Last night we had a meeting of the Salon, a small slice of a large group of Toronto women writers who share a literary listserve and contacts. About fifteen of us had gathered at Nathalie Foy’s house, who hosted and and put forward the discussion topic—thoughts on the minature—miniature forms as opposed to larger ones, the miniature as it meets art in daily life and vice versa, the uses in art of quotidian life. She talked about an article she'd read in the Guardian which describes a new exhibit of rare and precious eighteenth century textiles that came from an unlikely source: foundling hospitals in England. Small cloth mementoes survived from these hospitals, bits of ribbon, sewn hearts—the only identification left for children who would be renamed after their desperate mothers left them. The hospital staff assured the women that these momentoes would be carefully preserved (and in fact they were.) The woman, for her part,would keep a corresponding piece of cloth, the same colours or design, that would act as proof, if she came to reclaim her child, that she was indeed the birth mother. Of over 16,000 babies and children left during a twenty year period, only 153 were reclaimed. Tens of thousands of babies were dropped off at foundling hospitals in Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
It’s a painful irony: these mementoes are now considered the richest source of eighteenth century textile history in Britain, perhaps in the world, at least as history pertains to the working classes. The clothes of the rich have been preserved, but those who lived in poverty disappeared. The mementoes left behind by these women revealed the kind of materials poor people wore, the way they were woven, the dyes used, etc.
The miniature is, obviously, in all our lives, the small rituals and realities of day to day existence; and any poet or short story writer (or biologist, for that matter) knows the crucial value of the small, necessary detail and the world that it illuminates.
The miniature—a woman’s hair clip, a ribbon, a little bottle of lotion, a button—contains irrefutable evidence of a whole life, and sometimes (as at the foundling hospital a continent away) is the only trace left of those who went before, those were not permitted or did not know how to use words to tell their stories.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and I also brought up Lydia Cacho, a Mexican human rights activist who has done exactly that for a silenced constituency of people in her country: children who were the victims of a pornography ring in Cancun. Cacho has published eight books on various subjects, most recently on the human trafficking in Latin America, but she is most famous, and most threatened because of her book Demonios del Eden, an expose of the rich, powerful politicos involved in child pornography in Mexico.
The CBC broadcast about Lydia Cacho is in the 3rd section of the podcast. Once you click on it and it begins you should be able to scroll through to about the middle where the interview beginsWe wanted to see if some women in the Salon would be interested in advocating for Lydia Cacho, and for another as-yet-unnamed imprisoned woman writer. PEN Canada is helping us out to find an imprisoned writer.
So I (and hopefully others) will start blogging/talking about/writing letters—to Cacho herself, to her organization, to the Mexican authorities, both in an attempt to raise Lydia’s profile in Canada as an activist and writer and to also bring attention to the situation of threatened writers and writers in prison. We don’t really know what this kind of small A activism will do, what effect it will have, but it will be good to work in a group of people. I know that writers in prison do depend on the support of people in organizations like Amnesty and PEN, but I also know that we are all busy and results-oriented. Sometimes in situations like this, you send off your letters and never know what happens to them, never know whether they have any effect or not. Hmm. Let’s see.
I’ve already written directly to Lydia—which I’ll post in the next few days--but I know how busy she must be. Well. no. I don’t really. I can barely imagine what it must be like to be an activist writer on that level. After Demons of Eden was published, Lydia was abducted by the police, raped, and threatened with death. Because of the speedy response to her abduction by Amnesty and PEN (and because her abduction was recorded by her co-workers) her kidnappers had to set her free. Lydia has chosen to remain in Mexico to keep fighting and writing on behalf of women and children, despite repeated threats to her life.
One of most useful things we as writers can do is to continue to remind the Mexican authorities that people outside of Mexico care about Lydia Cacho and her work. We can also write to her and her colleagues to encourage them in their work. I want to find out more about her centre; more about what’s happening there now on the ground. Great irony: I’ve never been to Mexico. Some years back I corresponded w/ Marisela Ortiz, of La Cuidad Juarez, who runs Bring Our Daughters Home. Lydia has also written in her books about the hundreds of young factory workers who have disappeared from Juarez and Chihuahua . . . Sometimes their tortured, sexually mutilated bodies are found in the desert, but as international human rights organizations have become more involved in hunting for their killers, often the bodies themselves are now disappeared or burned away with acid. This is the fate of HUNDREDS of women who are stuck in crappy factories making shirts and cars and plastic shit for Americans (and rich Mexicans, it must be added). The drug violence in Juarez has overshadowed these horrific murders. Violence against women is an accepted aspect of much of Mexican culture, but this is violence on a scale that is hard to fathom—it is a scale of power, after all, with psychopaths behind it. It’s the governors, the policemen, the supposed protectors who are often the worst abusers. AI and other rights organizations know that policemen or army militia are involved in the sexual murders in Juarez . . .
The mind reels, and shies away, but the mind also wants to understand, to know, to do. Kathryn and I have decided to see where getting involved in this will take us, and to document our engagement through our blogs.
We’ve invited members of the Salon to join us in doing this. Next Salon meeting we’re going to talk about another woman, this time one in prison, more invisible and silenced that the brave and still-free Lydia. It is a direct way to use our freedom to help another writer in far less fortunate circumstances. Brendan de Caires of PEN Canada is helping us out with this.
BTW: PEN is a literary organization that does important work. Their membership fee is small, and they are always happy to take on new members. PEN has gone through some tough financial times recently, but I think what the organization needs most are members who want to make it into a real community of likeminded writers who care. Does that sound hokey? Well, get over yourself! I was at an Amnesty International letter writing ‘party’ recently—to celebrate AI’s anniversary—and it was SO not hokey. On AI anniversary, hundreds of thousands of letters were written all over the world on behalf of prisoners of conscience. It is a documented fact that such advocacy saves lives, frees innocent people, and also brings traces—mementoes, if you will--of joy into miserable places.www.pencanada.ca