When I was reading the life history and works of famous exiled writers such as James Joyce, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and the poets like Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, Abdellatif Laâbi, and others I used to think maybe exile could have turned me into a better writer. Of course later I was forced to leave my country. From my short experience, I am learning that being in “exile” is neither exotic nor a source of inspiration for good writing, as I used to imagine. Rather, it is a state of perpetual limbo punctuated by solitary walks, the sense of loss, and being haunted by unsuccessful attempts to write.
For half of my life I have been writing and reading, and in the four years since I escaped my country, my work has been an experiment in how to express my resentment for Eritrea’s ruling regime, and an attempt to capture the dire situation that my friends and family are trapped in.
Back there, in what was once my home, it was impossible to bypass stringent censorship. With such stern repression and crude attempts to control the minds of their citizens, like many writers I was reduced to sharing my work with just a handful of trusted readers, many of them my close friends.
In most of the short stories I wrote in Eritrea I attempted to unfollow conventional styles. How can a poem written in the usual stanza structure describe the penitentiary state of nearly four million people which has more than 360 prisons and 10,000 prisoners of conscience? Similarly, a straight narrative story trying to describe my small country – in which around 5,000 of its productive population flee each month, risking “shoot-to-kill” policy – falls short.
Experimentation emerged for me as a bold form of defiance in a place where art and culture has been on the front line of the battle for human rights.
Let me set the scene. With institutionalised fear imposed by the police state, artists in Eritrea have lost their ability to be critical, contemplative, or challenging. The censorship unit of the Ministry of Information requests prior approval of all material, even nightclub posters. It has even become common practice for censors to suggest stanzas to be added in, lyrics to be changed. Many books, even translated ones, are told by the censor office to delete pages or remove chapters.
This has become Eritrea’s new normal.
Eritrean singers – most of them army conscripts – have only one way of making a name for themselves. Unless they continuously sing praise or patriotic songs, they are ignored. Failure to praise the system is considered as a lack of cooperation or even straight out dissent.
This is how the Eritrean regime ensures that art and culture reproduces the narrative it has set out for the country.
Their laws and rules silence talented artists, or coerce them into being accomplices to the regime’s repressive activities.
Combined with the lack of access to information, stringent control of online media and pervasive collective surveillance, Eritrea has now topped the list of the world’s most censored countries, followed closely by North Korea.
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It has been four years since I left my home in Eritrea, and in this time I’ve passed through many strange and complex psychological states.
The first few months, I couldn’t believe that I had really left, and that I was finally living in a safe place. Whenever I talked to friends or sat for casual chats I continued to censor myself, and kept my guard up.
It took me two years to fully conquer my fear. Then I entered a stage where I was angrily obsessed with home and was geared towards talking back, to challenging the regime from afar.
Now, things have changed again. Today, I try to reflect on the mechanisms that continue to keep the whole population zombified. Slowly the country has grown so distant to me. Each day my attempts to connect back result in another class of unsettled feelings of solitude and helplessness.
Now I picture the country in different shapes. Sometimes I see it as old-time sweetheart and remember it with nostalgia. Other times I see it as an open and giant prison.
Even though I believe I am in a secure space, I feel eternally tied to my home country. Each day I am reminded of being out of place. Carrying the badge of “legal alien” or “asylee” – not to mention the acute lack of familiarity and sense of belonging – I keep telling myself that I have a better home waiting for me, perhaps somewhere else.
But with every change of address, city and zip code, the concept of “home” also becomes more fluid. Now “home” has been reduced to my mailing address. Although exile guarantees security and safety, as a writer I’ve found that it does not necessarily present the best opportunity to produce better work.
The new space is a source of disillusionment. The new freedom to write and the sudden abolishing of the censorship yoke, might give momentary high, but for me it remains characterised by estrangement.
Abraham Tesfalul Zere is an exiled Eritrean writer and journalist who was one of the founding members of PEN Eritrea where he currently serves as Executive Director. Zere left Eritrea in 2012 and is now based in Ohio, USA.