This third installment of Bright Skylark Literary Productions’ observation of the PEN International and PEN America Centennial is a condensed version of an article previously published by AXS Entertainment. It addresses the arrest of Ethiopian journalist and publisher Eskinder Nega, the history of PEN’s stance against racism, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
From Journalist to Founder of Political Party
Since the 1990s, Eskinder Nega has been arrested at least a dozen times on charges generally denounced by the world community as false. They have ranged from inciting riots and attempts to overthrow the government to participation in a murder. He and his wife, journalist Serkalem Fasil, were both jailed on charges of treason charges for their writings on government suppression of protests questioning the validity of parliamentary elections.
After his arrest in 2012 for editorials criticizing government policies and supporting the rights of citizens to protest them, PEN joined with Amnesty International and other organizations to advocate on Nega’s behalf. He was awarded the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 1, 2012. He received the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 69th World Press Freedom Hero award on May 18, 2017. Nega has modeled his style of advocacy and activism on the example of Nelson Mandela and once said, “Like my hero Nelson Mandela, my soul is unconquered, my spirit unbroken, my head unbowed, and my heart unafraid.” True to Mandela’s model of political activism and persistence, he served nearly seven years at Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa. In addition, he experienced subsequent arrests and assaults before going on to establish the Balderas for Genuine Democracy Party in January 2020.
Nega once offered the following critique of his government and citizens of Ethiopia: “This being Ethiopia, though, leaders seldom enjoy the privilege of honest advice from subordinates... By the power tradition, leaders are told what they want to hear and not what they should… The rule in this world is simple: Thrive with opportunism and sophistry. Perish with honesty and integrity.” His growing popularity may be an indication he has found a functional balance between the divisive extremes.
The One Constant
As history has demonstrated many times over, change may arrive slowly or quickly but it is the one constant, in one form or another, on which we can all count. A lasting shining example of positive change in action is PEN America itself.
Front cover of book "Mrs SAPPHO The Life of C.A. Dawson Scott 'Mother of International P.E.N." by Marjorie Watts.
In her biography of PEN co-founder Catherine A. Dawson Scott, Marjorie Watts (her daughter) observed that both Dawson Scott and PEN president John Galsworthy had a “dislike” of “racial prejudice.” Yet the PEN American Center in 1943 was all of two decades old when Harlem Renaissance authors Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps exchanged letters about the absence of any African-Americans in the organization. Responding to query from Hughes, Bontemps wrote on September 24, 1943:
“…You are right. No Negroes are members. I know of two attempts. It was rumored in Chicago that Dick (Richard Wright) was suggested for membership in N.Y. shortly after Native Son became a best seller but something came up and the idea was dropped.”
Still, three years later Wright was a guest at PEN centers throughout Europe. Ten years after that, Ralph Ellison, esteemed author of Invisible Man, was invited to join the American Center. And the rest, as “they say,” is now an unparalleled portrait of triumphant diversity.
However, the more important point in 2021 is that because it chose to embrace change for the betterment of all humanity at a time when many opted to resist it, PEN America can now celebrate 100 years as part of the world’s oldest human rights and literary advocacy organization. In other words, someone had to embrace positive beginnings before anyone could celebrate successful conclusions or continuations.
The Challenge of Making Change Work
wo of the most interesting comments regarding the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2012 came from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. himself when he stated: “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” And: “…it is not our role to forbid it or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness."
Some commentators have extended interpretations of those statements, plus additional comments, as Chief Justice Roberts’ way of saying his job in this ruling “was to find a way to make the Affordable Care Act work.” How unprecedented and extraordinary is that? (Since the historic ruling, former US President Donald Trump initiated policies aimed at restricting access to the program but current President Joe Biden, upon his election, reversed Trump’s actions and expanded access.)
It is fully possible that the Affordable Care Act (popularly referred to as “Obamacare” after former U.S. President Barack H. Obama) and the movement toward humane applications of immigration laws are the beginnings of a potentially golden age for democracy. It is also possible that Eskinder Nega and the other journalists calling for greater freedom of expression in Ethiopia are heroes whose courage eventually will help elevate even more than concepts of freedom in their homeland. First steps are always the hardest but until they are taken the notion of progress remains only a notion and not an achievement.
