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.
INTRO: This installment of Celebrating the PEN Centennial was first published in May 2012. What it addresses in regard to writers’ relationships with language as well as such issues as immigration and genocide are as irrefutably relevant now as then. Possibly even more so. To read part 1 of this series please click here. Part 2 begins now:
Whether language is shyly uttered, fiercely written, or fearfully thought, it creates an inherent rhythm which invites the soul to dance to such intoxicating melodies as truth, anger, inspiration, fear, and love.
Human beings most often accept that invitation to dance in many different ways. Sometimes we do so by following the lead of an initial small or large realization until it whirls voluptuously into an unyielding idea that persuades us to take a certain action or cautions us against another.
Sometimes other pronouncements, spoken or un-, follow the first. But in languages of different kinds. They spring back and forth between diverse grammars and revelations of universal symbols or archetypes, as strangely enthralling formulations and poetic constructions creating what many might recognize as: a song of some kind. The music is not always beautiful and the dance it inspires may appear more macabre than graceful. As much as we might prefer to choreograph our lives to hip-hop ballads of genuine democracy, various populations throughout the world community endure their existence instead to the soundtrack of something closer to a nonfiction nightmare dystopia.
Ours is an age in which thousands are driven daily from their homelands by the unforgiving brutalities of war, terrorism, political oppression, starvation, disease, economic piracy, and the relentless suffocation of that singular breath which makes human beings individuals. In the United States, Latinos once secure in their identities as Americans discover they are in fact something referred to as “illegal aliens.” They then have to make their way south across the Mexican border and reestablish their lives to the tune of conditions and customs which previously had been little more than the subject of tales shared by grandparents and other interesting relatives.
Leaving Somalia, refugees struggle to reach neighboring countries like Kenya and Ethiopia or, increasingly, to cross the Atlantic to the United States to escape rape, mutilation, and genocide. People indigenously at home in rain forests and other native locales find themselves driven out by the encroaching demands of commercialism [and climate change]. In each of these scenarios human beings have to adapt to choices made by someone other than themselves and dance frantically, as it were, to a beat not their own. The forced nature of these cultural migrations burden language with a vocabulary of tears steeped in grief and desperation. And they challenge writers to retrieve out of these everyday tragedies any beauty worth singing–– without glamorizing the horrors involved or betraying the lives so despicably at risk.
The Pattern of Dynamics
An author accepting language’s invitation to dance steps onto the floor of his or her sensibility-charged consciousness and begins to move instinctively––even if with much dread––in ways which synchronize images, ideas, emotions, sounds, smells, ignorance, and knowledge. Subtle energies crackle insistently along intersecting horizontal and vertical lines to occupy each other repeatedly and compose a vision which at some point may be called a story, a poem, an essay, or a play. The pattern of dynamics might alter where different authors are concerned but the nature of this paradigm dancing remains essentially the same. Such is the culture, if you will, of the dance shared between vernacular and writers that others––passionate readers, curious friends, fellow authors, tribes on the run––are always encouraged to join them. Many, in fact, will say the dance is not a true one until they do.
“Of Peacocks & Skylarks” art by Aberjhani used in title graphic for "Moving forward with global release of: Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind" C2020.
Sometimes in the middle of a pandemic a writer has to make difficult publishing decisions. That sounds a little odd, I know, but this is one of those times for me as I move forward with the global release of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind, now on its way to online and offline book distributors.
The final stages of releasing Greeting Flannery to the public have not gone as smoothly as preferred but then few things have for most of us since COVID-19 arrived and refused to go away. With that being the case, I had to choose between either continuing to delay release of the book because of stubborn cosmetic problems concerning several pages incorporated to address the impact of coronavirus, or finally give readers access to the literary content I’ve been promising. I opted for the latter choice because the book as it stands, I believe, is a worthy contribution to current dialogues driving strategies to confront serious ongoing issues.
Consider that in addition to coronavirus, we are dealing more aggressively than ever before with: social injustices, correcting cultural biases, ending racial inequality, education versus misinformation, and adapting to a rapidly-changing world.
Quote from Greeting Flannery with art dedicated by Aberjhani to the U.S. West Coast: “With each passing day, I allowed myself to become a little more intoxicated by limitless possibilities which seemed sometimes to roll in with the fog, murmur suggestions that would have made me run yelling from them had I been anywhere [other than San Francisco], then leave me to cope with that special brand of terror bestowed by sweet and sour tastes of freedom.”
