Soon after I finished high school, a math teacher sent me a graduation card and a photocopy of Adrienne Rich’s poem about Marie Curie, women, liberation, and survival, “Power,” from The Dream of a Common Language. Over the past 20 years, Rich has become a part of my daily life. I always carry a book of hers with me when I leave home. Sometimes I select a weighty collection, such as The Fact of a Doorframe, and sometimes a slim volume of poems. Reading and rereading her poetry is one of the ways I make sense of the fractures and possibilities in love, life, and struggle for social change.
As a university student, I became interested in labor solidarity between North American and Southeast Asian feminists. In graduate school, my activist interest in labor solidarity turned into an academic focus on how people resist state repression in Thailand. Adrienne Rich, not the canonical (mostly male) writers in Southeast Asian studies, remains the author I turn to most often. Her writing on silence, freedom, and memory informs how I think about Thai political history. As I trace the impunity of state violence over the past 80 years in Thailand, Rich’s admonition that silence is not an absence but “a presence/it has a history a form” is foremost in my mind.
For these reasons, whenever I have an extra hour, I walk across Radcliffe Yard from Byerly Hall to visit Adrienne Rich’s papers in the Schlesinger Library. After reading her journals from her four years at Radcliffe, I see Brattle Street in a new way. The letters from her readers make me feel as though I have joined a sisterhood for whom her work is a form of sustenance.
But when I saw the folder labeled “Natalya Gorbanevskaya,” my interest sharpened. Gorbanevskaya was a Russian poet who was confined in a psychiatric prison from December 1969 to February 1972 for protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In December 1975, she was able to leave Russia for France, and she lived in France and Poland until her death in November 2013. In 1968 Rich wrote the poem “For a Russian Poet” about Gorbanevskaya. It begins with the solidarity of living under a shared sky and the fragility of justice. Then Rich describes the 1968 protest and the certainty of arrest for Gorbanevskaya. She writes, “I’m a ghost at your table/touching poems in a script I can’t read/we’ll meet each other later.”
What I did not realize is that Gorbanevskaya was not only the subject of one of Adrienne Rich’s poems, but also her friend. In 1973 Rich began trying to help Gorbanevskaya leave Russia and to circulate her poetry in English translation. Letters went back and forth among Rich, Gorbanevskaya’s friends in Italy and Switzerland, and various support networks for writers facing repression in the Soviet Union. Rich made handwritten notes, often on the backs of envelopes, about the practical details of issuing an invitation for Gorbanevskaya to come to the United States, dealing with the authorities for permission to leave Russia, and determining appropriate travel routes to safety.
But it is the correspondence between the two women that made me acutely aware of the possibility of solidarity across space and experience. A Western Union telegram from Gorbanevskaya to Rich, dated May 13, 1974, said, “poluchila telgrammu teper jdu priglasheniia nadeius na wstrechu celuiu.” On the thin yellow paper, the English translation is written with an olive marker: “I got your telegram, am waiting for your invitation, hope we’ll meet soon, I kiss you. N.” On June 12, 1974, Rich wrote her a letter explaining that a formal invitation was in process, but until then, “Your photo is on the wall over my desk and I look at it often when I work. I think of how it will be to see you really, to hear you read your poems, which even in translation I love so much.” The folder does not reveal whether or when Natalya Gorbanevskaya was able to come to the United States, but in an essay published in late 1975 in Caryatid magazine, Rich notes that she finally left the Soviet Union for France.
After the coup on May 22, 2014, Thailand’s 12th since 1932 and the end of the absolute monarchy, both unbridled state power and impunity in its abuse became acute. The arrest of writers, intellectuals, and theater performers who question authority—and concern about how dissidents inside the country can remain safe and out of jail—are part of the present-day context for my writing of this history. Reading Adrienne Rich’s papers, particularly her notes about and letters to Natalya Gorbanevskaya, reminds me that this kind of work must continue, even when the inability to stem repression threatens to feel devastating.
In my next letter to the former teacher (now friend) who introduced me to Rich’s work, I will write about the friendship between Rich and Gorbanevskaya and the urgency and lessons I still find in her writing after 20 years.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a 2014–2015 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, where she conducts research on state violence, human rights, and dissident cultural politics in Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand. She is affiliated with the Australian National University, where she’s a fellow in the Department of Political and Social Change.