Three Exiled Writers on Censorship and its Nuances

Photo: illustration by alexander laurent rubalcava for The Yale Globalist


By Kinnia Cheuk


From Florida governor Ron DeSantis to Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, authorities around the world have been censoring literary publications to further their political agendas. Authors who create under authoritarian governments, in particular, face significant challenges in making their voices heard. 

For twenty years, Homeira Qaderi had been free to speak and write in Afghanistan. Her most recent memoir and first book translated into English, Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son, was published in 2020 and chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best nonfiction books of 2020. Prior to that, she had already established herself as a prolific Afghan writer with six other critically acclaimed books, even being awarded the Malalai Medal for exceptional bravery by the Afghan president in 2018. This, however, was all before the Taliban returned to power in 2021, banning women from publishing and higher education. Recalling harrowing memories of her teenage life under previous Taliban rule more than 20 years ago, she left Afghanistan and arrived in the United States with her son in 2022. 

In 2016, Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for violating public decency by including “vulgar” material in his third book, The Use of Life, an excerpt of which was published in the journal Akhbar al-Adab. The same year, PEN America honored him with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, recognizing his struggle in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. After serving ten months in prison, a retrial overturned Naji’s original sentence and replaced imprisonment with a fine instead. Upon the lifting of his travel restrictions, he left Egypt in 2018. Naji settled in Las Vegas, where he wrote Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (2020), a memoir detailing his career as a novelist and his time in prison. Although his work is still published and sold in Egyptian bookstores, an attempted return home would almost definitely result in his arrest. 

Mohsen Emadi, a poet and filmmaker from Iran, was forced into exile due to his open support of the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests. Since then, he has left a global footprint through his translations, poetry collections, and his collaborative Persian anthology of world poetry translations, The House of World Poets. Emadi was the recipient of the International Network of Cities for Refugee Writers Scholarship and the International Poetic Fund’s Poets of Other Worlds Distinction in 2015. On his trilingual website sits a quote from Turkish poet İlhan Berk: “All the colors of poetry come from hell. Todos los colores de la poesía surgen del infierno.” 

In February, I had the privilege of speaking with these Greater Middle Eastern writers, who so generously shared their experiences and thoughts with me. Here are their vastly different stories, linked by the shadow of exile, a love for writing, and a refusal to let others determine what they write and how they live.



What happens to a writer whose works are censored in their home country, where their words are needed most urgently? How does one hold onto a sense of purpose when writing in exile?

Qaderi admits that she feels lost right now. “These days, I am writing and editing and editing. But sometimes I sit and ask myself, ‘Who is my audience?’ It’s not easy to answer.” With her agents in the U.S., she is currently searching for a publisher for her upcoming book; before the protests in Iran, she was working on publishing a collection of short stories there. She voices her frustration: both of her previous ventures in sharing her work with international audiences have been unable to satisfy her desire to have her “own audience” in Afghanistan. Even so, she continues to write not only to advocate for Afghan women’s freedom, but also to depict her experiences of grief and resistance as a woman of the world. So far, she has succeeded—she has received countless heartwarming notes  from international readers, especially women, about how Dancing in the Mosque has touched them deeply, even with its very culturally specific context.

While Qaderi finds joy in reaching further corners of the world, Emadi emphasizes that external reception of his work is not a major concern of his—to him, poetry is as necessary as air. “If writing is not there,” he says, “then I am not alive.” However, Emadi also laments that censorship prevents his story from reaching other people, obstructing the “sharing of truths” in a community. Even as he finds meaning and heals himself through writing, he is aware that without a community of readers, he would be trapped in puzzling, lonely isolation.

Like Emadi, Naji does not write for a specific group of people. His connection to the Arabic community still exists, but he is also looking to grow roots in the American literary community by publishing fiction and nonfiction work in English. “I don’t write for Egyptians only. I write for the reader who is looking to create meaning out of his life, who likes books which force them to ask questions and change their mind.” In his works, he constantly challenges the concept of nationalism, which, according to him, is a dangerous delusion that causes people to kill one another “over a piece of fabric,” a flag. Literature resists this delusion, he says—he writes to connect people beyond national boundaries and religious categories.



Discussions of state censorship often revolve around its detrimental impacts on readers and the dissemination of knowledge in society. This means that its effects on writers themselves, who create under suppression, have been less widely explored. How have they navigated and resisted the landmines of censorship throughout their writing?

