When I look back at the writing I have done in the past 20 years, I see that a lot of what I write has to do with my relationships, as well as interesting women, both famous and infamous. I have written about my broken heart, my happy heart, the failings of both myself and my friends and lovers, and various women whose stories I happened across in arbitrary, lazy Sunday afternoon Google searches.
By American standards, what I’ve chosen to write about is relatively vanilla: not taboo. Lots of people write about their feelings and their relationships. Lots of people write about historical figures. I don’t write Hunger Games-style, dystopic literature. I don’t write Orwellian subtext, or Bradbury-esque social commentary. I am, in short, not controversial.
In my view, that is.
Having grown up in this culture, I am used to my freedom of speech, and more than that, I rarely give a thought to my freedom of speech. It just is. I do not have to hide my art. I do not worry about being censored by others, though my self-censorship can rear its head from time to time.
In a previous post of mine, “Baring it All: The Challenge of Short Poems,” I mentioned a Pashtun poetry form called landay, which is written by Afghan women. What I didn’t mention then was that this type of poetry is typically written in secret. Women are punished for their self-expression. A handful of years ago, one such woman, Zarmina, was beaten by her brothers for sharing her landays on the radio. In protest of their violent disapproval, she set herself on fire, and later died. A horrific ending to what seems, to me, to be a fairly commonplace act of recording—simply put—feelings.
Zarmina and other women working in this form of poetry are writing about their feelings. They are writing about their experiences, their relationships, their joys, and their sorrows. To give you a sense of the content, here is one landay that was collected by journalist Eliza Griswold:
Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.
This is a poem about suffering at the hands of another; it’s potentially about rejection, anger, or perhaps even violence. From my vantage point, it is not a controversial poem. It is stark and striking, to be sure, but it is not something that warrants censorship or is particularly controversial. But that’s from my vantage point. For the Afghan woman who wrote this poem, this was most certainly a controversial poem; not only was the content controversial, but the act of writing itself was controversial. Punishable, even.
These women are writing, despite the potential for punishment, about their lives. When I think about my poetry, and I see that I am also writing about my life, I have to remember that it is a gift to be allowed free reign to write about it. And not only because of where I grew up, but also because of the time in which I grew up. Had I tried to write about my feelings some 150 years ago, or even 60 years ago, I would have found similar censorship as the women writing their landays, and potentially similar punishment.
As an offshoot to all of this, I also realize that self-censorship, which I would also call self-doubt, becomes an almost decadent and foolish thing to allow myself in my current situation, given what I know about the censorship that exists in other cultures. Self-censorship, whether because of fear or concern over who might be offended by my perspective, only really flourishes in a society that allows freedom of speech to begin with. To use a somewhat crude comparison, it’s like going on a diet: you can only do this when food is bountiful.
Disallowing and discouraging self-censorship (since I don’t typically have to deal with the external version of it) in myself, is one small way of asserting my voice and joining it with those who are experiencing the kind of censorship that is externally enforced and often accompanied by violence.