Every year, we ask our five Emerging Voices Fellows to answer the question, "What does Freedom to Write mean to you?" Over the next five weeks, each of our Fellows will talk about the role that freedom of expression, the keystone of PEN Center USA's mission, has played in their lives as writers, readers, and literary citizens.
It feels frivolous to write poems these days when all I want to do is sound the alarm then curl up in the fetal position. The thought of sticking to my art evaporates everyday at around 3 pm, when I am gripped by utter panic at work, followed by utter hopelessness. It sounds overly dramatic, but when the current administration arrests journalists for reporting on protests, when it calls reputable news sources “fake news,” when it bandies about “alternative facts” as if they have as much weight as facts, when it threatens funding for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), well, you will forgive a writer her paranoia. It doesn’t feel quite like war yet, but I wonder if I only say this because I’ve never been to war.
In authoritarian regimes, one of the first things that the state does is to strip journalists of power, be it by discrediting them, by criminalizing them, or by murdering them. Artists, writers, and poets go to prison under tyrannical rule. Why are these rulers, with their armies and their money and their influence, so threatened by the journalist, so threatened by the writer?
I grew up in a country where journalists were constantly killed. It might have reached a boiling point with the Marcos regime, when the dictator seized and took over the major newspapers, but it has been at a constant simmer since then. The Philippines ranks 138th out of 180 countries in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, which measures countries according to the level of freedom available to journalists. It’s a very low rank, considering that the Philippines is a democracy, and unlike other countries near the bottom of the list, it is not in a state of war.
Historically, free press in the Philippines was resurrected in the public sphere when a peaceful revolution forced the then-dictator to flee the country. Since then, the press has been instrumental in keeping the powerful and the corrupt in check. From the end of martial law, to the impeachment proceedings for former president Joseph Estrada, to the Hello Garci tapes, to the Maguindanao Massacre (the single most deadly event for journalists in history, with 34 members of the press killed), the free press has been there to uncover the truth, and to hold the powerful and those who have committed crimes accountable. They do this while being constantly derided by the ruling politicians. They do this even when some of the issues they continue to investigate (e.g., tracing the Marcos family’s ill-gotten wealth) yield blocks and death threats.
What does it mean to write free when even democracies cannot guarantee a writer’s safety? What does it mean to write free in democracies that blatantly threaten that safety? Why does it have to take such courage to tell the truth? Why are tyrants so afraid of the truth?
The Filipino National hero is Jose Rizal, a novelist who was martyred for books and poems he wrote that dared imagine the fall of the Spanish empire. At the same time, poets were writing kundimans, poems that expressed love and loyalty to an independent Philippines that did not exist yet. During martial law, underground newspapers were the source of unbiased news.
I come from a people who believe that words can change the world. Even more than that, I come from a people who have proved this. From the struggle for independence from Spain to the overthrow of a dictator, writing has been instrumental to the fall of so many empires. The Philippines is only one of so many examples all over the world. The United States may be on the verge of tyranny, but the good news is that the world has always had the tools to fight. Words can, words will, and words have won against despotic rulers. We just have to be brave enough to write them. We just have to brave through the feelings of frivolity. Brave through the utter hopelessness. It is not the freedom to write, because our most free institutions have never been able to guarantee that. It is writing towards freedom.
Soleil David was born and raised in the Philippines and now lives in Los Angeles. She graduated with high distinction from the University of California, Berkeley. She is a recipient of the Julia Keith Shrout Short Story Prize, and her poetry and prose have been published in Our Own Voice, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop anthology The Margins. She is working on a collection of poems.