After the Taliban first seized Afghanistan in 1996, Qaderi first experienced the regime’s iron censorship when she tried to publish a story in Herat’s literary paper for the first time. Originally, she wanted to write about her best friend’s self-immolation and her sadness of being trapped indoors as a woman under Taliban rule. But for her piece to be published amidst the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s writing, her narrator had to be a teenage boy. “Writing my grief from the perspective of a boy was the most difficult story I ever wrote,” Qaderi says. The story was eventually published under her name, which put her family in danger—the Taliban even threatened to flog her. Yet, as the Taliban continued to destroy women’s lives, she continued to write and resist in other ways. She hosted literature classes for girls in her house, news of which spread through the neighborhood by little girls playing on the street. At the same time, she practiced writing with a few friends under complete confidentiality. Everyone thought they were sewing. 

Qaderi’s own writing and her activism for Afghan women is inseparable. “My weapon is my pen,” she repeats over and over again in our conversation. Her bravery comes with extreme grief. When the Taliban conquered Herat and all the women had to remain indoors, Qaderi developed the habit of exchanging letters with three of her friends through their brothers. She lost all of them when they set themselves on fire to protest the system. Her six-year-old brother asked her, “When is your turn?” Qaderi’s “turn” never came, she smiles and tells me, because she was saved by her pen. To her, writing is a personal matter—but it is also everything that she can do for her country. “Sometimes I think that a lot of wishes came with me to the U.S. from Afghanistan, and when I want to give up I say to myself, ‘A lot of girls from Afghanistan are looking at you. If you give up it means that all the girls will give up.’” Her motivation to continue comes from her knowledge that writing will help the younger generation, just as it helped her twenty years ago. This is why, after Afghanistan was taken by the Taliban for the second time in 2021, she founded the Golden Needle literary circle and started to teach creative writing to students in Afghanistan. Iowa University’s International Writing Department provides certificates to students who complete each course. The existence of the Golden Needle classes is not a secret—the organization has a robust presence on Facebook and Twitter, including pictures taken in class. “Our boys and girls are not afraid of the Taliban,” says Qaderi, “We want to show the Taliban that science and art cannot be removed from society.”

Unlike Qaderi, Emadi asserts that he is not a political poet. His activism comes from his responsibility as a citizen and a simple sense of empathy, but his writing evades any sort of political categorization. “I don’t write because of social change or anything like that. My main audience is the language itself.” Beyond politics, he says, poetry challenges everything, including his sense of citizenship, his belonging in society, and his familial relations. Emadi’s path of resistance was an unconventional one back then: in Iran’s early days of the internet, he was one of the pioneers of the Persian web. He helped set up one of the first Persian Unicode websites for another writer who was experiencing heavy censorship. “We were not even able to name his name in public, it was forbidden.” Emadi obtained all the rights of the writer’s works in the digital world and posted his forbidden poems online. Although the internet was a relatively safe ground back then, he quickly realized that the team would be willing to go to jail for the website. “There is a pleasure in helping someone be discovered and be heard,” Emadi says.

Naji had been acutely aware of Egypt’s looming cloud of censorship ever since he was a child. At nine years old, he saw in the televised news that Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, was stabbed several times in the neck by Islamic militants in Cairo. “When I turned to my grandfather and asked ‘Why did this happen?’, he told me, ‘Well, because he wrote.’” Realizing the risks of writing and expression early on, Naji grew up conscious of the dangers that crossing the “red line” would bring. As he started to produce and publish his own work, he learned how to navigate these deep waters. At times, he tried to frame his ideas in sentences that would please everyone; at times, he used metaphors and allegories to mask his criticism. But at this moment, he says, he doesn’t care very much about the consequences of writing. “Everything that could happen has already happened to me. I went to prison. I’m in exile. I left my country.” To survive the brutal waves of censorship, then, is also to emerge with an unwavering fearlessness.

Apart from authors themselves, translators of foreign literature have also devised methods to resist censorship. Bezhan Pazhohan, a visiting scholar at Yale under the Macmillan Center’s Council on Middle East Studies, discussed his research on censorship evasion in literary translation with me. “A translation may bypass censorship laws if a translator publishes their work in another country, which then reaches the audience through an underground market,” Pazhohan says. Nabokov’s Lolita, translated by Akram Pedramnia, is a prime example—it was first published in Afghanistan, a country with less restrictions on content, then gradually made its way to Iran through an illegal bookselling market. 



