The Economics of Activism and the Writer

“…when a monster grows, it grows out of control. It eats up even those who created the monster. And it’s time that our people understood this.” Walter Rodney, 1977, Georgetown.

In January, a woman suggested that I put down my pen – because it was useless – and that I march in the streets of Georgetown. I was taken aback. Did she really believe that tramping aimlessly in the sun was superior to writing? And if so, did she believe it while being aware of the cost attached to silencing only one pen in Guyana?

Her view of writing did not surprise me. She is only a product of her society and its culture. She has been conditioned to see her world as a place where the writer is meant for spinning El Dorado fantasies and where writing is not truth but merely the silly imaginings of a fool. How many more Guyanese share her view? Even one more is too many.

I believe now, more than at any other time in the history of our nation, the writer – the man or woman whose pen deals in the currency of truth – has become chief activist. Writing is a powerful and dangerous form of activism. Words are not merely read or heard, they are felt, absorbed, embedded in the memory and they shape the way we see, think, act.

For weeks I have written about the fear and silence which imprison our people. The Guyanese writer, the Guyanese artist, is the voice of the silent, of the silenced. They carry the true spirit of the fight against oppression. They create hope for and belief in change. They awaken and give strength. Without them, there is no hope for freedom from oppression, no hope of stopping the monsters that have grown out of control, no hope of having hope.

Like any form of activism, like anything else in the world for that matter, writing comes with a price. For many weeks I have not written. I do not consider them weeks of silence. They have merely been weeks of observation, of learning. I have been watching and listening, absorbing.

I have also been working out the economics of activism, the economics of writing. Am I willing to pay what it costs to write? Do I believe that the possible results will be worth the price I pay? Yes, of course, I am willing to pay what it costs to write because writing is necessary for my survival, for me to be who I am.

I also believe that any price I pay to shift the culture of fear and silence, to awaken more people, to give my peers voices, will be worth it. I believe that our people and country are worth all my correspondence ending up at the Central Intelligence Unit eventually, my phone being tapped, my privacy utterly and completely invaded. I believe that it is well worth the anger, the depression, the heartbreak, the broken friendships, the lost relationships, the aloneness, the labels of anti-coolie coolie woman and racist.

So what is the problem? The problem is this: I am not the only one who shoulders the cost. I overlooked the fact that other people would have to pay a greater price for my writing. I did not consider the price that would be paid by the man I love or by my mother, my brothers, my nani, my friends. What right do I have to condemn these people to live in fear for me? Worse yet, what right do I have to put them at risk?

Would it be easier for all of us if I sat in my house and lived my life in silence? The fact is that not writing would cost every one of us far more than writing. If I did not write then I would abandon my basic responsibilities as a human being and eventually become but a shadow of a woman. If I did not write then I would rob our people of their chance of having one more voice, of change, of hope, of the promise of a better Guyana.

If I did not write then there would be one less to fight the monsters among us. If I did not write then the cost would be extended to not just family and friends but to an entire nation. Writing is clearly the more economical choice.

During my weeks of observation, many people asked me whether I had been threatened, if I had given up, if I had bowed to the monster. Who will threaten me? And where is the need to threaten me? The most dangerous thing I face is not threats from the oppressor or even my own fear; it is the fears of the people I love and my need to sooth them, keep them safe.

In the end, the writer, the artist, the activist must choose between love for a few and love for many. The writer must choose between self and others. The writer must be prepared to walk alone while using words to fill voids and unite people. The writer must be forever conscious of the cost attached to every word and pay the price for writing, for stopping the monster, for teaching the nation that we all face the same enemy.

Beneath the Colwyn Harding tragedy

There will always be moments in our history when silence will say more about us than any tongue or pen. For those who have remained silent on the reported baton rape of 23-year-old Colwyn Anthony Harding, history will preserve you as that side which either lacked humanity, was too stifled by fear or simply as not having enough courage to stand and demand that the system produces what it should for every man, woman and child in our country.

Many pens and tongues have condemned the alleged torture of Harding by the Guyana Police Force (GPF) rank. But still this many has not been nearly enough. I have long added my voice to these and now my pen will address those things which have been leaping to life beneath the surface of the Harding tragedy.

There have been those among you who have come to me in outrage. But your outrage has not been because of your young brother’s suffering. It has been a product of what I can only imagine is your blindness; your inability to see how you have allowed a political system to rob you of humanity and enslave you.

Where is the need to create so much trouble over this? This is what you have asked me. If I did not answer you then, it is because I did not trust myself to deal with you gently. But here is my answer now: when we fight our fear, when we break the silence, when we speak for Colwyn Harding, when we demand that the Ministry of Home Affairs and the GPF act efficiently, when we note the lack of and demand proper health care, we do not only speak for one man. We speak for our children, our people, and our country. In speaking for Harding, we speak less for him and more for ourselves.

When allegations that Harding had been attacked in his bed at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) began circulating, some of you came to me in disbelief. There is no way that such a thing could have happened, you said. Some of you even suggested that Dr. Melissa Ifill and others who have been working tirelessly to help Harding and his mother had “made it up”.

Why would you believe such a thing? Perhaps, it is because you have not seen the things in our country that some of us have seen, have lived, and have wished we did not ever see or experience. When I began my career in journalism at 18, I became intimately acquainted with the GPHC. Although the place has had a face lift since then it will forever remain in my memory as a prime example of the human’s disregard for his fellow being.

If in your mind you think the GPHC is a well secured institution then I advise you to rid yourself of that notion. From my own experience, I can tell you that it is one of the easiest places to walk in and out of at will. So when Dr. Ifill and others make these reports they know what they are saying. It is impossible to make up such atrocities.

Besides, I am well acquainted with Dr. Ifill as a lecturer at the University of Guyana. I salute women like her, women like Sharon Harding, who have stood against the silence. These are women once you have looked into their eyes you see the burning passion for truth and people and country. It is a rare thing to find courage in a man or woman among us.

And finally, there have been questions about whether the GPF rank who reportedly abused Harding may have been moved to do so by racist sentiment. Even now, I cannot begin to comprehend what moves a man to do such a vile thing to another being like himself. If racism makes up the sum of why Harding became a victim then I can only hope that our people can rise from this abyss.

Our history is a long and bitter one full of racial tension. It is easy for us to begin to hate each other. Sometimes it is hard to remember that one man’s actions is not a reflection of what lies in the hearts of those who look like him. I have felt for Colwyn Anthony Harding, there are many like me who feel for him. There are many of us who look at him and see a son, a brother, a friend. I am certain that despite the face of her son’s tormentor, Sharon Harding will still look at me and see a daughter of her country, nothing less. These things give me hope.

Last Friday I was late for the peaceful picket which took place outside the Commissioner’s office at Police Headquarters, Eve Leary. Only a handful of Guyanese were there huddled under umbrellas but still my heart felt hope. About one third of those present looked like me and because of that too my heart felt hope. But my heart faltered for a second because I did not see anyone else close to my age but then I remembered those beautiful young women who picketed near parliament a few days ago and I felt hope.

At least there are some who history will remember as having had courage, as conquering fear, as souls who stood for what was right. And this is what it means to stand for Colwyn Anthony Harding. It means doing what is right. Some of us have understood this. Still, we are not nearly enough but at least there is hope.