(“Blossoms of Freedom for Kahlil” art graphic by Aberjhani for Bright Skylark Literary Productions C2021)
All controversies and debates over wearing face masks to the side, medical science played a powerful role in the ability of people around the world to survive the tumultuous rollercoaster of cataclysmic events now forever known as the year 2020. Although less spectacular when it came to taking over news headlines, the comfort provided by the timeless voices of cherished literary heroes also helped us endure mandated and self-imposed quarantines. Included among such voices was that of the Lebanese-American poet and artist Khalil Gibran (January 6, 1883 - April 10, 1931). That is not at all surprising considering how generations continue to discover and rediscover the value of Gibran’s shared insights on such subjects as: Pain, Death, Work, Teaching, Joy, and Sorrow. His words embroider with uncommon wisdom and beauty the fabric of life as experienced on levels which transcend single personalities or cultures.
Two Important Titles
With the approach of the 100th anniversary of his classic bestselling book, THE PROPHET (first published in 1923), a number of works by and/or about Gibran were republished this past year. Two of the most important were: Beloved Prophet 2020, The Abridged Love Letters of Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell Her Private Journals; plus, And the Prophet Said: Kahlil Gibran's Classic Text with Newly Discovered Writings, both edited by Dalton Hilu Einhorn. (My own Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah published in 2019 includes a chapter on Gibran and the artists Claude Monet and Luther E. Vann as featured at the Telfair Museum in Savannah, Georgia.)
In his foreword to And the Prophet Said, poet Daniel Ladinsky describes the Arabic word “wali” as one which has “a range of meanings: custodian, protector, helper, friend of the Beloved, friend of all, or saint.” He then adds: “A book can become a wali.” It was my good fortune many years ago while working as a bookseller to come across a 11th-edition copy of Beloved Prophet. It became for me a much-treasured wali. I later, around 2008, published a review of it on Amazon (it can now be read on Goodreads). Several years after that, I was pleasantly surprised to receive the following inquiry about it:
Dear Aberjhani, you posted a review on Amazon of Beloved Prophet edited by Virginia Hilu. Virginia Hilu was my mother, and she died at a young age when I was very young. I know very little about this book and wondered if you could share with me your impression on what she did and what was significant about her book. Thanks! --Dalton Einhorn
The Letter that Became an Essay
Einhorn’s request made me realize how important the book was not only to me but within the expanded context of several important legacies defined by creative spiritual visions of art and love. With that in mind, I responded to his short query with a longer letter which evolved into a personal essay:
Hello Dalton Einhorn--
Sharing my impressions of the full implications of what your mother accomplished with Beloved Prophet would require much more than a single email response. As it is, you might want to print this out and read it at your leisure.
Beloved Prophet’s impact carries a definitive weight in several important areas, including that of my personal life. I first came across the book at a public library in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where I was working on a novel and job-hunting around 1988, shortly after leaving the Air Force. I didn’t get a chance to finish reading it at that time because a family emergency forced me to move back to Savannah. But then more than half a decade later I was working as the sales floor manager for Books A Million and discovered a hardback edition of the book on the bottom shelf of one of our bargain tables. This amazing find came at an extremely important time in my life because Savannah was not where I wanted to be, but then I got to finish reading the book I had started in Fort Lauderdale and toward its end discovered Mary Haskell had also returned to Savannah, and her letters to Gibran from the city along with his to her gave me a sense of purpose and destiny for being there. It also gave me a direct cultural connection to Gibran.
