“When I heard that my magazine was banned, I thought that it had died. I thought that its body was corrupted, like a human being, adding dust to dust,” says Iranian writer and editor Shahriar Mandanipour in reference to the censorship he experienced in his home country. “This event, the Living Magazine, I thought, could wake it up from its grave, like Lazarus, even if for one night.”
The Living Magazine—an event taking place this Wednesday at the Sackler Museum—aims to share some of the works of censored international writers, like Mandanipour, hailing from countries including Iran, Burma, and China. The featured writers will be giving presentations about their work as editors of publications, all of which have been banned by their government except for that of Burmese writer Ma Thida.
The Living Magazine is this year’s installment of the Visiting Writers Series, a project initiated by expository writing preceptor Jane E. Unrue last spring. Unrue says that the idea for this event stemmed from her experiences in her course Expository Writing 20: “The Voice of Authority.” In the course, students are asked to read works of two international writers, prepare a comparative analysis, and then directly contact the visiting writers. Unrue says that it has been these teaching experiences that have led her to appreciate the effect that firsthand interactions have on people. The purpose of this event will be to build on the activities of the class and showcase the visiting writers here under the “Scholars at Risk” program—an insufficiently funded project in which persecuted or at-risk writers are given an opportunity to pursue their work at Harvard.
Brown University hosts a similar event in which a persecuted writer is featured every year. Yet, Unrue argues, “I don’t see too many things where people from a variety of countries are brought together. I think that’s just really a special sort of opportunity to see things in different ways, and you can do that at Harvard.”
Featured writer Mandanipour is a returning guest from last year’s series, and he hopes to explore the issue of censorship in depth. Mandanipour recognizes that the extreme degree of censorship in some countries is something that many people may not realize. His banned publication, “Thursday Evening,” used to focus on the younger generation of Iran and accepted literary critiques and original pieces from young writers. His censorship from the Iranian government began because of his comment, “Iranian people are scratching our faces as we try to grab the little rights that we have from each other because the government took our great human rights from us.” For The Living Magazine, Mandanipour has prepared an essay about his memories in publishing the magazine, some of which he admits are bitter.
Another featured writer, Ma Thida, is the editor of the Burmese “Teen Magazine.” Although “Teen Magazine” strives to be a more educational publication, Thida maintains that it is very difficult to run publications because of the strict regulations of the government’s Press Scrutiny Board. “That’s why we have to be very careful,” Thida says. “But we have a very good readership; they can read between the lines and have very strong imaginative power. That is why my presentation will be about my magazine: how we reflect the voices of the ordinary youths and how ‘Teen’ pages become bridges between the youth in urban and rural areas of Burma.”
Because they are all editors, the visiting artists will also introduce a new writer from home, read a piece of theirs, and discuss their work with the audience. In this way, they can function as editors at the event as well, affecting the content.
Harvard students have also made various contributions to The Living Magazine. Many of the students of Unrue’s class have come up with ideas to help form the event, and it has taken shape through their process of working together. Input from the student population has ranged from fundraising, publicity, and graphic design to actual participation in the event’s presentations.
“The reason that I got involved with the event is that I think very little has been said about censorship in certain totalitarian regimes,” says Ivet A. Bell ’13, who has been working to raise funding and publicity through the Undergraduate Council. Bell recognizes the importance of Unrue’s efforts: “She’s trying to bring students to an event that could perhaps be confined to a literary community, but I hope that it won’t be, and that it will attract the interest of various groups. It really is something worthwhile in the context of human rights.”
The Living Magazine stands as an argument against the countless magazines that are rendered “dead” by the censorship of their governments. Although it may be easy to forget that free speech is in fact a privilege and not a right in many areas of the world today, this stifling reality is something that writers like Mandanipour face as a constant presence. Many have suffered imprisonment in dedicating their lives to fighting for their freedom. In this way, The Living Magazine offers an opportunity for these writers to speak for many of those who cannot.