The Day of the Imprisoned Writer was started by PEN International in 1981 to recognize authors who face repression and imprisonment for their work. It has been observed on 15 November every year since then. This year, one of members of the project – Nicklas Hållén – was invited to participate in a public talk with the Ethiopian-Swedish activist and poet Caalaa Hayiluu Abaataa, organized by the Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies and Det Fria Ordets Hus at Café Deluxe in Växjö, Sweden.
Abaataa is a 30 year old former law student from Oromia Regional State who came to Sweden as a political refugee. He came to Sweden from Sudan to which he had when he was reached by rumours that the authorities were going to have him killed for his activism. As a student at Adama University in Oromia Abaataa was involved in community activism and wrote poetry to protest against the repression of the Oromo people by the Ethiopian government. As a poet, Abaataa wrote about Oromo identity and history (in the suppressed Oromo language) as a way to resist the government’s repression of this ethnic community. His activities soon drew the attention of the authorities, and he was arrested several times. Among other places, he was incarcerated at the infamous Maekelawi police station in Addis Abeba, where he was subjected to endless interrogations and torture.
Among other things, Abaataa talked about the absurdity that is an inevitable result of authorities’ attempts to repress poets and authors, when this repression requires literary interpretation. He mentioned, as he has elsewhere, that the interrogators tried to force him to explain what they saw as metaphors in his poems. They tried to force him to explain what the bird represents in a poem where the speaking subject pours out his heart to a parrot. To this, any poet’s natural response is of course that the meaning of a poem that exists somewhere between the poet, the reader and the poem.
Since coming to Sweden, Abaataa has been involved in raising awareness about the repression of writers in Ethiopia and the Oroma protests.