This is a 'Review' of the PEN Presents: A Reading in Solidarity with the Belarusian People, which featured eight orators speaking a range of both self-written and pre-written poetry, as well as formal literature which revolved around Belarusian freedom, grievances, and experiences of many different kinds. The link for the event can be viewed here.
Poetry has the ability to make intangible, psycho-somatic remembrances inhabit physical space to such an extent that, even through Zoom, a listener can perceive the frightful tremors of the exact temporal moment being described. Robert Caroll explains this phenomenon, “It is in times of extremity that we long to find words or hear another human voice letting us know we are not alone,” and the virtual success of PEN’s ‘A READING IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE BELARUSIAN PEOPLE’ was facilitated by this web-based, symbiotic connection. Those without first-hand experience of the now two-month ongoing conflict in Belarus, that being the people’s total rebellion against their 26-year dictator Alexander ‘Sasha’ Lukashenko, were ushered into a distressingly, inescapable reality, for me in Michigan, some 4,613 miles away. The Belarusian demonstrations, if nothing else, have shown the International community that no matter how ‘foreign’ a conflict may feel to those elsewhere or how spatially detached one may be from Belarus, the foundational desire for autonomy of mind and body is fundamental, not only to human nature but to the preservation of the evolution of man. For without the freedom to choose, to say no, and to oppose, what are we left as? Animals expected to drink, with our eyes closed, the poisoned nectar of our handlers.
PEN presented eight speakers, a somatically diverse group of deeply passionate individuals who, despite the virtual format, intoned the predicament of the Soviet false-Renaissance, a debilitated drive to hope, the conscious fight to avoid ‘Total sluggishness and indifference to being’, the recollection of an empathetic historian, the cry of a generation unfamiliar to protest, alarming anti-nostalgia, the rebellion against the ‘great unspoken arrangement,’ and finally those incredibly barbaric words, unfit for auditory consumption, ‘I want my body back.’ The first speaker was The New Yorker Staff Writer Masha Gessen, who presented a passage from Svetlana Alexievich’s second novel, ‘Secondhand Time.’ PEN made a wise choice starting with Masha, as her excerpt felt less like an external reading, and more like a contemporary observation of the American framework, ‘Everything Soviet is back in style.’ In an assertive, measured, low-pitched tone, Masha depicts a world infatuated with Sovietism, Gulags are theme parks, and Stalin, a venerated Icon. Svetlana is right, the future isn’t where it should be, and I suspect even Nietzsche would be abhorred. Following Masha was Valzhyna Mort who read ‘To Antigone, a Dispatch.’ and Part 12 of ‘Attempt to Genealogy.’ Taking an ontological approach to her Belarusian identity, Valzhyna expresses the act of an attempted, honorable burying of a loved one who has died at the hands of the police. Her quiet interlocutor, Antigone, grimly accompanies Valzhyna through the preparing, mourning, burying, and cleaning process, her own felo-de-se stinging Creon's air, reminding Valzhyna that this death is not for naught.
Tatsiana Zamirovskaya followed, her small stature contrasting death's consumptive presence, although only mitigating its effect without removing the dark sensation. She recited an excerpt from a work in progress about a Belarusian-American citizen who rejects his Belarusian identity, touching upon complicated issues of linguistic ephemerality and translational disjunctions. She mentioned ‘ahulnaya mliavasts i abyakavasts da zhytsy,’ a subsidiary of the term ‘pamiarkounasts’ meaning moderation of temperament a.k.a total conformism. But the Belarusian people refuse to conform and accept tyrannism any longer, a vow of ideological acceptance taken because of the empty promises of stability and restrictive, totalitarian policy. President of PEN America Jennifer Egan came next, and her background served to only highlight her sagacious nature, made palpable because of her constant eye-contact and utter resistance to the ‘electronic wall,’ peering right into every listener as she spoke. She recited a passage from ‘The Unwomanly Face of War’ by Svetlana Alexievich, which explained Svetlana’s methodological approach to history. She doesn’t write about war or its form, rather the occupants of the temporal moment, its contents, ‘I am a historian of the soul.’ Through Egan, I felt Svetlana, and through Svetlana, I heard those with no voice, those who had their voice unceremoniously taken, who occupied those ‘moments in times’ so pedantically studied as a time without a face.
