'I had never come to a Western country before. It is good for my writing'
Tuesday 07 November 1995
Vincent Magombe should be dead. In 1980 a soldier put a gun against his head and pulled the trigger, in response to his play The Fall and Trial of Idi Amin. When it failed to go off, Magombe ran, not stopping until he reached Moscow. In 1990, he fled to Britain after Uganda tried to have him extradited for criticising its Moscow embassy. Like most exiles, the problems he faces are practical as well as emotional. Head of African Writers Abroad, he cannot leave the country to attend conferences because the British government refuses him travel documents. He is now writing a book of poetry and a play about an African tyrant called Nima. "You start forgetting everything. Even the impression of what an African forest is like, the smells, the colours. Your poetry becomes drier and you compensate by making it more combative. But then you worry about writing propaganda." English literature can swamp an exile, he says. "Some writers get completely lost. Alienated from their own styles. That for me is a tragedy."
Taslima Nasrin has been called the Salman Rushdie of Bangladesh, unwillingly yoked to the British novelist by a provocative novel and a fatwa. A doctor turned columnist and poet, she was already notorious for her feminism and criticism of Islamic traditions when she published her first novel in February 1993. Lajja (Shame) described the persecution of Bangladesh's Hindu minority by Muslims after the sacking of India's Ayodhya mosque. A bounty was put on her head and the book was banned. In May 1994, Nasrin faced another call for her death when the Calcutta Statesman quoted her (misquoted, she says) calling for the Koran to be rewritten. She was charged with offending religious sentiment, and after a period in hiding was granted bail. On 10 August 1994, she entered Sweden on a tourist visa, and is now in Berlin. This month Bangladesh's supreme court decides whether her trial goes ahead. "To live alone in this unknown society is very difficult," Nasrin says. "The uncertain future disturbs me. I had never come to a Western country before. I think it is good for my writing. My experiences and my views have become broader. I am still writing - a novel about Muslim women in Bangladesh - but not so fluently. I miss my language. I write in Bengali, but I hardly ever speak it now." Whether her new book will see the light of day is another matter. Threatened by a mixture of firebombs and writs after her last book, Bangladeshi publishing houses are fighting shy of more controversy. "They always give me advice not to write about religion. Write a love story, they say. But I can't. I need to publish what I write, and when I'm not sure I can, it makes me in a way less interested in what I'm doing."
Jack Mapanje is writing his prison memoirs. Head of English at the University of Malawi, in 1987 he was imprisoned on the express orders of President Hastings Banda. Mapanje never found out why, although he suspects oblique criticisms of the regime in his first volume of poems were relayed to the president by other academics. Jobless on his release "three years, seven months and 16 days" later, he took up a fellowship at York University. Since then he has taught creative writing in prisons, and is now a visiting professor at Leeds. Exile, he says, has simplified his work. "In my first book, each poem had two or three levels of meaning. They had to, in case I was arrested. In exile you can say things without fear. But also my second volume of poems, Of Chameleons and Gods, had to be simpler for an outside audience. Even so, I don't consider myself writing specifically for the British." Last year Mapanje returned to Malawi to make a documentary for BBC2, but the prospect of a permanent return remains distant as ever. "Banda is gone, but even if he is not in power they still have hit squads," he says. Returning to his home university would be impossible. Without money to set up his own business, he sees only the prospect of destitution for his family if he goes back. In Britain too, however, he faces unemployment at the end of the academic year. Exile and poverty are seldom far apart.
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