Author Interviews


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Free people read freely. That's the slogan of the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, which is this week - coming up.

And then there's this. On the other side of every banned book is a banned writer. An organization called Cities of Refuge is taking in some of those writers hoping to buoy them from hostile homelands to life and work in a U.S. city. One of these cities is Ithaca, New York, where Bridget Meeds runs the local organization, and she joins us from the studios as Cornell University.

Bridget Meeds, thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. BRIDGET MEEDS (Ithaca Cities of Asylum, Ithaca, New York): Thank you.

SEABROOK: What do you do for these banned writers that you take in?

Ms. MEEDS: Cornell offers each writer a half-time salary and full benefits, including health insurance. And our local community organization Ithaca City of Asylum offers a housing stipend and enormous amounts of friendship to each writer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: What do you mean by enormous amounts of friendship? What does that translate to?

Ms. MEEDS: More dinner invitations than the writer perhaps enjoys. And we help move furniture if needed. We've helped writers get their children enrolled in schools. The various car troubles, learning - you know, just things you need to know when you're getting to know a new town. And it's nice to have a group of 15 or so friends you can call.

SEABROOK: There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of banned writers around the world. How do you choose? I understand there's an application process for the writers, but then how do you choose among them?

Ms. MEEDS: Well, we work with our parent organization, the North American Network of Cities of Refuge. They give us a few portfolios of writers. And we look at them and try to think about who we could best help with the services we have in Ithaca and the community we have in Ithaca. Our first writer was Yi Ping of China. He's a poet. And our second writer was Reza Daneshvar, who's a playwright from Iran. And now, we're hosting Sarah.

SEABROOK: Sarah Mkhonza from Swaziland.

Ms. MEEDS: Yes.

SEABROOK: And tell us about why you chose her and her work.

Ms. MEEDS: Hmm. Sarah is a feminist writer, and she's focused on working-class women in Swaziland. And Ithaca has a very big feminist-writing community, and we thought that she would find not only a wonderful home at Cornell and the Africana Center but also in the community she'd find a lot of likeminded people who could support the facet of her writing that is most important to her.

SEABROOK: And Sarah Mkhonza is with you.

Ms. MEEDS: Yes, she is.


Dr. SARAH MKHONZA (Writer, Swaziland; Member, Cities of Refuge): Hello.

SEABROOK: Hi, there. It's good to speak with you.

Dr. MKHONZA: It's good to speak with you, too.

SEABROOK: What were you banned for?

Dr. MKHONZA: What actually happened is that I was just attacked. My office was attacked and my things were thrown out of my office in the woods, and then it became impossible to stay there. It's not like I was banned as such. I was just attacked.

SEABROOK: You were attacked?


SEABROOK: Tell me what you wrote exactly.

Dr. MKHONZA: I used to be a journalist and wrote articles in the paper. In Swaziland, I was writing about the evictions. People were evicted from their homes and then they were thrown on the mountainside, and the Red Cross, you know, put up tents for them to stay - maybe about seven families. And this was a rainy season so it was just a cruel act - the use of force by the government on the people over an issue of land and who should be their chief. The people had their own chief but the government felt that another person should be a chief, one of the princes.

Swaziland is a monarchy so the king and the princes, they have more power than the people. Some of these families died and they were not allowed to be buried in their family grounds. It just caused terrible stress for them.

SEABROOK: In Swaziland where these evictions were going on, would someone else have written these stories, if you hadn't?

Dr. MKHONZA: No. People were not writing in the same manner. Like journalists would just report the police went and kicked somebody out. But when you write and try to show the injustice of the issues, and I'd think when people can take home something and read it, and see that there's injustice in what has been done. You hadn't seen over there as someone who's inciting them.

SEABROOK: What is your time in Ithaca now? You've been there about a year and a half, I guess.


SEABROOK: And you've been teaching at Cornell as well, correct?

Dr.. MKHONZA: Yes.

SEABROOK: What has that given you that time?

Dr. MKHONZA: It has given me time to write. I've been able to write a memoir and also write a book about the evictions. And I've been able to write three novels and poetry, which is something that I really like to do, as well as teach.

SEABROOK: Three novels and poetry and teach in a year?

Dr. MKHONZA: Yeah.

SEABROOK: My goodness.

Dr. MKHONZA: I've written drafts. I can write - like write and finish.

SEABROOK: That's it.

Dr. MKHONZA: I just told myself I want to start the creative process so that I can look back at this time and say I used it well.

SEABROOK: It's been a pleasure and a privilege to talk to you, Sarah Mkhonza.

Dr. MKHONZA: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Bridget Meeds runs the Ithaca, New York, chapter of Cities of Refuge, also called Ithaca City of Asylum. And Sarah Mkhonza is the writer-in-residence there.

Thank you so much.

Ms. MEEDS: Thank you, Andrea.

Dr. MKHONZA: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Before I could let her go, I persuaded Sarah Mkhonza to read an excerpt from one of her stories. This is from "Where Was Manandi(ph) Last Night?"

Dr. MKHONZA: (Reading) It was in the small hours of the morning and she could see the light through the cracks in the walls of the hut. She looked at the place where the (unintelligible) met the wall and confirmed that it was surely daybreak. Makodikodik(ph) stretched out on the mat, still hoping that she was dreaming. She could not believe it. Manandi had not come home. She wondered what had happened to him. It had been a long night. Each time the dogs had barked, she thought Manandi would walk inside the hut, ready to go to bed.

Resolving not to worry, she had tried to go back to sleep and found that she could not. A slow sadness crept into her thoughts. It made a wish that there was somebody she could tell. Even the loneliness would be better, she said to herself. (Unintelligible) fill the emptiness of the hut, laughing at her and pulled the blanket under her high chin.

There had been times when Manandi had taken her to a medicine man because of her inability to conceive. This is no reason to give up and disrespect me by sneaking out, she said out loud, tears flooding her eyes. It was difficult to stop herself from thinking. What is sleep when you are sleeping alone?

SEABROOK: Writer Sarah Mkhonza, reading from her story "Where Was Manandi Last Night?"

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