Novelist and Playwright Ayad Akhtar came after, reading from ‘Secondhand Time’ as well. His reverberative declamations echoed in my [headphone] ear, making his representational tenacity three-dimensional, I could hear, see, AND feel. His passage embodied every oppositional movement’s mistake, that being ‘What is the point of changing government if we don’t change ourselves?’ This question, although mapped onto an older generation within the reading, coincides with recorded, revolutionary failures, and contemporary, oppositional mimetics. Nothing changes if you simply replace that which was usurped with its ideological equivalent, Ayad’s philological absorption mirroring the call of the Belarusian people themselves. We don’t want violence, we want to change. Following Ayad was N+1 founder Keith Gessen who, with a strong air of conversational ardency, read from Svetlana Alexievich’s 2006 book, ‘Voices from Chernobyl,’ the passage depicting an experience of workers ‘cleaning’ up and its immediate aftereffects on both them and hospital staff. Svetlana accomplishes anti-nostalgism, invoking memories both the viewer, reader, and writer do not wish to conjure from the temporal past. With a furrowed brow, Keith embodies the absolute chaotism of that time, workers kicking radioactive material with their feet, unaware of its effects, hospital staff simply instructing the consumption of milk, while death visits all in close proximity. There was no order and the reading went way too fast, but isn’t that the point? History waits for no one.
Bela Shayevich took the penultimate place, and radically altered the preceding ambiance, exchanging a formal, professional atmosphere, for a retro, Generation Z aesthetic. Above Bela was a cement planter with a grey face, sullen in appearance, with eyes ever peering forward, staring at nothing, but taking in everything, planted in its mind a plant, sprouting and bursting forth, as if to evoke Belarus’s ongoing, multi-generational Spring. She read a passage from ‘Conversations in a Jail Cell’ by Svetlana Alexievich, depicting the startling truth, blatantly obvious but painful to confront, “You don’t want to believe that what they do is of their own free will…” Juxtaposing forces were at work while she spoke, her youthful appearance contrasting the nearly-broken figure, only able to communicate through a secondary source as if they lost their ability to speak for themselves. ‘When you looked him in the eye, he seemed like a normal person, except he was foaming at the mouth,” Lukashenko shall not make beasts out of men any longer, there will be an end.
Concluding the event was Hanna Komar, Secretary of PEN Belarus, who was jailed for more than a week due to her participation in the mass demonstrations in Minsk. Standing in a solitary room with no discernable features, except for one wallpapered стена to her left, she spoke to us closed with a beautiful, dried-flower halo and light blue turtleneck, as if to rebel against the notion that she was a revolutionary. ‘No, I am just me, but I am forced to do such things to defend my country.’ She read two poems, ‘Landlocked” and ‘Women’s Solidarity Chain,’ the former referencing Belarus’s geographical location and the latter invoking the images of countless brave women, linking arms, holding white flowers, and internationally marching to show Lukashenko, ‘These are the people you are afraid of. Revel in our collective strength.’ As she spoke, the video stream lagged, again as if to highlight the remote nature of Belarus from the United States, as if she isn’t really ‘real,’ but a mere image on a computer one can close at leisure. Is the struggle in Belarus real, why should I care, how can I do anything to stop tyranny, I’m so far away? Hanna cryptically answers these inquiries by pleading with the listener, ‘Give me back my humanity. I want to live again,’ her once-blossomed flowers, laid in such elegance, oppose her sincere request for life. ‘I want my body back,’ when shall she receive her liberation?
This literary event was a testament to the permanent fortitude of the spoken word, its hold over the spatiotemporal environmental fabric we all must adhere to regardless of our affinity for actions taken inside its folds, and the collective unity born from the act of 'hearing.' As someone who lives in the United States, to be granted the opportunity to 'hear' Belarus through an active participant is not an event I take frivolously. So often those detached from first-hand experiences of global afflictions of a natural and political nature 'care,' but only due to its ephemerality in their personal, immediate sociological environment. Once their empathy dissipates, they become ready to observe the next tragedy, without cogitating on what they just read, witnessed, learned about, etc. The Belarusian struggle is not going away simply because those far away from its nucleus stop thinking about it, rely on others to participate, glance at news articles ever so often, or simply resign themselves to 'Others can do it, I did my part.' Your part must evolve, no one person is done, no one group is ever concluded from their tasks, they simply complete one and start another. These poets and orators exhibited 'Shchyry and Hodnasts' or in English, sincerity and goodness, two fundamental qualities of a real Belarusian citizen, and expressed in every protest, march, demonstration, talk, poem, and act.
Long Live Belarus, she will be free, and you will be given your body.
The PEN America website can be viewed here.
PEN America's Letter of Solidarity for the people of Belarus can be signed here.