Editor’s Note: The Role of Poets and Writers in Times of Conflict
Frankly, I have picked up my pen twice to write this editorial and twice chickened out. Not because I do not know what to write. I do. The words are in my head. But somehow there’s a conflict of how to put them into writing. Isn’t it funnily ironic that this issue is about peace, yet the editor has a conflict of ideas in his head? Well, this is my third attempt, and I’m going to give it my best shot. Read along, would you?
In this issue of Poemify Magazine, we called on poets and writers to write original poems and stories that offer sanity in a sea of violent insanity; to write of hope or opportunities for peace, balance, and love in times of crisis and civil unrest.
The consciousness that writing in a community offers includes a conscious difference from writing in solitude, a safety in composing ideas that offer solutions and not problems; a push back against what is not acceptable or what is inhumane.
We all know that poets and writers hold strong views on political and societal matters, though they may not be vocal at times. Some of them are fighters. They are not afraid to make choices and decisions if they are popular or not. In times past, some have had to sacrifice their lives and some had to go into exile, because of their dedication to certain causes. In these periods we have witnessed writers, artists, and intellectuals who try to push the envelope and make the world a better place. They are usually branded as troublemakers.
Let us consider an example in post-apartheid South Africa. Lebogang Mashile, poet, performer, actress, presenter, and producer, was the daughter of an exiled South African family who lived in the United States. Her poetry has effectively brought about attitudinal changes that were needed in the socio-economic and political transformation of society. Let me quote: The enemy isn’t obvious in the way it was before. It’s an incredibly sensitive, complicated struggle with many dimensions, but the site for that struggle is inside. …The language of poetry comes from a place where that transformation has to begin, that sort of intuitive, creative, spiritual searching place that will be the fuel for any kind of transformation process.
This gives rise to several important questions. What is the role of poets and writers in times of crisis or social upheaval? When peoples’ identities have been individually and culturally destroyed or are in the process of being deconstructed, how do writing and art help reconstruct such identities? Is it by being relentless campaigners for truth and freedom? Or by contributing to writing?
The great, beloved poet of Chile, Pablo Neruda said that the poet’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. John Lewis said it’s ok to make good trouble (in the face of racism, oppression, and injustice). Okey Ndibe said; “a story that must be told does not forgive silence”. Maya Angelou’s poem, On the Pulse of Morning, written for the Presidential Inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, called out to Lift your hearts/Each new hour holds new chances/For a new beginning/Do not be wedded forever To fear, yoked eternally/To brutishness/The horizon leans forward/Offering you space to place new steps of change. This is the job of writers; to wield their quills are instruments of peace in times of conflict.
What seems to be the cause of the rise of hate and ignorance, religious extremism, and violence? How safe do we feel at the market, in church, or at an event? How safe are our children in school, our parents at work, or our grandparents on their farms? Isn’t peace a better option? This can only be achieved if writers like you and I would pick our boldness from off the trashcan of social media buzz/trends and channel our creative energy towards forging peace, dismantling violence, and challenging abnormal norms.
Writers comfort and writers confront. Poets wanton and poets warn. Dictators don’t like poets and writers. Poets and writers don’t fancy dictators. Why? This is because poets ruffle the feathers of dictators with the truth beautifully woven in sarcastic poetry, and caricature poetically written prose. During times of crisis and war, most people look forward to the moral guidance of poets and writers.
In Africa’s north, east, and south, it is not only necessary but essential to address the physical and emotional scars left behind by the war on many thousands of families who lost lives and limbs of their members, relatives, and friends. These people need help in coping with the disaster of separation and loss.
Engaging in trending and situational polemics is not enough. We must, as the conscience of the society, also explore the power of song, poetry, artwork, and drama. We must see the need to speak in one common voice, against discrimination, terrorism, genocide, extremism, and the violation of human rights.
The message was clear. If one’s artistic talents are not used to dispel the distrust among our peoples, develop a mutual understanding, stop the brutal violence, and assist in developing a just and dignified peace for all, then such talents would become futile.
Literature is not a way to merrily spend one’s time, but a way to awaken society. Writers have a social responsibility to tell the truth that may help the progression of society.
Writers need to start creating socially responsible literature that would compel one to examine one’s own prejudices and obligate one to engage with our communities for a more dignified co-existence.
As members of society, poets and writers cannot be neutral towards events they observe in their environment. To live in society and at the same time to be free of society is impossible. So, works of writing and art bear a definite social stamp embodying its respective ideals and demands.
A Zimbabwean-born writer Elinor Sisulu has said: The challenge is there for writers. When we fight oppression … we must speak, and much of the fight is [in] making information available. People don’t see that deepening democracy requires a fight. … Deepening democracy is a complicated thing. It is easy to fight your enemy but it is not easy to fight your friend.
In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in violence, invasions, terrorism, and community disputes that have displaced thousands of people, killed a thousand more, and ruined many more. In light of the global awakening of hearts and minds as people of all ages and backgrounds speak out against injustices they encounter and intensify their demands for justice, I believe writers can contribute to the effort to make the world a more just and humane place.
This Peace Issue IV of Poemify Magazine hopes to call out for nonviolence, equality, and unity. In this issue, you will read poems that will include the wisdom of diversity in cultures and consciousness, preach religious tolerance, and stories that remind us of belonging, dignity, and respect for all cultures, religions, and colours of skin.
I hope you enjoy reading as much as our contributors enjoyed writing.