February 2010, Volume 14, Number 1

Cultural Spotlight

FCLA offers refuge to persecuted writer

Chenjerai Hove

The right to free expression is one our country’s most important and well-guarded civil liberties. Journalists and writers in the U.S. know that they will not be forcibly silenced even if their views are critical of the government. This is not true in many nations around the world.

Zimbabwe native and author-in-residence at MDC’s Florida Center for the Literary Arts, Chenjerai Hove, was threatened with death and burglarized by police intent on owning his computer and manuscripts.

That wasn’t all: He was accused of being a drug dealer when he refused to write works celebrating government achievements, instead writing a play condemning the mass arrests of women whose sole "crime" was walking alone in the street after dark. He also wrote a novel condemning the continuation of a colonial salary structure that appended the pay of any married woman to that of her husband, effectively denying her money.

Hove has been in exile since 2001, most recently in Norway, where he had been awaiting relocation as part of a program administered by International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). ICORN is "an association of cities and regions around the world dedicated to the value of Freedom of Expression," according to their Web site. The Florida Center for the Literary Arts joined ICORN in 2009, establishing Miami as a City of Refuge with the support of Miami Dade College and a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Hove, who arrives in Miami later this month, will stay for two years, working on a memoir, teaching at Miami Dade College, participating in community literary events, and continuing the journalism he began in Zimbabwe.

"‘Are you still not in prison?’ people used to ask me in the streets after reading some of my newspaper columns," recounts Hove in his essay, "The Burdens of Creativity in Africa – Reflections." "Zimbabwe has been classed as one of the worst countries for the profession of journalism. Country police called it ‘the crime of practicing journalism.’"

Other countries fare even worse. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has called for more action from governments and the United Nations to protect the media in an effort to prevent the current statistics from repeating. According to the IFJ, 137 journalists and media personnel were killed in 2009, with 113 of those being targeted killings. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 136 journalists were jailed last year. Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Central and South America remain the most dangerous places for writers, journalists and reporters to do their work.

The Florida Center’s quest to designate Miami a City of Refuge began during the 2008 Miami Book Fair International. That year, Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott and novelist Russell Banks, both Cities of Refuge North America board members, helped organize an important event. They brought together ICORN Director Helge Lunde and exiled writers Irakli Kakabadze from the Republic of Georgia and Sarah Mkhonza of Swaziland, for a reading and discussion of the program, its benefits and history.

"We are very proud of the outpouring of support we received from our community, from our local government and from the College and the Knight Foundation in the wake of that evening," said Florida Center for the Literary Arts Director Alina Interián. "Miami has already served as refuge to millions of people from all over the world. It just seemed natural to seek this official designation by becoming part of the Cities of Refuge Network. We welcome Chenjerai with open hearts."

— Staff Report

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