Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
–Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dec. 10, 1948
In 2010, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN celebrated 50 years of defending freedom of expression around the world with a year-long campaign, “Because Writers Speak their Minds.” Working with the English organization “26”, WiPC paired 50 contemporary writers with 50 selected writers (one for each year WiPC has been in existence) who have been imprisoned for their works in a project called 26:50. Each 26 writer wrote 50 words about his or her paired writer.
The first writer chosen for 26:50 was Musine Kokalari, for the year 1960. Kokalari was indeed imprisoned for her work—she served a sentence of 18 years in prison imposed by an Albanian military court, and spent the following 19 years until her death in an internment camp where she was forced to work as a street sweeper. She was never allowed to resume her writing and died of cancer alone after being refused proper treatment.
As 26:50 writer Tom Lynham recounted in his 50 word poem, “…[W]hen cancer killed Kokalari/ We gagged her wrists with barbed wire”.
Who was Musine Kokalari, and what made her so dangerous that the Albanian state felt the need to bind her even after she was dead?
Musine Kokalari (1917-1983) is believed to be the first published female writer of Albania. Her short story collection, As My Old Mother Tells Me, inspired by folklore and the day-to-day struggles of women in Gjirokastër, is thought to be the first work of literature published by an Albanian woman.
Born in southern Turkey, Kokalari acquired an early love of books in her brother Vejsim’s bookstore in Tirana. In 1938, she received a scholarship to study literature in Rome. After her experience in Rome sparked her intellectual creativity and curiosity, her sole aim was to return to Albania to become a writer.
From 1941-1944, Kokalari published three volumes of prose. As unusual as her literary accomplishments was her political role during World War II—she was a founding member of the Albanian Social Democratic Party. As the war came to an end, Kokalari was running a bookstore and was invited to become a member of the Albanian Writers’ Union. Kokalari publicly demanded justice when her two brothers, Mumtaz and Vejsim, were murdered by Communist partisans. Her public statements, writings, and close association with the Social Democratic party and its press “Zëri i lirisë” (The Voice of Freedom), caused Kokalari to be arrested in 1946 during an age of terror. On July 2, 1946 she was sentenced by the military court to twenty years in prison as a ‘saboteur and enemy of the people.’
After reading this account of Kokalari’s life, I searched for works of hers to read in English. I could find none. The International PEN website states that Kokalari’s writings were banned by the Albanian authorities and destroyed.
Contemplating the fact that we cannot read Kokalari’s words, I began thinking about the works of so many women that we will never be able to read, either because oppressive regimes censor their words, imprison them so they cannot write, or because societies simply refuse to devote resources to publishing and translating their works so that their words cannot be widely disseminated.
This year’s theme for the International PEN Free the Word! festival in London was “Translating Power.” The festival’s aim was to explore the power of literature to inform and transform, as well as look at issues writers regularly face that can prevent their work from reaching readers, whether these be political, commercial or linguistic hurdles.
As I read this very nobel aim, I thought about other less tangible reasons why we may never read the words of women and girls besides political, commercial or linguistic hurdles.
All sources on Kokalari state that she was the “first woman writer of Albania,” but let us consider that statement. How many women tried unsuccessfully to publish their works? How many women and girls wrote things that were never shown to anyone, much less published? There must be countless girls and women throughout the history of Albania, and indeed the world, who were taught first that they should be seen and not heard.
Could it be a greater fear that keeps many women’s voices from being heard, fear of the power of these voices?
Eve Ensler spoke of the power of girls before she read from her book, I Am An Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. She pointed out that boys are defined by not being girls, they are taught not to cry or show emotion like girls. Girls are taught not to be too emotional, too caring, too wild or passionate. Leaders are taught not to show vulnerability; business people are taught not to nurture compassion, for fear of stifling competitiveness.
“Girls must be awfully powerful,” Ensler said, “if we’re all taught not to be them.”
Even as societies are silencing women by direct act or socialization, how are we now censoring ourselves?
Another imprisoned writer, Nawal El Saadawi, whose citizenship the Egyptian government has threatened to revoke, provides a story about her imprisonment that might inspire us to write no matter what the costs, and to honor our rightful freedom to do so by writing what is true, and real and authentic to our own voices.
She says that when she was in prison and she asked a prison guard for paper and a pencil, he refused, stating that these items were even more dangerous than a gun. If she was caught with them she could be punished severely. But despite this, El Saadawi managed to procure toilet paper and eyeliner from some prostitutes in a nearby cell and managed to write a book in secret.
El Saadawi recommended that we all go to jail at least once in our lives, because it’s the place where you find out who you really are. Perhaps we can consider our own ‘jails’ and free ourselves from them by writing. I know personally that as I do this, I will think of Musine, and the lost voices of women and girls.