Although there are no references that I recall in Beloved Prophet to Mary Haskell donating to Savannah’s Telfair Museum the largest collection of drawings by Gibran possessed by any American museum, (perhaps of any period) she did in fact do exactly that. Such a collection would obviously represent a major prize for any museum and when scholars lecture on it, they invariably reference Beloved Prophet to verify and even sanctify, if you will, the Savannah/Kahlil Gibran connection. The deluxe brochure entitled “To Discover Beauty, the Art of Kahlil Gibran” begins with one of the letters from Mary Haskell taken from the book. And the footnotes at the end of the brochure’s opening essay do acknowledge the book with your mother’s name in 4 out of 7 notes.
To put the historical literary impact of Beloved Prophet in proper perspective, I believe one has to recognize that Gibran’s works in the mid-twentieth century, in both the Arabic and English-speaking world, were for many people not just books of literary excellence but spiritual/philosophical texts they employed to help them achieve personal spiritual integrity. In short, he really was a prophet/saint whom they placed beyond human passions and many of those who wrote about him before the publication of Beloved Prophet placed any accounts of would-be romantic relationships in this context as well. Your mother may not have been the one to first discover the letters themselves but her book very gently and yet very firmly destroyed the image of Gibran as a spiritual ascetic who had risen completely above earthly needs or desires––even though many still prefer denial over the reality–– and gave the world the authentic man as well as the real Mary Haskell. Yet I suspect her purpose was larger than this.
The American mind has generally been one in which spirituality and sexuality generated personal ambivalence and conflict. It seems to me that Virginia Hilu wanted to help resolve the conflict by presenting one of the most iconic spiritual literary figures along with one of the most revered educators and philanthropists as human beings who in one sense indulged their passions while in another balanced and channeled their energies to achieve something greater than temporary satisfaction.
Moreover, her portrait of Haskell as a woman in command of the sexual, intellectual, and social choices that shaped her life even as she empowered the life of a major creative artist, a portrait sculpted from the letters she chose and sometimes “telescoped to one or two pages,” is a major contribution to American women’s biography. In more practical terms, a lot of biographers and scholars knew nothing about these letters and diaries until your mother revealed their existence in book form and it’s now virtually impossible for anyone to attempt a serious biography of Gibran without reference to them.
At the time that I acquired my 11th edition copy of the book, around 1995, the resurgence of “New Age” ideology had become strong enough that much of it began to blend into popular culture and Gibran was often cited as one of the early authors of such metaphysical perspectives in America. I happened to be writing in those years a column called Visionary Vibes and Beloved Prophet actually helped me to clarify some of the ideas and issues I addressed in different installments. Ironically, people who attended my open mic poetry readings often commented that some of my poems reminded them of Gibran when the truth is my poetry at that time was more heavily influenced by Rumi and it was my prose that was more influenced by Gibran’s and Mary Haskell’s voices speaking through the letters in Beloved Prophet. If anyone (You?) chooses to republish a hardback edition of Beloved Prophet, I hope you will consider adding an index–– that would be extremely helpful. Take care, Aberjhani
While Einhorn’s Beloved Prophet 2020 has been abridged to accommodate contemporary reading tastes, his centennial edition of The Prophet has been expanded in a way that intensifies the text of the original. Both represent important extensions of the legacies previously noted. Possibly of greatest significance in regard to Beloved Prophet 2020 is the portrait it provides at this time in history of two people whose love and compassion for each other served as a kind of shelter and empowerment when desperately needed. More than a few souls on different continents can attest to the value of such life-saving connections during the age of COVID-19.
This installment of Conversations with the World takes a new approach to the series by switching from well-known quotes to an additional excerpt from my “Thoughts Unspoken on Flannery O’Connor” lecture. The text will be followed by links to different articles and essays currently examining O’Connor’s depiction of race in her work and how racial bias possibly influenced her personal behavior or attitudes towards African Americans:
“My goal is not to offend but to encourage consideration. Anyone even slightly familiar with Flannery O'Connor’s work knows she was not a woman to bite her tongue. And I’m not talking just about the words she placed in her characters’ mouths. So I'm pretty sure that just like she did not bite her tongue in service to her vision, she would have preferred that, on this particular occasion, I not bite mine. In fact I’m not just pretty sure. I’m absolutely certain because of reasons which will become clearer when I read a couple of passages from Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind.
