June 2015 Monthly Letter from
John Ralston Saul, International President
to the PEN membership
July 09, 2015
Dear PEN members, dear Friends,
For many people outside the world of writers, publishers, translators – whether we are writing for books or newspapers, blogs or the screen – it must seem that we lead contradictory lives. We do no more than write and talk, yet more than any other group we are killed and imprisoned.
I thought a lot about this – the power of language – a few weeks ago during the long debates at the Peace Committee meeting in Bled and the Writers in Prison Committee meeting in Amsterdam. The necessarily long debates. Literature and free expression aren’t PowerPoint presentations. Nor are they utilitarian products in search of fast measurements and markets. There are rarely concrete solutions that are guaranteed to get someone out of prison. And yet we do get people out of prison, keep them alive, help them into exile, help them rebuild their lives. We do change the lives of students through literature. We do convince governments to pass laws and to enforce them. And our members, each in their own way, do create literature.
In Bled, part of the debate was over the way in which the writer’s role in society is being changed by technology, by the politics of information and surveillance. There was also a wonderful moment when the poets of the Gorizia region – a small Slovenian minority in Italy – read their work. It was a reminder of the importance of cultural difference unrelated to size or any other form of power.
In Amsterdam, between the examination of country by country free expression issues, there were powerful discussions about how LGBTQI rights are increasingly under attack – discussions led by Pablo Simonetti of PEN Chile, Damir Arsenijevic of PEN Bosnia, Beatrice Lamwaka of PEN Uganda and Babak Salimi Zadeh from Iran.
There were also complex discussions over what people often call the post Charlie Hebdo period, which included the participation of Zineb El Rhazoui, who works with Charlie Hebdo. Once again we had to force ourselves through a debate over hate speech. I say force because there is no easy answer. And those people out there most eager for clear laws on hate speech tend to resemble those who want to use the courts to reduce free expression. In Amsterdam we talked about whether there was a right to offend and whether there could be a right not to be offended. Masha Gessen summarized the situation perfectly: even if there were a right not to be offended, that would not give anyone the right to kill the person who had offended them.
Of course there is no right not to be offended – whether religious or secular. Disagreement has never been comfortable or reassuring. Free speech requires a thick skin.
This meeting was, incidentally, Marian Botsford Fraser’s last WiPC Conference as a strong and effective Chair over the last six years.
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While in Slovenia, I had a good meeting with the President of the Republic, Borut Pahor. Hori Takeaki, Andrei Kurkov, Marjan Strojan outgoing President of Slovenian PEN, Tone Peršak Chair of the Writers for Peace Committee and Edvard Kovač were with me. We talked about PEN’s European initiative (initiated by German PEN) over the refugee crisis.
Incidentally, The European Union took up our proposal to create a Europe-wide fund in order to spread the costs and therefore the refugee destinations. Unfortunately, their proposal is too vague and set at far too low a funding level.
We also presented to the Slovenian President our declaration on copyright and explained why PEN now feels that attacks on copyright have developed into attacks on free expression.
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In between Bled and Amsterdam, I was in Switzerland at the Solothurn Literary Festival with Michael Guggenheimer and Adi Blum of the DeutschSchweizer PEN Zentrum to talk publicly about the state of free expression. It may always be under attack, but this is a particularly dangerous moment. We are all going to have to speak up more often and much louder to counter the politically driven atmosphere of panic which is allowing governments to grind down on free expression in the name of an improperly defined public safety.
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As we keep repeating, the vast majority of writers are killed and imprisoned and flagellated by governments, soldiers, police, corporations, organized crime and by various combinations of the above. Only a small percentage are killed by religious extremists of any sort. We have to deal with all of these forces of disorder, including the religious, but we must maintain a sense of where the major offenders are.
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A few days ago, I was in Paris with Carles Torner and Romana Cacchioli to meet with the new Secretary General of L’Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), Michaëlle Jean, her advisor, Jacques Bilodeau, and the new Administrateur, Adama Ouane. As you know, the OIF has been supporting our efforts, in francophone Africa, in particular, for sometime. We hope to expand this cooperation. As you can imagine, Mme Jean has come into her position with many new ideas and it is clear that they run parallel to ours.
A great deal has been already been done in cooperation with La Francophonie. Most recently the OIF has supported our work to develop official PEN Centres in Mali and Mauretania. We hope that the candidature of the two centres will come forward at the Quebec City Congress.
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In preparation for this, Carles and Romana have just been to Bamako and Nouakchott to meet with these groups and were deeply impressed by their commitment to PEN’s principles in countries which have serious problems of stability. Carles and Romana also spent several days in Senegal with the members of Senegal PEN, including their new interim President, Moumar Guèye. I’m sure Carles will tell you more about all of this in his letter to the membership.
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On the same trip to Paris we had a good meeting with the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova. UNESCO has taken a number of positive initiatives on youth, extremism and the internet over the last six months. And we are in the last stages of a valuable project with UNESCO, working out how to develop publishing for minority languages in Kenya, Haiti, Serbia and Nigeria.
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Everything is now set for the 81st PEN International Congress in Quebec City – October 13 – 16, 2015. A remarkable literary program has been put in place, including a focus on indigenous writers. Margaret Atwood, Robert Lepage, Russell Banks, Joseph Boyden, Dany Laferrière and Yann Martel. This is going to be a very important Congress for the role of translations and translators. And of course, there will be a series of elections, including one for the next President.
Quebec PEN has gone out of its way to organize a very rich and varied Congress. And it all takes place at the centre of the historic city. The great thing is that old Quebec is small. Everything will be in easy walking distance. Quebec PEN has also made sure that there are several hotel possibilities at very different prices. It is one of my favourite cities, for its history and its beauty, but also for its cultural vibrancy. I am really looking forward to seeing all of you in Quebec City. And I know that Émile Martel and the rest of Quebec PEN are looking forward to welcoming you there.
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Meanwhile four more writers have been killed in Mexico – Ismael Díaz López, Gerardo Nieto Álvarez, Juan Mendoza Delgado and Filadelfo Sánchez Sarmiento. Four in two weeks. This is a continuation of the pattern established over the last decade. The same expression of corruption, impunity and violence. The same lack of action by the authorities. The same indifference of the international community. All of this is a constant reminder of the embattled state of free expression and citizens rights in this era of ethical weakness within the leadership class; people who seemed to have replaced the rights and protections of the citizenry with the mechanisms of trade, debt and a tendency towards authoritarian solutions. We will be talking about all of this in Quebec City.
All best wishes,
John Ralston Saul