Western understandings of censorship are often limited to authoritarian governments, but in reality, censorship is not confined to one region nor regime. What if one chooses to leave a place of suppression, only to find oneself silenced once more in “the land of the free”? What about all the times we stopped ourselves from saying what we truly mean?

Censorship exists in different dimensions: it may be imposed by the state, by societal culture, or by oneself. Emadi recalls a year of “feeling dead” in his twenties, during which he felt that he could not write anymore. He attributes this to an embedded fear of how his words would be perceived. Learning to write again was a matter of tearing down the barrier between his true feelings and the page. One day, when it was raining heavily, Emadi took out a piece of paper and started writing out of nowhere. As he filled up the page, he was completely unconscious of what the finished piece would look like. “My mind was not aware to tell me, ‘No, don’t write this.’” The complete dissolution of self-assessment helped Emadi rediscover his voice.

Self-censorship is often inextricable from cultural expectations. For Naji, writing is a way to push against internalized social norms. A man’s admission of shame is often looked down upon in Egyptian society, but Naji garners the courage to write about his shameful moments because he believes that digging deep inside himself and confronting his own censorship will allow him to truly connect with others around him.

Within the sociopolitical realm, Emadi and Qaderi both bring up “political correctness” as one of the most prominent forms of censorship in the U.S. Poetry and literature belong to a sphere separate from politics, Emadi explains, within which everything is allowed: “Every way of human imagination opens the frontiers, we have to celebrate that in the first place.” Meanwhile, Qaderi’s experience with political correctness as censorship is personal. Once, she sent her article to an American newspaper, in which she wrote that the U.S. surrounded the people of Afghanistan, just like the Taliban did. One of Qaderi’s agents told her that it was better to exclude the sentiment from the piece, because she was already living in America then. Qaderi was shocked. “They always say that this, the U.S.A., is the land of freedom. I don’t want to have the freedom to take a gun and kill people. I just want to say the truth.”



To Qaderi, Naji, and Emadi, writing is more than an act of resistance against the  governments of their home countries—it is also their attempt to push against narrow, Western perspectives of their culture and their people.

The true stories of Afghanistan, especially those of women, remain untold. Qaderi is frustrated with the way politicians and media outlets outside of Afghanistan manipulate Afghan history to suit their own narratives. She recalls listening to one of Biden’s announcements regarding the pulling out of American troops in 2021, in which he declared that the people of Afghanistan never fought for themselves, but relied only on American troops to do so—the pain she felt was immeasurable. Narratives of Afghan women are even more reductive; in almost every Western depiction of Afghan women, they create an image of a helpless victim, one that cannot do anything for herself. 

But as an ordinary Afghan woman, Qaderi fought by writing. She has seen first-hand how hard these women fight against oppression. She has made it her mission to show how Afghans have been defending themselves over the past few decades, to push back against the uninformed stories circulating outside of Afghanistan. “We have results from the fighting. I am a woman in a Pashtun family. My sister and I both went to university. Maybe our fighting wasn’t enough. But we’re trying again.”

Similarly, Emadi’s Iran is a vibrant, diverse picture that is often flattened by Western perspectives. He traveled to 166 villages all over Iran; he met many wonderful poets from Afro-Iran in the southern side of the country; he speaks and writes poems in Mazandarani, a minority language—all of his experiences embody facets of Iranian life left unreflected in mainstream American media coverage. “It suits them to show Iran as a very poor country in trouble and misery, so they just take that part of you and present it.” Emadi does not negate the necessity of displaying, or “crying out,”the pain that Iranians have. Writing about the pain is part of the process of analyzing it historically, curing it emotionally, and exploring the solution to it. But one-dimensional suffering is not all there is to Iranians. There also exists a great diversity of food, poetry, language, and music. “I do not mean to romanticize Iran, to beautify what is not beauty, but the accurate image of it is very important, and through my writing, that exists.”



Qaderi, Naji, and Emadi have hammered out their own paths of resistance through the fires of censorship and suppression. Through their relentless commitment to writing, they show us what it means to be free—to have the courage to be truthful to ourselves, and to the world.

“Even from the darkness of this dungeon, I look forward to the day when a blue sky will unfurl its bright and beautiful horizons,” writes Qaderi in Dancing in the Mosque. “Nobody is going to give us this blue sky for free. We must take it by and for ourselves.” 

Kinnia Cheuk is a first-year in Timothy Dwight College and can be reached at