Of the writers who died in 2014, here are nine who I admire for their literary output and for their lives spent engaging in the struggles of our times. They will thrill, entertain and enrage us no more, but their work as writers/activists will live on.
Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)
The work: Gabo produced a stunning body of work unrivaled in imaginative scope among 20th century novelists (but see The Word below!) and is the best-known and the greatest proponent of Magical Realism. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. Key works: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera.
The life: Gabo, from Colombia, was a fearless journalist and critic of Latin American dictatorships and U.S. imperialism.
The word: “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)
The work: Gordimer was a South African novelist and short story writer of enormous psychological depth, whose work examines inequality, alienation and race. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Key works: The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter.
The life: She was a white anti-apartheid activist who joined the ANC (African National Congress) when it was an illegal organization and spoke out against the government. When Mandela was released from prison, Gordimer was one of the first people he asked to see.
The word: “Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it forever.”
Simin Behbahani (1927-2014)
The work: Behbahani was one of Iran’s greatest poets. She revived an ancient type of sonnet used by the classical Persian poets, and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2011, President Obama quoted from one of her poems in a message to the Iranian people. Key works: A Cup of Sin: Selected Poems, My Country, I Shall Build You Again.
The life: She was nicknamed the Lioness of Iran for her staunch defence of human rights and women’s rights under the rule of both the Shah and the Islamic Republic. She refused to leave her country despite being persecuted for decades by the authorities, whom she called “my children.”
The word: “We [writers] will be truly honored the day when no writer is in jail, no student is under arrest, when journalists are free and their pens are free.”
Christopher van Wyck (1957-2014)
The work: Poet, novelist, and children’s book writer, van Wyck gave a voice to black South Africans during apartheid. He shot to fame with his utterly brilliant protest poem “In Detention.” His children’s books will keep alive the memories of Mandela and other freedom fighters for the next generations. Key works: It Is Time to Go Home, The Long Walk to Freedom (children’s abridged version).
The life: Born in a coloured township in Johannesburg, van Wyck came to prominence as a protest poet. Apartheid ended but he kept speaking out about corruption and injustice.
The word: “If anybody in the Government had bothered to read The Beautyful Ones… they might understand how corruption can kill the ideals and dreams of freedom that Mandela and thousands of others had fought – and died – for. It seems that the corrupt are too busy stealing and spending to read a book.”
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)
The work: He produced poetry, drama, fiction and essays which sought to tear down the status quo of race relations in the U.S. and beyond. Key works: Blues People, The System of Dante’s Hell.
The life: A controversial figure (accused of misogyny, homophobia and other sins), but a great civil rights activist who fought for black liberation during a time of white supremacy. Early on, he hung out with Kerouac and the Beat Poets, but a trip to Cuba radicalized his vision and politicized his work.
The word: “The artist’s role is to raise the consciousness of the people. To make them understand life, the world, and themselves more completely.”
Siegfried Lenz (1926-2014)
The work: In reckoning with his native Germany’s past, Lenz wrote novels which tackled the themes of history and memory. Key works: The German Lesson, A Minute’s Silence.
The life: Lenz was a member of Gruppe 47, which included Gunther Grass and Heinrich Bolle. The group espoused democratic principles and confrontation with Germany’s Nazi past.
The word: “I learned at an early age that every person is obliged to justify his life. I tried to justify my life … through the books I wrote. From my very first story, I concentrated on an important issue: Can vast political power effect change, and what meaning does that change have for the ordinary, simple folk?”
Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
The work: Known primarily for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou also wrote poetry, essays, and plays, and was at the forefront of African American letters for fifty years. Key works: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now.
The life: Even in her eighties, she made around 80 public appearances a year, speaking out against racism and all forms of oppression.
The word: “It is impossible to struggle for civil rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice, are all like the air: we all have it or none of us has it.”
Fred Branfman (1942-2014)
The work: Branfman, originally an American educational adviser, interviewed thousands of Laotian villagers and ended up exposing the secret U.S. bombing of Laos in the 1960’s. He also wrote prolifically on U.S. policy. Key works: Voices from the Plain of Jars, Life Under the Bombs.
The life: After his exposé of U.S. involvement in Indochina, Branfman turned his attention to numerous causes including militarization of the U.S. police, the surveillance culture, expanded powers of detention, and the use of drones.
The word: “It was as if I had discovered Auschwitz when it was still going on.”
Zhang Xianliang (1936-2014)
The work: Poet and novelist Xianliang was one of the first Chinese authors to write about life in a labor camp. Controversially, he also wrote about sex in his fiction. Key works: Half of Man is Woman, Grass Soup.
The life: Zhang Xianliang was detained in China as a political prisoner for 22 years. The starving prisoners ate lice, rats, leaves, and grass to stay alive. Years later, he claimed to be non-political, but his experiences in labor camps shaped his life and his writing.
The word: “Every thinking person has a choice of three different relationships with the society and politics of his or her country: to participate, to flee, or to transcend.”