…we need a more complex understanding of writers working under authoritarian or repressive regimes. Something to replace this simpleminded, Cold War-ish equation in which the dissident in exile is seen as a bold figure, and those who choose to work with restrictions on their freedom are considered patsies for repressive governments. Let’s not forget that most writers in history have lived under nondemocratic regimes: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Goethe didn’t actually enjoy constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech. And let’s not forget also, alas, that freedom of speech doesn’t guarantee great literature.
(Pankaj Mishra, in conversation with Kamila Shamsie)
I want to draw attention to his observation that academia has a tendency to pigeon-hole writers in exile, writers of protest, writers with activist leanings and so on. What interests me more is the potential he sees within the writers within the margins, without protest, adhering to norms that may be morally reprehensible.
There is potential within this literature to reveal details and stories of value, both in a literary sense and in a political one. Protest necessitates something to protest, and to understand the enemies we take a stand against (the dictatorial, the tyrannical, the patriarchal, the repressive), is it not crucial to hear their stories? Is it not instrumental to know systems in order to penetrate and dismantle them? Journalism, academia and statistics can only go so far. Reading stories from within a regime allow us further insight into the workings of oppression. Sometimes, humanizing our enemies can help us recognize the complexity of the structure we fight, can prevent us from crossing lines, can show us where not to stray in the future.