Expression as Freedom: The Power of Literature in Exile and Incarceration

On Saturday, May 4, Ithaca City of Asylum joined with Amnesty International to present a panel discussion, Expression as Freedom: The Power of Literature in Exile and Incarceration, as part of Spring Writes, Ithaca’s annual festival of literature. The panel took place at the new Tompkins Center for History and Culture, housed in the building at 110 N. Tioga Street (Bank Alley) which was the former home of the Tompkins Trust Company. The panel preceded the building’s actual grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony, scheduled for May 10, and was a fitting harbinger of things to come: the Center’s stated vision is to “instill appreciation for our community’s global impact and promote further exploration into the community.”

Featured speakers were Pedro X. Molina, an internationally-known political cartoonist from Nicaragua, and Tony Sidle, a local writer, musician, and actor who is a member of ReEntry Theatre Program, an arts program for people who have been incarcerated that is part of the Civic Ensemble. Tony is also an activist and advocate working for social change with the Ithaca Drug Users Union and works at a homeless shelter.

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Pedro Molina speaks while Tony Sidle, to his left, and representatives of Ithaca City of Asylum and Amnesty International listen.

Tony Sidle – who said he was addicted to, and sold, heroin in Ithaca and spent a total of thirteen years behind bars – has been writing since he was in the third grade and continued to write while in prison. Once out, he joined the Civic Ensemble, writing music and two plays. Recently he worked (in collaboration with Thom Dunn) on a remount of Streets Like This, a play based on true stories of people “dealing with the consequences of probation, incarceration, parole, and court-ordered rehabilitation.” He is also developing a play about mental health issues – which, he pointed out, are very common among people who are homeless. He described Streets Like This  as “a play about being stuck in a system almost designed to fail, to keep people enslaved and at the bottom.” Regarding his work with drug users, he said, “Many people end up dying because they won’t go to the hospital because they’re treated so poorly there. We’re trying to bring about more humane treatment through outreach and harm reduction.” Writing is now Tony’s principal vehicle of self-healing: “I can’t not write. I use it to try to be free.”

I can’t not write. I use it to try to be free. —Tony Sidle

Pedro X. Molina came to Ithaca from Nicaragua in December with his family, escaping persecution for his public critiques of the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. “They are a couple of psychopaths who run the country,” said Molina, comparing their brutality, human rights abuses, and suppression of the media to Ceausescu, the former leader of Romania, and Erdogan, Turkey’s president who, like Ortega and Murillo, owns most of his country’s news outlets and calls journalists “terrorists.” Since April 2019, Ortega’s government has used police and paramilitaries to kill, kidnap, and imprison hundreds of civilians protesting its authoritarian rule. Others, like Molina, have fled the country. As Molina wrote in a 2018 post on Cartoonists Rights Network International, “After several years of suffering electoral frauds, curtailment of rights, selective repression, attempts to censor the internet and mismanagement of environmental disasters, the last straw was the enactment of the country’s social security law that curtails the rights of current and future pensioners.”

Molina presented a slide show of some of his recent work. Among the cartoons were one depicting the shooting of a baby in its father’s arms and one called “GuerNICARAGUA,” a satiric adaptation of Picasso’s famous anti-war painting.

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He explained that people in Nicaragua, unable now to speak out publicly against the government without severe retribution, have turned to artistic expression instead. Songs have been composed and circulated, murals have appeared, and balloons decorated in blue and white (the colors of the Nicaraguan flag) with anti-government messages inside have been released. The Sandinista revolution of 1979 which deposed the dictator Anastasio Somoza had also highlighted the role of cultural resistance. Molina emphasized that some of the most prominent revolutionary leaders from that time – including former Vice President Sergio Ramirez, a writer and intellectual, and former Nicaraguan Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, a poet – now forcefully condemn their former colleagues Ortega and Murilla for abandoning the liberatory principles they all fought for – widespread literacy, health care, economic and land reform – and embracing autocratic rule.

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