“This book about the literary cultures and histories we choose to sustain––and the ones which we either aggressively erase, or passively let vanish. In my examination of these ideas, I present three memoir narratives. The first is called ‘Days of Midnight Madness.’ It deals with some fun and not-so-fun times as a bookstore manager hosting book signings with John Berendt and Lady Chablis. The second narrative, titled ‘On Genius and Exile,’ focuses on writer James Alan McPherson’s relationship with his hometown. And the third narrative is the one I will be discussing and reading from today.
“When you read her letters and notice how strongly she defended her ideas, it becomes apparent that having Lupus did not stop her from being a fighter. That’s another way of saying she was a fierce communicator who tackled some very complex issues in ways women were not expected to deal with such topics in the 1950s and 1960s. We’re talking about such things as: the terror of one war after another, racial tensions in America and around the world, the impact of the industrial revolution on American values, the dynamics of intergenerational relationships, the evolving role of women in American society, and spiritual conflicts in a world, seemingly, more devoted to material and intellectual concerns. Those were huge issues which O’Connor tackled in bold innovative ways.” --(Excerpt from 2020 lecture by Aberjhani canceled by COVID-19)
Greeting Flannery O’Connor is now available at a variety of online booksellers, including: Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Books-A-Million. While it does share certain points of discussion with the noted in-progress conversations regarding O’Connor, it also reaches beyond those specific concerns. To learn more about one of the most significant discussions in contemporary letters of a major American author, please check out the following:
Postered Chromatic Poetics title art graphic by Aberjhani.
Many of my blogs on the Charter for Compassion website address an international audience on why the practice of conscious global coexistence is crucial to humanity’s survival and how we can work towards achieving it. It is something diplomats from different countries have been trying to help nations accomplish for centuries, so the concept is not new. But we continue to get blindsided in the 21st century by biases and phobias which do more to perpetuate divisions than strengthen unity.
Among the quotations from my work employed the most to help transform international antagonism into global cooperation is the following:
“Individual cultures and ideologies have their appropriate uses but none of them erase or replace the universal experiences, like love and weeping and laughter, common to all human beings.” (from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays)
These words were first published as part of the essay “For Love of Paris and a More Compassionate World” following terrorist attacks on the city November 13, 2015. The quotation has since been adopted by groups ranging from students’ civic clubs and online study groups to social service nonprofits and political organizations. It has proven particularly popular in different countries on the continent of Africa. Here are two examples:
Individual Cultures quotation social graphic posted in South Africa
Sign featuring quote on Individual Cultures by Aberjhani created by Facebook user in Kenya.
This third social graphic comes from the United States’ Kearsarge Food Hub in New Hampshire.
Many additional artsy social graphics employing the same words indicate a hunger for something other than the tensions which exist between members of different demographics on different continents in different communities. More importantly, educators, conference speakers, various thought leaders, and men and women from diverse backgrounds are not just quoting the words. They are living the truth behind them and demonstrating the greater unifying possibilities which come with embracing our shared humanity. Few realizations could be considered more important during a COVID-19 pandemic which apparently does not play favorites.
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
"A Friendly Chat with Flannery O'Connor" art graphic by Aberjhani. C2020
Running throughout the title story of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind is a series of intuited exchanges between this author and O’Connor. They range from nostalgic and humorous to confrontational and exploratory. The following is one of those exchanges:
Aberjhani: I agree about the limited perceptions of race in the South as opposed to the more extended objective reality, but I can’t agree that anything you said absolves certain politically empowered social groups of responsibility for the institution of slavery.
O’Connor: That’s because you’re trying to booby trap me again and I’m not having it. Tell me this: can you imagine God as a great author and history as a fantastic fountain pen in His hand?
Aberjhani: Actually, yes, I can.
O’Connor: I know you can. Now imagine God in 1865 authoring a manuscript dated 2008 and writing the unexpected name of the winner of the United States’ presidential election.
(From the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind ISBN 1-716-68481-1)