Many things remind me of the place I come from. Of the home land. I carry the feeling of belonging to a place where I am not present any more like a ball and chain around my ankle. It’s almost a nuisance to have an origin. And it’s only after I have left the hearth that I know it once existed. If you stay in one place all your life, you can hardly know you have a motherland.
It is Monday morning and I am up late. I don’t work in the PEN office every day. Only Tuesdays and Thursdays. Still, I check my emails religiously whenever I can, which means non-stop. Most London homes have wireless connection these days and the outside world has become as accessible as the air we breathe. Obviously, only through the computer screen.
I see Amanda’s email in my PEN inbox. She is asking if we are planning to issue a statement on Anna Politkovskaya assassination. I shudder. When did that happen? I search the BBC website and I find it there, under 7th October; breaking news from Europe, an obituary, tribute paid to Russian journalist, comments of outrage, shock and grief. I feel my throat turning dry and my fingers stiff and cold on the mouse pad. They are not moving. I remember Anna’s photo in the ‘Writers in Translation’ folder in my office – pensive but determined gaze, her short grey hair beautifully framed with the purple of her top. She is one of ‘our writers’. Her book ‘Putin’s Russia’ is proudly displayed in the English PEN office. We now only have one copy left with a note sticking out – please do not remove from the office. Other copies have gone missing, which is what usually happens to a good book. Book theft, though, is never considered a crime. I still cannot believe Anna has been shot dead in the lift of the building where she lived.
‘Putin’s Russia’ – a warm but critical depiction of the country where human rights are routinely trampled upon – was the book that inaugurated ‘Writers in Translation’. Anna’s commitment to truth and free expression that she showed in her work as a journalist became the mission of our programme as well. The book was almost dropped from the Harvill and Secker publication list, but with the PEN grant, its print-run grew to almost 20,000 copies. ‘Putin’s Russia’ was available in bookshops around the UK. In duty free zones at airports, where only best-sellers are stocked. It was a recommended reading. She once said that her duty as a journalist was to write what she sees as reality. She wasn’t afraid of the risk that was part of her work. A work of a truth-teller. My professional duty was to do whatever possible to have her book published in English and made available to the world to read.
But Anna’s death cuts deeper than that. She reminds me that I am a writer. A Croatian writer. Constantly pushing the limits of what is publicly allowed, her writing was the expression of attachment to her own country. The strokes of her pen, like a sharp knife, peeled layers of obscurity that cover people’s daily actions and experiences. Anna took the risk of telling the truth and not fleeing. That’s why she makes me wonder why I left Croatia. Why couldn’t I have stayed and written there? Why even now I write in English?
Being a writer is not only an art form, and not only a profession. It is a state of mind which seeks to preserve boundlessness. A writers’ mind will question everything. It will turn the world upside down like a housewife doing a floor to ceiling clean-up. Even the most banal, taken-for-granted things will not escape the scrutiny of a writer’s feline curiosity. But today, I think less of the literary playfulness that governs the writing spirit. I feel that being a writer is about having an integrity. It is a risk that we willingly take each morning afresh. And a risk for which we are sometimes called to pay with our own life.
Why do so many writers leave their countries to be able to write?
Why are so many writers murdered in their own motherlands for speaking the truth?
This was going to be a lazy morning with a languid cup of coffee and a few lines to write. Instead, I am faced with the death of a colleague and challenged to examine my own integrity. What would I say my duty is if asked in an interview?