I was startled when I saw the news come up on my Twitter feed. A young American journalist in Myanmar had been detained and was likely being held in the country’s Insein Prison, notorious for incarcerating political dissidents, infamous for reports of its horrendous human rights violations. I read the story and instantly recognized the journalist. Danny Fenster. Danny is a former student of mine whom I met at Columbia College Chicago in 2009.
I have been a creative writing professor for 16 years. In this time, I have taught hundreds and hundreds of eager creative dreamers, young idealists, experimental upstarts, wild talents, and overachievers on hyperdrive. And, yes, I’ve also taught apathetic slackers just looking to crawl across the finish line, diploma in hand, hoping to appease Mom and Dad. It’s impossible to remember every single student from every class, every semester, every year. But I remember Danny Fenster well.
Danny took my creative nonfiction course in the summer of 2009, the year he graduated from Columbia. There is always something special about a summer class. The enrollment is smaller, which affords more time for individualized instruction. The students who take summer classes are usually motivated to graduate, and work diligently to rack up the necessary credits. The sun and the heat shimmer over the city outside the windows (at least at Columbia’s urban campus), while a small group of summer writers sit in the shade of the air-conditioned classrooms crafting stories, and finding a bond and connection. Danny’s class was no different.
Danny Fenster was from Huntington Woods, Michigan, a suburb outside of Detroit. He was a journalism major taking my course within the creative writing program. We wrote essays, criticism, rants, memoir chapters, and personal narratives. We also read a wide range of published creative nonfiction books and excerpts. Danny was totally engaged in the class.
He was a lanky young guy, bespectacled, with a tousle of choppy brown hair often covered by a hat. He made an impression immediately. Danny was eager, curious, energetic, empathetic, funny, humble, and willing to approach the craft of nonfiction writing in new ways. Good writers are lifelong learners. That was Danny Fenster. No instructor forgets a student with these attributes.
Danny worked for a number of media outlets after graduating from Columbia and, three years ago, his career path led him to Myanmar. Since August 2020, he has worked for the independent news magazine Frontier Myanmar as its managing editor. He lives in the city of Yangon with his wife.
In February, Myanmar went through a violent military coup, and the new regime detained democratically elected leaders and clamped down on journalists and news organizations. Mass protests ensued, with reports of hundreds of civilians killed and thousands imprisoned. It is this unlawful overthrow of a democratically elected government that former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn recently endorsed, stating, “. . . it should happen here.”
On Monday, May 24, Danny entered the Yangon International Airport. He had planned to fly home to Michigan to surprise his family, but before he could board the plane he was detained by authorities.
“Danny is like a tumbleweed,” said Danny’s brother, Bryan Fenster, by telephone from his home in Huntington Woods. “He travels with a backpack and that’s pretty much it. He made it all the way through security, made it all the way to the gate, had his PPE on—I guess they require everyone to wear a full gown and everything—and was minutes from boarding the plane and I think they tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Come with us.'”
Since Danny’s arrest, Bryan has completely recalibrated his life as a father of two and an owner of a video production business to focus full-time on securing his brother’s safe release. “I believe that international law states that within 72 hours, an embassy needs access to their national,” said Bryan. “But there has been no contact.”
Bryan Fenster has worked closely alongside his local representative Congressman Andy Levin. “He has basically become an extension of our family at this point, we talk that much.” He also adds that the State Department has been working diligently and they are communicating by Zoom sometimes multiple times per day. He has confidence that our government is doing everything it possibly can to secure his brother’s safe release.
Bryan has launched a website to help raise awareness, and organized and promoted a MoveOn.org petition, which has tens of thousands of signatures of support.
But still, Bryan waits. He waits for some contact, some word about his brother.
Danny Fenster is, of course, emblematic of a much larger, more ominous trend. The assault on a free press and the silencing of truth. In the summer of ’09, when Danny took my class, we talked about the late American author Ray Bradbury. I am Bradbury’s longtime authorized biographer. He wrote, of course, many works across literature and media, but he’s best known for his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, a science fiction musing on totalitarianism, fascist rule, and the proliferation of technology in our lives and its anti-intellectual implications.
There is no doubt, the current war on journalism is real and marching forward. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international nonprofit that defends the rights of journalists to safely report the news without fear of reprisal, there were 274 journalists imprisoned worldwide in 2020. CPJ also reports that at least 40 journalists have been detained in Myanmar since the coup took place.
On March 9, Nathan Maung, another American journalist, was detained in Myanmar and transferred to Insein Prison, where Danny is thought to be held. Unlike Danny, Nathan was formally charged with a crime (the dissemination of information or “fake news,” a charge the military has used to target the press) and his condition and whereabouts were, at the very least, confirmed. And then, in an unexpected twist, on June 14, the charges were dropped. Nathan was released and deported to the United States. This news gives hope to the Fenster family, and is hopefully a harbinger of good news for Danny.
Even so, if all of this sounds precariously close to a dystopian novel, frankly, we are already living it, folks. This is Fahrenheit 451.
Just look at the rash of recent, profoundly troubling incidents and assaults on press freedoms around the world, and on journalists like Danny Fenster. And to all this, add the dizzying and intentional “fake news” accusations buzzing about as a means to confuse and befuddle the consumers of news—all of us. This is all directly from the fascist playbook: A Belarus fighter jet forcing an Irish passenger jet to divert and land in order to remove a dissident journalist; a Los Angeles Times freelancer being detained and strip-searched (notes, recorder, and phone confiscated) in Minnesota for covering a protest against the construction of an oil pipeline; a Russian freelance reporter for Radio Free Europe beaten by unidentified masked men; Nigerian authorities outlawing the use of Twitter. This is all intended as a way to intimidate and silence those who dare speak truth to power. This is why Danny Fenster is now enduring a dystopian nightmare. He delivers truth and he must be released, now.
I’m grateful for that summer, in 2009, at Columbia College, when my path crossed with Danny Fenster’s. I’m proud of the journalist he became, working to illuminate truth in a time where many hope to douse the light.
Ray Bradbury used to tell me often, “Without the truth, without education, our citizens will be uninformed and can no longer participate in democracy.”
It seems this would be the goal of many. v