PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Ellen Wiles for Dina Meza:
I was first invited to pay tribute to Meza as part of the English PEN Modern Literature Festival in January 2019. I took inspiration from a speech she gave on International Women's Day, in which she tells the story of a colleague of hers, Dunia Montoya: another Honduran woman journalist who was brutally beaten by police when she covered a protest against state corruption. Meza quotes Montoya as describing justice in the country as being as distant as ‘the stars in the sky’. Before performing my poem, I began by sounding three notes from a pair of treasured, hand-made bronze chimes were given to me by an experimental visual and performance artist in Myanmar, Aung Myint, who also bravely protested against a repressive military regime for many years, in different ways, and was also both censored and threatened. You can watch my performance of the poem here.
Starlight on Honduras
When justice is as distant as the stars in the sky
when fake-fake news fawns over military men
spinning truths as tasteless as cardboard tamales
when free speech and other rights are rendered illusory
when national security means violence with impunity
and power is swiftly won with the help of a gun
people who speak up are warned to know their place.
and if a woman won’t listen, a rape threat might make her
or targeting another useful weak spot: her children
miming slitting their tarnished little throats should suffice.
the few who still won’t stop must expect to be surveilled
and learn to see fear as an indulgence to be quelled.
When the body feels as fragile as a porcelain figurine
when the spirit is a petal floating slowly to the earth
when it’s hard to keep a grasp on hope’s fraying rope
when, all around, hard nationalism gains global ground
when oppression starts to threaten even those lucky citizens
who’re used to living cosily in liberal democracies
voice is still the best and only weapon to resist
formations of words can still move minds and heal rifts
so courageous women journalists defiantly persist
believing in the need to keep believing in each other
speaking out against abuse despite existential risks
deserving tributes far more starry than a small poem like this
packed with bleeding liberal metaphors, liberally mixed.
I spent the next few months reflecting on Meza’s life, often imagining what she was doing while I was ambling on through my own juxtaposed writer-mother’s life with my two children. I dwelt increasingly on what it would feel like to be forced to put your children’s physical safety at risk every single day through your writing, and particularly to receive sexual threats directed at your daughter – but I found this almost too excruciating to contemplate. When I was invited to perform a second time in tribute to Meza, at the Greenwich Book Festival, 2019, I decided to write a new piece – a piece of prose, this time – born out of those reflections. You can watch my performance of it here.
My daughter surprised all of us by growing a loose, golden Afro as soft as a cloud.
What with her blue eyes, it causes a lot of people to assume that she and her dad aren’t related,
and it’s a paradise for headlice, but it’s worth all the hours of painstaking combing.
She says t instead of ch
and f instead of th.
She pecks at dry cereal flakes like a little sparrow
eats only the white of egg
licks the honey off her toast
and makes every pancake into a letescope.
She’s exceptionally tall for her age – only just three but the height of a five-year-old –
and is implausibly Bambi-legged.
She could be a supermodel, I’m often told in knowing tones
but I’ll do all I can to keep her future adolescent body safe from judging gazes.
When she doesn’t get her way she throws back her peachy cheeks
and lets her epiglottis vibrate like a fire bell, at a pitch no
human can endure for very long.
And she knows it.
When she’s sleepy and calm she strokes my face and hair
like I’m a new kitten.
And when I lean down to kiss her goodnight she’ll
get me in a headlock under her arm, clinging to my skull
like a rugby ball she never wants to touch down.
When she sings, her timbre is as exquisite as
a blackbird’s and she’s bang in tune.
Her favourite toy is a scruffy and malevolent chicken, whose
gimlet eye she mimics when she wants
to bend my will.
Her older brother is the world’s most beautiful boy.
He doesn’t know it yet, but his coppery skin, sleek black curls
and rainbow smile radiate energy and light
and promise to open doors to life’s best kept secrets.
He knows all the dwarf planets and names of distant stars,
can list the rarest dinosaurs like they’re old friends,
and is intimate with the inhabitants of the Mariana trench.
Last time we played twenty questions on the way to school,
I gave up.
‘Shall I tell you?’, he asked.
‘Tell me’, I conceded.
‘A benthocodon’, he said, triumphant but mildly disdainful of my ignorance.
(That’s a deep water jellyfish shaped like a bell, in case you, too, didn’t know).
He can leap like a gazelle, swing easily from monkey bars
and devour stories like Augustus Gloop did chocolate cake –
he can listen enraptured for hours, snuggling up against me, until
my voice is hoarse, and he believes that he, like Matilda,
will one day learn to move objects with his eyes.
When he doesn’t meet his own expectations of himself,
he can descend into a furious grump,
but within five minutes he’ll be sparkling as if nothing had happened.
