Café Dose, rue Mouffetard, Paris
Censorship comes in different forms. You’ve indulged in free political speech for most of your life—but then grown more and more concerned about security agencies like NSA taking notes on what you say. Perhaps for later use. And so you arrive at the point where you ask yourself, “Should I come right out and say this?”
Maybe that’s the point: to make you think twice or thrice before you let your fellow citizens know what you think about, say, censorship in all its forms. After all, as throughout history, first they eavesdrop, then they make lists, then they come for your neighbor—and then for you.
Here in this country below the border, you withdraw a one-act play from the Internet, first the Spanish translation, then the original English, because it may or may not be dangerous to suggest, even indirectly through art, that the country’s government may be complicit in high crimes against its own people. In the process, you get the idea of what it was like to write in France during the German Occupation, in the Soviet Union then and now. And, presently, in Saudi Arabia, China and much of Africa.
How did you arrive at this point? You took a screen writing workshop at this year’s San Miguel Writers Conference. Up to that point, you had applied yourself to writing short stories and novels. You had never written a play before. Thinking you might be asked to write something right then and there, you chose a subject that was on everyone’s mind, the disappearance of forty-three students in the south of your country of residence, all of them from one school, all of them surely murdered—this in the context of some 92,000 other people who are also missing here.You didn’t have to write a five-minute play, but you decided to proceed with your idea. You wrote a one-act play. And then you had your translator translate it into Spanish.
Hoping to continue skirting the line of what was safe, you mentioned your play on Facebook. You wrote, “Thanks to the gifted translation by the Guanajuato writer and poet X, you can now read ‘The Colonel and the Pig’ in Spanish, a short one act play possibly in the epic style of Bertolt Brecht, where the latter sought to distance his audience from the anecdotal quality of reality. That is not my phrasing, but I can’t think of a better way of putting it—in the matter of forced disappearances in a country south of wherever you find yourself in the world.”
And then you gave your blog address, so people could read the play.
You mentioned the posting to a few young Mexican friends. One such friend told a friend of hers. The latter, a young woman with an BA theater, read the Spanish version, said she liked it very much but added it would be difficult to stage because it was so politically loaded.
At that point, you begin to come out of your self-congratulatory haze and realize that a watching censor would likely come to the same conclusion. Your best friend warns that the government, Army and Federal Police would not understand myth, metaphor, irony, epic theater or Bertolt Brecht. And that the government—on many levels—was becoming increasingly intolerant of critics. Plus, your are not a citizen, and they could deport you for breaking one of the rules on being a resident: You may not demonstrate politically against the government.
And so you decided to take the little play down, both the Spanish and the English. You give a few people electronic copies, but tell them not to distribute them further. You also write a friend who has been living in the country for more than sixty years and whose opinion and judgment you trust. You mentioned the great risks taken by articulate and brave women like Lydia Cacho, Denise Dresser, Carmen Aristegui and Raquel Padilla Ramos, who do not hesitate to take on the government. You mention you do not feel good about yourself, giving in to the fear of censorship and retaliation.
You friend replies, “Being a non-citizen of Mexico can also be a great cloak to wrap around yourself. The most comprehensive stories of graft and corruption, the best investigative inquiries into massacres and suspicious suicides like Linda Diebel’s book Betrayed: the Assassination of Digna Ochoa are written by non-citizens. Given the choice of an article in Proceso or an in-depth article about the same incident in The New Yorker, I will almost always prefer the dispassionate but fact-checked writing of the American journalist. But what you wrote, in my opinion, is not investigative journalism. You wrote a lovely lyrical almost poetical play that is more art than rant or cant. Aristegui, Dresser, Cacho are IMMINENTLY public figures with huge followings, hence the threat as well as the political clout that they bring to their battle. I think the performance of your play (in Spanish) or even just reading of it at some cafe or little theater at least in Michoacán would have been thoroughly appreciated for what it is. My getting involved in the disgusting political machinations of the mayoral campaign here in town is seriously dangerous…I still take notes and jot down the farcical (albeit with deadly serious implications) nature of this campaign. You should not self-censor. Keep writing in your (excuse me) Brechtian fashion, and collect your writings. Posting or publishing is not that important right now. Capturing your impressions of the political climate is what is important. ”
You write this as you sit in a third country (France), which prides itself on unrestricted expression that, if exercised without some situational restraints, can have disastrous consequences. And then there is Texas, where free expression is used as provocation—again with disastrous results.
There is a danger line in the country where you live, except that you don’t know exactly where it is. There are other questions. Were you overestimating the importance of your words, or were you underestimating their possible impact? On the one hand, a writer wants the widest possible audience—but not so wide that the government’s enforcers react. The Internet offers the illusion that you comment from neutral ground and that you are therefore safe, but we all know that that is not true.
And so you arrive at the final question—perhaps a false one—and that has to do with which group you belong to: the brave risk-takers? Or to the self-censoring, the silenced, to those who have knuckled under? We have some guidelines that help here. There are a great many dead risk-takers in this country and, no doubt, a few living expelled ones, too, like the Italian women who got involved in Chiapas during the Zapatista uprising. Clearly, you also have to control the writer’s ego, which might otherwise be over-estimating its importance and foolishly willing to risk disaster for a piece of writing, badly timed and, in the long run, quixotic. And so, in the end, you turn to the meta-story, the one presented here, which you hope will bore the censors speechless, while giving the writer some relief.