What is art is a question that artists and critics have struggled with for at least as long as we have felt the impact of artistic endeavour on human thought and behaviour. Equally long has been the struggle to bottle up art, to confine it to the domain of entertainment, and to divorce artists from their public role as thinkers and activists. Yet any art that makes us think can no more detach itself from political processes than the mind can split from the body. For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: Encounters with Prison is a sharp reminder of the confrontational nature of art as well as of its transcendence of fetters.
For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: Encounters with Prison
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The very first page startles and unsettles the reader who encounters a rather violent photographic image: a sheet of paper with a pointed iron spike through it, a microphone dangling above. These objects were part of Shilpa Gupta’s eponymous art installation, “For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit”, which opened at Edinburgh Art Festival in 2018 and travelled to Kochi, Venice, Antwerp, London and Dallas before being re-imagined as a book, co-edited by Gupta and Salil Tripathi. The sound art installation included poems by 100 poets who were incarcerated. In addition to these, the book includes essays and interviews, fresh contributions from activists who have been in prison, and from writers who write in support of persecuted authors.
This is a difficult book to review in that it does not adhere to any literary format. It includes poetry, but it is not an anthology. It includes art, but it is not an art book. Broadly, the book serves as a document and a testament, a creative intervention on a continuum of silencing. In the photographs of the art installation, where poems were printed and placed on spikes, it is impossible to escape the mental image of heads of rebels placed on pikes though there is no blood in sight. Describing his first reaction to the exhibit, Tripathi says that the “arrogant spikes” appeared as flagpoles and the sheets of paper as white flags. The microphones, he writes, were not meant to be spoken into. Instead, the artist placed speakers in the microphones to amplify the poets’ words.
Gupta’s artwork also includes silhouettes traced from photographs of poets and activists who were arrested or have simply disappeared, and other objects associated with the denial of freedom. In an interview with Tina Marie Monelyon, Gupta says, “Power likes freedom and certainty for itself and not for others,” and goes on to make a connection between those who were killed and those who are viciously trolled online. The intent is the same—to ridicule, to harass, and to distract and confuse all others who might otherwise have been inclined to listen and think. However, as the editors point out in their introduction: “Empires have risen and fallen and national boundaries have changed. But the words of poets have survived.”
The collection takes its title from a couplet by the Azeri poet Imadeddin Nesimi, who also wrote in Persian and Arabic and was executed in 15th century Aleppo for his beliefs. Expressing the ardour of his quest for truth and the difficulties of “fitting” in, especially in a world that doesn’t want complex truths, he wrote:
Both worlds can fit within me, but in this world I cannot fit
I am the essence, I have no place, but into existence I cannot fit
I am the stars, I am the planets, and the angel of revelation
Hide your tongue, for in your tongue I cannot fit.
Nesemi was punished for his adherence to a particular strand of religious belief. So was Giordano Bruno, philosopher, astronomer, mathematician and poet, who was burnt at the stake in a public square in Rome during the Catholic Inquisition in 1600.
Structures of power are often so intertwined that political, religious and moral hegemonies are hard to pick apart and criticism of any one disturbs the whole. The oldest poem in this book belongs to the 8th century Arabic poet, Abu Nuwas. He wrote homoerotic poetry but that didn’t get him into trouble; “heresy” and satirising the Caliphate did. Even a princess like Zeb-un-Nissa, eldest child of emperor Aurangzeb, was imprisoned by her father for either having an affair with one of his rivals or supporting a political successor.
The vagaries of power mean that any stance on the political-moral spectrum is fraught with risk. If French writer Jean Richepin (1849-1926) was imprisoned and fined for “affront to morality”, Marseille Barthélémy (1796-1867) got into trouble for publishing “a sentimental glorification of Napoleon’s son.” If the English poet and mill worker Samuel Bamford (1788-1872) was jailed for treason, Palestinian Yasser Khanjer (b. 1977) was imprisoned for resisting occupation by Israeli forces. If Irina Ratushinskaya’s poetry, which reflected her Christian faith, sent her to a Soviet Gulag, in one of the most outrageous abuses of authority, Azerbaijani poet Mikayil Mushfig was executed in 1938 in the former Soviet Union for writing in praise of a musical instrument. He had written the poem “Sing tar, sing” in response to Stalin’s edict that Western musical instruments replace traditional ones like the Azerbaijani tar.
