The German PEN Center has awarded Gioconda Belli the 2018 Hermann Kesten Prize for defending freedom of speech. One of Latin America’s most important writers, Belli is a former Sandinista revolutionary who is now a critic of the Ortega government.
The following is Belli’s acceptance speech of the award made in Frankfurt, Germany on November 15, 2018.
By Gioconda Belli (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – A simple “thank you” to PEN Germany for this award seems somehow inadequate to me. Sometimes the words in our lexicons fall short of being able to express the emotions we harbor. And in fact, this prize is being awarded to me at very special time in my life and the life of my country.
I like to say that I’m a woman who’s living an extended youth, but the truth is that I’ll soon be seventy. So, as I believe happens to all of us who reach that chronological threshold, we begin to realize that the widest landscapes lie behind us. Without renouncing the lovely sceneries that lie in the future, you feel a certain nostalgia for the past. You wonder if you’ve lived “the virtuous life” that humanity has been trying to define since the time of the Greeks. And there are events beyond our particular selves that bring this question to the forefront of our minds.
For example, at this juncture how can I not ask myself if it was worth it to have given over my youth and a large part of my life to a revolution that I saw as the most beautiful thing that could possibly happen to me? The horror of the events that have occurred in Nicaragua since April 18th, when a citizen protest was violently repressed, doesn’t cease to astonish me.
We’ve seen one of those who led the victory of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 become a tyrant. We’ve witnessed the furor of a ruler who, in defense of his power and with no compassion, orders the killing of 500 or more Nicaraguans in just six months. Seeing the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo imprison young people, and accuse hundreds of terrorism for the crime of marching and protesting; seeing a police force, that for a long time filled us with pride, become the partner of a paramilitary force launched against the population with a license to kill, arrest and torture outside of all law; seeing our constitutional rights plowed under – punishments for doctors who attend to the wounded who oppose the government, prohibiting the right to gather and to demonstrate, conditions that drive thousands of young people to leave the country and go into exile – these things inspire not only grief, but also a chilling questioning.
One wonders if the seed of tyranny and intolerance can’t be eradicated; if it’s that humanity is condemned to live through repeated cycles of violence; if it’s that the generous deaths of so many who believed that a better world was possible have been for nothing.
I won’t resign myself to pessimism, however. What would become of us if we didn’t believe in something? What would have happened to all those people that Hermann Kesten helped to save if he hadn’t done his part? Where would we be if Nelson Mandela had fallen into depression and given up while in jail? I console myself thinking that – despite this present – it wasn’t in vain that my generation fought for their convictions. History teaches us that there’ve always been men and women who saved us from desperation. Just as there are monsters who kill, there are always those who fight for freedom and decency.
My book of defeatism affirms that our expectation of seeing results within our short existences conspires with our psyche, and frequently causes us to lose our tenacity and faith. Because of that, instead of thinking about how tragic it is to see Nicaragua sink under this repression, I prefer to celebrate the rebelliousness of my colleagues, to think that a people who won’t tolerate more dictatorship is a legacy of the revolution.
I prefer to think that it will be given to me – with luck and if I quit smoking – to see another revolution, one that will reinforce instead or annihilating my persistent youth. I repeat an idea that came to me once while reading an essay by the English poet Percy Shelley expressing his disillusionment after the French Revolution. So many illusions, I said then, only to arrive at the Terror, the Empire. Effectively, one hundred years passed from 1789 until the Republic was truly installed in France. Shelley didn’t get to see it; he didn’t have enough time.
We’re living in a difficult era for humanity. The old ways refuse to die, and insist on making a return. It’s anguishing to watch populism triumph in Brazil, see xenophobia and the opposite of our values winning votes in Europe. But this is the worst moment to lose the impulse for change and become depressed. In addition to trusting in the future, we should be working tirelessly to oppose those forces, to inspire the youth, not to pass on to them our skepticism or our dark vision of the present.
Appealing to that optimistic spirit, in the Nicaraguan PEN we’ve continued to work. In addition to denouncing the attacks on journalists, we’ve organized forums on journalism and art in times of crisis, and we’ve held debates on the autonomy of the Atlantic Coast. On November 2nd we organized a tribute to the journalists who had been killed in the region. We’ve tried, above all, to open spaces where we don’t feel alone, where we can mutually foster strength and not allow ourselves to be beaten down by the ferocious repression that we suffer day by day. I should add that PEN Nicaragua has a tireless team of warriors who, from Nicaragua, accompany me in receiving this prize.
My ties with Germany date from the eighties and I owe them principally to that extraordinary character, Hermann Schultz, who I love so much. When he was the editor of Peter Hammer Verlag publishers, he made my poetry and my novel La Mujer Habitada [“The inhabited woman”] known to the German public. I should also thank Lutz Kliche, who has always known and still knows how to translate my novels and poems with their feminine side and also their Nicaraguan side. I treasure Lutz’ friendship and his commitment to Central American literature. I also thank Viola Gabor, with whom I’ve traveled countless kilometers through these lovely lands, in concerts and lectures together with Grupo Sal. She made me love German, because it sounds so beautiful in her way of speaking, and she’s taught me a lot about the noble heart of this country.
I offer my homage to PEN Germany for being a refuge for writers and for this Hermann Kesten Prize that they’ve honored me with; for amazing people like Regula Venske, Joseph Haslinger, Carlos Collado and Nina George, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and all those whom I’ve met in these last few days. A thousand thanks, and let’s continue riding our horses like Quijote, with our pens at the ready.
I end the best way I know how, with a poetry reading together with Viola Gabor.