January 5, 2018
Cameroonian writer Patrice Nganang, jailed for dissident speech, has been released from custody and returned to the United States
by Simon Reichley
Novelist and writer Patrice Nganang, who was detained by the Cameroonian government in early December, has been released from custody and deported to the United States, according to Joel Kouam, writing for the Associated Press.
PEN America first disclosed the author’s disappearance on December 7th, reporting that Nganang had been abducted that day from the Douala airport, presumably for an interview he had given to the magazine Jeune Afrique, in which he indirectly criticized Cameroonian president Paul Biya. According to PEN, the critique was directed towards the ongoing separatist protests and military crackdowns in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.
After being asked by the interviewer what united and divided the Cameroonian people, Nganang gave this response:
What unites the people is also the tragedy of its history, which makes it a common destiny. Each of us should therefore be concerned about the teleology of violence that is taking shape step by step in the skeleton of the Cameroonian state. I want to talk about this tendency of the state to turn against a part of its population to assert itself at their expense. This creates an intimate fear which, if it keeps the people under a perpetual sword of Damocles, makes for them a padlocked future that frightens.
According to the PEN report, writers and intellectuals are frequently jailed for critiquing the Cameroonian government’s human rights record. According to Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America, speaking at the time of Nganang’s arrest, “Detaining an important independent voice like Patrice Nganang, who has used his writing to investigate the consequences of violence, is indicative of a movement by the government to silence all political criticism and dismantle the right to free expression.”
Nganang, who teaches comparative literature at Stony Brook, had a novel—Mount Pleasant —published last year by FSG. As is sometimes the case, being a high-profile author, teaching at a high-profile university, with a high-profile publisher came in handy. Jonathan Galassi, publisher at FSG, told Publishers Weekly, “As a result of his vocal engagement and advocacy…Nganang is currently being held in a maximum security prison, without possibility of bail, awaiting a hearing now scheduled for January 19th. We at FSG are extremely concerned about Patrice Nganang’s situation, and join PEN America, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others in calling for his immediate release and safe return to his family.”
Whether or not this was the deciding factor, it’s good to see the literary community band together to protect one of their own. Nganang himself was a vocal advocate for Enoh Meyomesse, another Cameroonian writer who in 2011 unsucessfully challenged Biya’s thirty-year term as president, and was subsequently jailed. After similar pressure from PEN America and others, Meyomesse was freed in 2015. During his imprisonment, he spoke powerfully of the bond of solidarity that exists between writers and poets across the world, and of how necessary that kind of support was during his time in jail. Of PEN’s advocacy, he said that it reminded him that “there exists another family—perhaps even more important—a literary family, a family of novelists and poets like me, which is always beside me and will never abandon me.”
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.