury declared that his original intention was simply to show his enormous love for books and libraries!!! That means that Nadine Gordimer --and every writer like her--gets double credit, as a writer and as an active member of our society. Bradbury can only claim the first credit since it is his work and not himself that will make the difference.
I will speak for myself. Every day when I wake up, make coffee and sit in front of my PC, I sure don’t intent to change the world. I just hope to save my day! Yet I always remember what André Breton once said: you must be crazy if you think that literature will change the world. But you are crazier still if you think that it won’t.