As a native of Myanmar, the title "Freedom and Literature" seemed surreal to us in the recent past. However, for me, literature itself, either creating or reading it, always relates to freedom.
Literature is a medium that conveys, maintains and appreciates freedom between writers and readers. Compared to other forms of art, it is the most modest, relying on words only. The way it connects people – writers and readers or readers and readers – is through freedom. With a movie, viewers simply follow one scene after another. For example, while watching “Gone With the Wind”, viewers experience Clark Gable as Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. But while reading the novel by Margaret Mitchell, readers can imagine anyone as Rhett Butler or Scarlett O’Hara. The simple sentence “The sun rises” can be imagined differently by different readers, but a movie scene of a sunrise can only be the same for every viewer. That is why literature is a truly free art form for both writers and readers.
However, publishing is not always related to freedom. In my own country, we had the Press Scrutiny Board for nearly five decades. This censorship board prohibited the publication of some literature. In the early 1980s, it took from one to two years to get permission to publish a novel. Even with permission, there would be much editing. Sometimes writers decided not to publish because of immense and nonsensical editing by the censorship board.
For periodicals at that time, we didn’t need to submit manuscripts before printing, but we did need to submit the print copy before distribution. In the early 1990s, the censorship board would ask for the removal of paragraphs or whole short stories or articles from printed periodicals before they were distributed. So we would put black or silver ink over the paragraphs, or glue facing pages together, or rip out some pages. In the early 2000s, the censorship board asked us to submit before printing any form of literature or books, including advertisement pages. Then there were no more ugly magazine pages: all forced editing was completed before printing. Just before the censorship board abolished its process in mid-2012, a weekly current affairs journal would be submitted three times before it was printed and one time before it was distributed. That is why it was impossible to have regional papers in places far from the office of the Press Scrutiny Board and where people from ethnic minorities live. For this reason, media or literature in ethnic languages was almost impossible to establish. This process prohibited not only the freedom of the press but also pluralism in the press.
Investors and owners didn’t want editors who were willing to test tolerance or censorship, or take the costly and time-consuming risk of reprinting manuscripts. Some editors refrained from accepting any work that might be censored heavily. As no definitive rules were set out by the board, it was sometimes hard to predict what might be censored or not. And since all publication houses need a licence to operate, there were risks in publishing some works: the termination of a licence, going to trial, being put in prison. Eventually writers were forced to give up the freedom to think and write as they wished. This is what our literature has been through.
I wrote many short stories in the 1980s, but because of my political activities and criticisms of the government, my pen name was on the “brown list” and most of my short stories were banned. In 1993 I was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for four alleged crimes, two of which were the printing and distribution of illegal materials. Then I went on the “black list” and all of my writing was banned. Though I was released after five and a half years, most editors didn’t dare to publish my work and no publisher wanted to publish my books. Furthermore, I couldn’t get permission for a media licence. I wanted to run a news or current affairs journal, but I knew it was impossible. I tried to apply for a licence to run a health journal in the mid-2000s but I didn’t get it. And because of the board’s heavy pressure, neither did any publishers want me to edit their publications. The board had the power to refuse any works by particular writers anywhere by any means. So even though a writer was not in prison, he or she had very limited freedom, not only in creating literature but in publishing it.
In 2011, I was awarded a freedom of expression prize by the Norwegian Authors’ Union. But at that time the situation inside Myanmar was not good, and I was still working as an editor of literature magazines and writing for many other periodicals. So I decided not to go to Norway and accept the prize, but I sent a video thank-you note to them. Some passages from this may help you to understand more about freedom and literature in Myanmar:
“What a shame for a Burmese writer who was awarded the prize not to come and accept it in person. The reason is not to save me but to save my words or creativity.”
“Writing creatively is indeed a very basic need for all writers around the world. However, for us, creativity rests not in freedom but in hunting for freedom.”
“I want the world to be exposed to our creativity on behalf of our speechless people. For me, losing the chance to be a writer is worse than being imprisoned. To keep freedom of expression, I have to create. In other words, freeing the words is more important for me than freeing myself.”
For writers, creativity in writing always helps to expand the boundary of freedom permitted by censorship. So for Myanmar’s literature, creativity does not come from the freedom we have, but the freedom we want to have. And for readers, creativity in their imagination helps them to read between the lines, among words or even inside a vocabulary. For readers in Myanmar, imaginative power is a very basic need – the need to understand or appreciate more about literature. For this, they just need freedom in their imaginative power. Writers, too, do not need to get permission from the censorship board in order to be creative. Writers and readers remain free in their own creative and imaginative power under a period of heavy censorship. In this sense, we can still say literature is an art that holds freedom.
Censorship prohibits only the publishing of literature, not its freedom. The free nature of the creation of literature and its appreciation remains, even in censored works. However, in order to have freedom of literature, we need more than one party to try hard. We need not only governments to abolish censorship, but also investors, publishers and editors to be free from the fear of being at risk; writers to be creatively strong; and readers to be imaginatively strong. Therefore, what we – writers – need in order to have freedom both in creating and publishing literature, is also freedom or independence from fear, greed, hate or dependency.
Finally, freedom and literature are mutually interrelated and cannot be separated. We fight not only for freedom but also to keep it in our literature.
Ma Thida is a Burmese writer imprisoned under censorship laws for more than five years. This is an edited version of Ma Thida’s keynote speech delivered on June 23 at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, Kuala Lumpur, presented by #Word Cooler Lumpur Festival in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.