Contemporary readers may view these as overreactions of a bygone era. However, the overwhelming majority of poets have been, and continue to be, punished not because they posed an immediate threat to the authorities but because they were vocal critics and vocality itself is a disruptive force. One can draw a straight line between the 16th century Italian writer and friar Tommaso Campanella who “spent more than half his life in Italian prisons” and stood accused of a plot to overthrow Spanish rule, to Wole Soyinka who was sentenced to death in absentia for campaigning for sanctions against Nigeria, Dennis Brutus who was arrested for his anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, Ram Prasad Bismil who was arrested and executed for fighting against British colonial rule in India, and young Indians like Umar Khalid, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, who have also contributed to this book, describing their experience of being in prison.
In “Where does the sky come from?” Kalita and Narwal write about the children of female prisoners. Among the first words the children learn are, “‘Andar chalo’ (Go inside) and ‘Ginti bandh ho rahi hai’ (time for lock up) as they [walk] around pretending to be either matrons or munshis (convict-warder) of the wards.” Khalid writes of his isolation. Not only was he initially kept in physical isolation but even within the jail, he finds himself othered because of his name, with residents addressing him not as an individual but as aap log (you people). There are no friends to shelter him from the emotional isolation that bigotry engenders.
While this book serves as a reminder that oppressive forces are sometimes unyielding, it is also evident that these forces cannot stop creation and disruption. From a purely literary perspective too, the book offers remarkable instances of formal disruption. Karthika Naïr’s “Handbook for aspiring autocrats” is simultaneously a shape poem, a prose poem, and a listicle. It leverages the alphabet to reveal the autocratic playbook, starting with A: “Address your future subjects as equals on the first day–” and so proceeding to Z. Astutely, Nair observes that an autocrat must “Forge new myths–on the greatness of the mother-state, on rightful heirs to land and power, on an ancient unchanging culture; foster a cult around your own austere, prodigious self: flaunt your writerly, painterly, artistic, athletic or heroic prowess…”
This is, however, not a book about India. The list of nations represented for their persecution of thinkers and writers includes Greece, Malawi, Vietnam, Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, South Korea, Morocco, Philippines, Qatar, Bahrain, Cuba, El Salvador, Spain, Eritrea, Guyana, Myanmar, China and the former Soviet nations. Some of the most highly regarded poets have had to live in exile so they might continue to write and publish. Mahmoud Darwish, the well-known Palestinian poet, spent most of his life in exile, as did the Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet and the Peruvian César Vallejo.
However, regardless of torture and imprisonment, the poets wrote. They smuggled bits of paper outside prison or outside the country if necessary. They memorised their work, hoping to write it down when it was safe. Some like Yannis Ritsos, who fought against the fascist regime in Greece, wrote on fragments of wood and stones when they were denied paper. Others wrote on soap. Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet imprisoned for allegedly inciting violence and terrorism through a poem she published on YouTube, has an essay titled “It’s forbidden to give pens to prisoners, especially to you”. Denied a pen, she used a zip ripped off her jacket to write.
“What is is about poetry that lends itself to such disruption and why does it court danger so?”
What is it about poetry that lends itself to such disruption and why does it court danger so? Writer and lawyer Gautam Bhatia says in his essay that the answer might lie in “poetry’s facility in communicating multiple–and fluid–sets of meanings.” There is a subtlety and intimacy about good poetry that makes it particular to all who read it, elevating it above the poet’s own space and time. This is why the works of Pakistani poets Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, both of whom were imprisoned more than once by their governments, resonate in diverse movements in contemporary India where their words are understood, and also why a 19th century Italian folk song like “Bella ciao” still finds fresh iteration as a resistance anthem all over the world. Take, for instance, these lines from Liao Yiwu’s poem, “Massacre”, written after the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
Cry cry cry crycrycrycrycrycrycry
We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind.
We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk.
We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute.
We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink
It is impossible to read these lines and not notice the blindness and muteness around, the helplessness and fear, no matter where one is. At first, we may crycrycry, but we may also begin to speak, to walk, to refuse to die of thirst.
Annie Zaidi is a writer and filmmaker.
- For, In Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit: Encounters with Prison is a sharp reminder of the confrontational nature of art as well as of its transcendence of fetters
- The overwhelming majority of poets have been, and continue to be, punished not because they posed an immediate threat to the authorities but because they were vocal critics and vocality itself is a disruptive force
- While this book serves as a reminder that oppressive forces are sometimes unyielding, it is also evident that these forces cannot stop creation and disruption