University News

Lit arts gives voice to oppressed poet

Staff Writer
Sunday, November 13, 2011

Iranian poet Pegah Ahmadi spent six years under censorship in her native Iran before fleeing that country’s post-election turmoil in 2009. Now, she is the latest fellow of the International Writers Project, a program run by the Department of Literary Arts and the Watson Institute for International Studies that grants a year-long fellowship and safe haven to persecuted artists.

During the fellowship, Ahmadi will translate her work into English, give readings and participate in an annual campus festival on freedom of expression March 12-15.

Ahmadi’s long journey to College Hill began a world away under an oppressive theocracy in Iran. Around 2003, Ahmadi’s work came to the attention of government censors. Later, they prevented the publication of Ahmadi’s most recent volume of poetry.

Ahmadi said she constantly felt unsafe. “You could be arrested at any moment,” she said. “There were no rules.”

In 2009, Ahmadi left Iran with the help of the International Cities of Refuge Network, an association dedicated to freedom of expression. She spent two years living and writing in Frankfurt, where she said she was finally able to publish her last volume of poems in both Farsi and German. “That was a dream,” she said.

But Ahmadi said adjusting to life in Germany was difficult. At first, the calm and peaceful atmosphere felt foreign to her. “I didn’t know how to live or write about normal things because I belonged to a society full of suffering,” she said.

“I could have been silent in Germany. I could have just published my poems and returned to my country after two years,” Ahmadi said. “But I felt that I had a duty to speak up and explain the situation and repression that I couldn’t talk about in my country,” she said. Though Ahmadi misses Iran, she said she is happy to be at Brown and to have the opportunity to continue her writing.

Robert Coover, visiting professor of literary arts, said many of the project fellows experience an initial feeling of loss when they first arrive on campus. “And then something clicks,” he said, adding that almost all the fellows have written substantial texts during their fellowships. Ahmadi said she hopes to publish a book of her poems in English.

Coover was the catalyst behind the creation of the International Writers Project, which began indirectly in 1989. Following the events of Tiananmen Square, Coover and then-President Vartan Gregorian extended invitations to three politically endangered Chinese writers who Coover said would have been arrested had they remained in the country.

Since then, the University has continued to bring persecuted writers to campus, pulling funding from a variety of sources, including a grant from the Donner Foundation and support from the Watson Institute.

While candidates are encouraged to submit applications, about two-thirds of fellows are chosen through nominations. The project maintains strong relationships with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as other organizations and individuals attuned to the needs of persecuted intellectuals. “We rely a lot on their judgments,” he said, adding that the committee became aware of Ahmadi’s case through one such relationship.

Coover said he was especially interested in Ahmadi, who was born in 1974, because of her youth. “I wanted to focus this year’s festival on her generation as well as her country” he said, adding that the upcoming festival will aim to incorporate younger Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian artist.

“The whole region is so alive right now” he said of the Middle East.

A lot of that life comes from new technology — handheld mobile devices and social networking sites — that allows people to stay constantly in touch with each other, Coover said. “It’s the same thing that’s driving the Occupy movement here in the States.”

Ahmadi cannot return to Iran and must secure another position abroad when the fellowship ends. Coover said the project committee and the Program in Literary Arts assist fellows in this process. Shahriar Mandanipour, the 2006 fellow, currently holds a temporary appointment in the program.

Kho Tararith of Cambodia, last year’s fellow, is now participating in Harvard’s Scholars at Risk program.

“Lack of freedom of expression is the biggest problem for all artists,” Ahmadi said. “As an artist, your identity depends on your creation. When you are prevented from that creation, you change into a useless person, and you feel like you have no purpose.”