Eric Yip Recommends...

“What use is writing to us now,” wrote Yannis Ritsos during his first days of incarceration on the island of Limnos. Yet Ritsos did write. From October 27, 1948, to June 1, 1950, he scribbled down over 120 poems, later translated by Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley and collected in Diaries of Exile (Archipelago Books, 2013). Despite the asphyxiating routine of imprisonment, Ritsos recorded life’s smallest details: yellow lilies, koulouri, mice gnawing on shoe tips. When he was transferred to the Makronisos concentration camp in 1950, his verse grew terser, more onerous: “unstressed, stressed, strophe, antistrophe / and neither rage nor sorrow.”

Part of the impulse to write originates from an awareness of suffering, personal and collective. Paradoxically, it is that awareness that makes the act of writing seem rather pointless. We live in an age when atrocities accumulate daily. As I read the works of writers who were persecuted, censored, or killed, I am reminded of moments when language is truly at risk, and thus more necessary, more pressing. Guards in Makronisos limited prisoners’ correspondence with the outside world to only ten lines. Under these circumstances, expression is no longer confected nor indulgent. The word express, from Latin premere, to press, but also to compress, repress. The act of printing itself is also an act of pressing.

In an interview about writing in Iran, Sepideh Jodeyri speaks of the use of oblique metaphors to bypass censors. The metaphor’s carrying over becomes a kind of illicit smuggling, a Trojan horse to circumvent the authority’s all-seeing eye. Ritsos writes: “I use metaphors to transport / formerly elsewhere nowhere.” The metaphor is also a means of archival. Of the Baddawi refugee camp, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh writes: “The camp preserves its metaphors in the same way it shields its navel from the seen.”

We build our faith in language from the writings of those who need it most. On every page, in every paging, there is a message that is carried over. It is our duty to receive it.

Eric Yip, author of Exposure (ignitionpress, 2024).

Photo credit: Eric Yip

Please log in to continue.
Don't yet have an account?