He’s translated the bleep language spoken by his toy robot,
his alter ego is a peregrine falcon that can dive at 60 miles per hour,
and at five years old he’s so worried about climate change and its effects on animal life
he’s decided to become a vegetarian, which both pleases me and breaks my heart.
He’s engaged to a girl in his class, and saves her grapes at lunchtime,
he can scrape out Rigadoon on his cello, and dances the coconut calypso
like his limbs are made of slinkies instead of bones. I can
just about still pick him up and throw him onto our bed to tickle him,
but it takes all my strength.
I lost him once.
He was two, and his sister was a baby.
We were out in the park, on a balmy summer day, and I was changing her nappy –
and when I looked up he’d gone.
I scooped up the baby and circled the fenced-off toddler area,
once, then twice, keeping studiously calm.
But he was nowhere.
The panic churned; my feet picked up speed.
I told every adult I passed, speaking too fast, but they understood
from my face alone, and we all fanned out
like a newly-oiled machine
I headed half-blind towards the road –
he’d always been good about roads before, but what if…
The baby, who was being jiggled and grasped too tight,
started to cry, as time slowed and fractured around me.
How could I continue living if…?
And then he emerged, from a bush that he’d been imagining as his
den in the Jungle Book, where he lived with Mother Wolf.
And right at that moment,
I was Mother Wolf,
from heckled neck to claw.
I was pure animal.
When I became pregnant for the second time
I was happy – but all the same I couldn’t imagine having
an inch more space in my heart to love a second small person
with the newfound fierceness I felt for my son.
But then, when she arrived, new caverns opened up within me,
at least as big again, yet without diminishing the size of the caverns
that had opened up for him.
It’s like one of those impossible pictures of houses
with infinitely intertwining stairs.
It makes no rational sense.
It’s just one of the illogical miracles of motherhood.
The writer Dina Meza has three children,
and I’m sure she loves the third one
as voraciously as the first two. Since learning about her work,
while I do the school and nursery drop-offs,
reliant on the knowledge that my children will be safe and nurtured,
and that, if they need me for anything, I can drop the writing I’m doing freely
and come running – I often think of her
waving her three children off to school,
while being watched over by bodyguards,
heading off to report unofficially on a disappearance
that echoes her own brother’s tragedy,
being followed by a car crawling along with no
number plate, that she pretends not to notice,
wondering whether to answer a call on her tapped phone,
hoping that, if the voice on the other end issues a threat
the threat will be to her, and not to her children.
As I collapse onto the sofa with a cup of tea
after putting my children to bed, I think of her doing the same
after returning home – to a new home where armed men have not
yet broken in – before summoning the energy to return to her
desk and write the words that will rile still further with their truth,
that will ratchet up the risk to her children once again
for the longer-term benefit of all our children.
As I open up a school newsletter asking parents to
support a project to plant a set of trees in the playground
she, I think, might, this moment, be opening a letter saying:
Don’t think you can carry on treacherously
undermining our national unity and security.
We know where your children go to school now
all three of them, and their routes back
to your new home that you told them were the safest ones.
I put the newsletter aside and creep back into my children’s bedroom. ‘
My daughter has shifted herself around on the lower bunk
so that she is lying horizontally, with one arm dangling
off the edge, overseen by the malevolent chicken
whose eyes gleam at me as if in a proprietorial challenge.
I bare my fangs at it and growl.
As I turn her around gently, she sighs and resettles, and I
stroke the soft billow of her hair and
pull the duvet over her skinny arms.
Up on the top bunk, my son has one arm flung around
his furry wombat, a present when he was born from a
friend down under, and his head is tilted towards the creature’s
whiskers, his lips slightly parted as if he’d
fallen asleep while telling it an anecdote.
The smooth line of his forehead
glows in the marmalade light of the city
and the moon that seeps through the blinds.
About Dina Meza: Dina Meza is an astoundingly courageous Honduran journalist and human rights defender. Her work was initially motivated by her brother’s disappearance and torture by the state nearly thirty years ago. She is the founder and President of PEN Honduras, and founding editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’ where she publishes information on human rights violations and corruption in Honduras – despite receiving constant death threats to herself and her three children, including sexual threats to her daughter. She needs protection around the clock. Nevertheless, she persists. She is the recipient of both the special Amnesty International UK prize for journalists at risk and the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression prize. You can read a piece she wrote about freedom of expression in her country here.
About Ellen Wiles: Ellen is a writer, ethnographer and curator. She is the author of The Invisible Crowd (Harper Collins, 2017), a novel, and Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition (Columbia University Press, 2015). She is the founder of Ark, an experimental live literature project, and has recently completed an ethnographic PhD on live literature and cultural value. She was formerly a human rights barrister and a musician.