Lastly, when weighing the decision whether to publish or further delay release of the book, I was forced to acknowledge the old saying (paraphrasing Proverbs 27:1) that “Tomorrow is not promised us.” Truth of those words has never appeared more self-evident than during this #pandemic. Hopefully, however, the newly-released Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind (ISBN 1-716-68481-1) is only the first in a succession of editions which will improve more and more relevant with each publication . But because this is a first edition and features original art by the author on the front and back covers, plus some rare photographs in its “Antique Photo Album” section, it is a genuine collector’s item. Please remember as well that a collection of corresponding artworks has already been set up with several images on Fine Art America and more will be added throughout the month of September. I welcome any and all feedback on the book for future editions and hope everyone investing in this one enjoys the read and finds the shared insights useful.
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
"Invitation to a Bob Marley Rock-Steady" title art graphic by Aberjhani)
How public celebrations of influential voices impact individual lives is one of the major themes in the book Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. If you‘ve been checking out previous synopses of the book and excerpts from it, you know already its primary points of focus are on the legacies of three authors: James Alan McPherson, John Berendt, and O’Connor. There are, however, quite a few more compelling figures within its pages, including Reggae master musician Bob Marley. The following except from Greeting Flannery O’Connor is about a remarkable concert Marley gave in Oakland, California, despite the illness from which he was suffering at the time, and which a young aspiring author excitedly attended. Following the excerpt is YouTube video footage of the concert itself:
Rocking Steady in Oakland
“As engaging as his songs were in and of themselves, there emanated from Marley’s raw corporeal soul-on-fire spiritual presence an infectious loving urgency which had nothing to do with being a stunningly innovative rock star. (What if the same could be said of O'Connor's non-threatening physicality for those who had found their way to Andalusia while she lived and coaxed from her enigmatic being something more than the thrill of greeting a celebrated writer?)
“None of those screaming and bouncing wildly up and down as he launched into the songs “Positive Vibration,” “I Shot the Sheriff,” “Lively up Yourself,” or “Is This Love/Jammin’” could have imagined a mere eighteen months later cancer would end his physical existence. The battle to save it had already started and yet there he was, up on stage, singing and dancing the dramatic pantomimes of a holy griot-prophet: laboring to convince humankind to reconsider its preferences for oppressive actions and paradoxically self-serving self-destructive values.” ––(from Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind now available for ordering)
Aberjhani Author, Poet, Artist Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
Detail "Greeting Flannery O'Connor at the Back Door of My Mind" poster art featuring quote from poem "History and Prophets' Prerogatives." Artwork by Aberjhani now available on Fine Art America and Pixels.com.
Working around the different restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic set back the publication of Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind in more ways than I could have anticipated by almost 6 months. Let’s face, production under these circumstances is a big issue for everybody. The intense events and mounting urgencies of #TheYear2020, however, reemphasized repeatedly the need to keep pushing forward and get the job done. So with the help of a few friends I have done exactly that and am pleased to announce the date of the planned global launch for the title is Labor Day September 7.
Some of you know already that a soft launch recently kicked off with 3 events: 1) the Greeting Flannery (GF)book info page published at Bright Skylark Literary Productions; 2) corresponding artwork posted for sale at Fine Art America and Pixels.com; and 3) fun-type trivia and quiz questions posted on Goodreads. Here’s the current extended schedule of planned launch events:
Schedule of Events
SEPTEMBER 1 - 30: GF artwork available at 35 percent off using PROMO Code GFGJZH at Fine Art America and Pixels.com. Prints so far include “Converging Grace” with and without quotation text; and, a mixed media visual incorporating the cover of the book into a collage composed of different symbolic pieces. Please Note: THE IMAGE SEEN WITH THIS POST IS A DETAIL FROM “CONVERGING GRACE” WITH QUOTATION TEXT (the quote being from the book and by me).
SEPT 1: Multi-language “Conversations with the World” series kicks off with focus on posters featuring in different languages quotes from my writings which have become, or which are becoming, parts of international dialogues on our human condition.
SEPT 1: New GF artwork posting on noted websites plus pages here on FB and at Bright Skylark.