The BBC has produced a powerful account of the 2009 assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, founder and editor of The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, as part of its Witness History podcast. The 11-minute piece is built around an interview with Wickrematunge’s widow, Sonali Samarasinghe, who was ICOA’s resident writer from 2012 to 2014.
Wickrematunge was ambushed by eight men on motorcycles at the height of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers rebel group. The Sunday Leader took no position on the war but reported on atrocities committed by both sides. A practicing lawyer, Samarasinghe worked as a consulting editor and investigative journalist for the paper. She and Wickrematunge had received many death threats but remained committed to independent journalism.
“I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts.”
Lasantha Wickrematunge, Sri Lankan journalist murdered in 2009
“Never did we even privately think about changing our jobs, or not doing what we were doing,” Samarasinghe told the BBC. “We were there fighting for democracy, so it never entered our mind to give this up.”
Wickrematunge was murdered exactly two months after the two were married. After he died, The Sunday Leader and other news outlets published a 2,500-word column he had written for publication in the event of his murder. “I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but as an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts,” he wrote. The piece went viral. “I think it shook the world,” Samarasinghe said.
Fearing for herself and her family, Samarasinghe left the country two weeks after the murder. In exile, she went on to found and edit the weekly Morning Leader. She now works as a diplomat in Sri Lanka’s mission to the United Nations. You can listen to the podcast on the BBC’s Witness History website.
“As we lurch into the future, in this blitzkrieg of idiocy, Facebook ‘likes,’ fascist marches, fake-news coups, and what looks like a race toward extinction,” she said, “what is literature’s place? What counts as literature? Who decides?”
There is no single answer, she said. Rather, she approached this large question by sharing her own experience of being a writer and activist in recent years.
“The place for literature is built by writers and readers,” she said. “It’s a fragile place in some ways, but an indestructible one. When its broken, we rebuild it. Because we need shelter. I very much like the idea of literature that is needed. Literature that provides shelter. Shelter of all kinds.”
We join Roy in thanking PEN, one of our partner organizations, for, in Roy’s words, “the work it does to protect writers and journalists who are have been imprisoned, prosecuted, censored and worse.”
Join us on Saturday, May 18, 1 p.m., at Buffalo Street Books for a reading by Vietnamese-American novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, in conversation with Jack Wang, Chair of the Ithaca College Department of Writing. Ithaca City of Asylum, together with Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, is co-sponsoring the event.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Sympathizer, recently called on 17 fellow refugee writers from across the globe to shed light on their experiences. The result is The Displaced, a powerful dispatch from the individual lives behind current headlines.
These essays reveal moments of uncertainty, resilience in the face of trauma, and a re-imagining of identity, forming a compelling look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge. The Displaced is also a commitment: ABRAMS will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000 annually, to the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief, and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
We were thrilled to learn that Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were freed on May 7 after more than 500 days in prison in Yangon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists had been sentenced to seven years in detention for receiving secret documents from security forces in Myanmar while researching a 2017 massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were among more than 6,000 prisoners released under a sweeping presidential pardon.
In April, Myanmar’s supreme court denied Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s final appeal. The government did not say why the two men were included in the pardon, but they were the subject of an intensive publicity campaign by human rights and press freedom groups around the world.
We join PEN America and the Committee to Protect Journalists in applauding the release, and support Amnesty International’s call for “genuine press freedom” in its wake. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch both point out that the Myanmar government continues to detain commentators and reporters for doing their work.
“[T]he crisis is not over for the literally dozens of other Burmese journalists and bloggers who are still facing baseless criminal charges for their reporting,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
On May 3, Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) joins human rights and free expression groups everywhere in recognizing World Press Freedom Day. This year’s theme is the free press in elections. Through events, social media campaigns, and other activities, we call attention not just to attacks or restrictions on people who engage in journalism, but to the vital role journalism plays in holding the powerful to account.
ICOA was founded to protect literary writers — poets, playwrights, and fiction writers — “whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, or whose languages are endangered.” This was not just a question of providing a quiet space for practicing artists; it was a public statement about the fundamental value of free expression.
Through the work and life stories of our first guests and residents, our community learned how unsettling the literary arts can be to regimes and other social forces that fear the power of words and ideas.
For many of those forces (not just governments, but religious, political, or social movements or other actors), journalism presents an even more direct threat, and they often lash out with alarming brutality. Our most recent residents reflect that reality.
ICOA Board President Gail Holst-Warhaft recently spoke with the Human Rights and Social Justice Program on WRFI 88.1 FM Ithaca / 91.9 FM Watkins Glen about our upcoming panel at the 2019 Spring Writes Festival. Listen below:
The event, focusing on the power of literature in exile and incarceration, will take place on Saturday, May 4 at 1pm in the CAP Gallery/Program Room at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture, and will feature conversations with K.E. von Wittelsbach, Andy Doyle, Cayley Crutchfield, Tony Sidle, and Pedro X. Molina.
Ithaca City of Asylum will take part in Spring Writes, Ithaca’s literature festival, with a panel discussion on Saturday, May 4, 12:30 – 1:30pm at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture, CAP Gallery/Program Room.
The event will feature a lively discussion among members of local Amnesty International chapters and Ithaca City of Asylum. Both groups strive to achieve social justice and uphold human rights–and our various projects intersect with the act of writing in thought-provoking ways.
Expression as Freedom: The power of literature in exile and incarceration
Some journalists, poets, and novelists write their way INTO exile for speaking out against oppression or injustice, while people who are incarcerated sometimes write their way THROUGH or OUT. Ithaca City of Asylum and Amnesty International representatives present a panel discussion about the ways the exiled and the incarcerated express their experiences through the arts, and what Ithacans who believe in human rights and the power of the pen can do to promote justice through literature. Panelists include Gail Holst-Warhaft, K.E. von Wittelsbach, Andy Doyle, Cayley Crutchfield, Tony Sidle, and Pedro X. Molina, with moderator Barbara Adams.
And check out the full Spring Writes schedule for four days of 43 juried literary events.
Ithaca City of Asylum writers-in-residence featured at 2019 Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
With a theme of “Disruptions,” FLEFF 2019, hosted by Ithaca College, explored ideas of sustainability across all its forms, including the political, the cultural, and the aesthetic—and intersection that embraces the craft and art of writing.
On April 3, two of ICOA’s former writers-in-residence shared their extensive knowledge and personal experience of international journalism: Sonali Samarasinghe, now Sri Lankan delegate to the United Nations; and Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, now director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.
Pedro Molina, a political cartoonist from Nicaragua who is published widely in the international press, joined the panel for a wide-ranging discussion of the issues journalists face all over the world in an age of increasingly authoritarian and oppressive governments. Each panelist addressed the state of journalism in their own country. They also discussed systematic causes of repression.
The panel was moderated by Barbara Adams, professor of writing at Ithaca College and member of the ICOA board. Fifty people from the campus and community attended.
Ithaca City of Asylum has three events planned for spring 2019. Join us for these collaborations with other literary and human rights organizations: