The first thought I had [when the bombardment of Gaza began] was to write to the writers I know, and whom I've been in touch with, and express enormous sorrow, very great sadness at what's happening. Of course, there is rage, there is moral outrage, there is a kind of ferocious despair at what’s going on. But I didn’t want to communicate that to them, what I wanted to communicate is great sorrow at what they are going through and have been going through.
Suad Amiry [Palestinian writer and architect] wrote back to me and said “I don't know which is greater, the pain or the sadness”. This is especially true of those Palestinians living outside Palestine. The majority of writers I know, live outside Palestine. The ones in Palestine are in the West Bank. I don't know anyone in Gaza.
In the West Bank, it's an existential reality every day, every moment of the day. How is one to communicate one’s feelings, both of solidarity and of empathy, as well as a great sadness? Because, honestly, there are very few words that you can find to communicate.
Communication is extremely tricky. A few emails now and then is the exchange we have. Adania Shibli [the writer who was to receive the prestigious LiBeraturpreis award for her novel, Minor Detail, but the ceremony was postponed, to be held in a “less politically charged atmosphere", and her talk cancelled in the wake of the Hamas attacks on Israel], for example, I sent her a protest statement signed by many, many independent publishers across the world, about the cancellation of her award. I congratulated her and then said, “I'm so sorry about the cancellation”. She wrote a perceptive mail back in which she said, “In the middle of all this, the cancellation of the award felt like a distraction to me. Distraction from the tragedy that is unfolding on the ground”.
I thought, how quickly that was lost sight of with the protest, and yet look at the kind of protests that Frankfurt Bookfair elicited—everyone from the Arab world withdrew, Malaysia, Indonesia, the UAE, many of the Arab speaking nations,withdrew either en masse or individually.
I don't know of a single publisher in the West who withdrew. None of the corporates, none of the publishers’ federations, none of the institutions, have sent a letter of protest, or even raised their voices in protest. What does that tell us? What does that mean, say for me as a publisher? The individual independent publishers across the world here and there may have said something. But I'm talking about us as a community that works with writers. They are our stock in trade. They are the reason we exist.
Why are we not able to rise up together against something like this? Why was everyone so silent that they did not object when Adania’s award ceremony was postponed and the talk she was supposed to give was cancelled? Why? Would this have happened if the writer had been an Israeli? Would they have cancelled it because of what was happening on the ground?
In my view, there is a very major faultline here and that line is something we need to think about if we are speaking on behalf of writers, if our goal is to be the via media between the writer and the reader; the writer and the public; the writer and what is happening in the world.
The writer is someone who intervenes—not just someone drawing pretty pictures or writing romances, but, as in the case of every single Palestinian writer I know, for whom their writing is their intervention, their medium is of resistance and hope. A silenced voice is a voice you cannot hear any longer.
I remember Raja Shehadeh [a Palestinian human rights lawyer and writer], who had come here for the Jaipur literature festival. We were just talking and he said, “What else is left except to protest?” And he's right. Their writing is a form of protest, not just of resistance, but of protest, and also an expression of hope, that not all is lost.
(As told to Mandira Nayar)
Ritu Menon is a writer, feminists and publisher. She the founder director of Women's Unlimited, which is an associate of Kali for Women.