MARCH 21, 2012
Dear PEN members, Dear Friends,
This letter arrives a bit late as I have just come from spending time with our PEN Centres in Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Before telling you about that, a few words on thedevelopments in Mexico. You may have seen from a recent PEN statement that there has been an interesting breakthrough. The Mexican Senate haspassed the long held up law on the federalization of crimes against journalists. Many people have spoken in favour of this. But PEN’s strategy was multilayered. It included, of course, our Delegation holding an in-depth meeting with the President of the Mexican Senate and other Senators. But this was backed up by the University of Toronto/PEN Canada study; by our letter to Mexican writers published in the Mexican press made possible by the PEN American Centre and the Knight Foundation; by a major Mexico City public event, PEN Protesta! organized by PEN Mexico; and by all the other work our Delegation – made up of PEN Japan, England, USA West, Quebec, America, Canada, Guadalajara, San Miguel and Mexico – managed to do. In other words, what we have brought to the table is our real force – that ofthe public voice, whether with PEN Mexico inside the country, or with all of us around the world. Our strength is that we can lift the subject out of theworld of experts or politicians into that of the public.
The other day someone said to me that we must do more than PR. Of course, we do do a great deal of expert work. We are an important Centre of research and analysis. And when necessary, we specialize in careful, complex negotiations, behind the scenes.
But what we do do in public is not PR. It is the expression of our true selves as writers and publishers. That is why I constantly talk about us as the people of the word. That is us, along with the readers.
And so we have a breakthrough in Mexico. It is only a small step but an important one. We are doing our job.
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With PEN Ethiopia, PEN Somali speaking and PEN Afar speaking, we have three strong Centres. I was invited to Addis Ababa for the first annual meeting of PEN Ethiopia. It has taken four years of hard work for them to get the necessary official status as an Ethiopian NGO. They celebrated this with a gathering of a hundred writers from around this very large country. One impressive thing is the effort they are making to include the different national cultures/languages. Part of the annual meeting involved a public discussion about the roles of the Amharic and Oromo languages.
Solomon Hailemariam, their President, has an enthusiastic Executive with Dejene Tesemma as Secretary General, Gezahegn Mekonnen as Treasurer, Getnet Gessese as Vice-President and Aschalew Kebede. And Solomon is adding others. They are novelists, poets, essayists and journalists. I should add that Elisabeth Eide and Ann-Magrit Austena from Norwegian PEN also came to Addis Ababa for the celebration of PEN Ethiopia’s first annual meeting.
The situation there is, of course, very complex. PEN Ethiopia has decided to focus its work on the relationship between literature and effective education, which fits right in with our successful education programs in other African Centres.
We had a lot of useful meetings, including with the President of the Republic. We were able to arrange a meeting with the Chairperson of the African Union, Jean Ping. This was a first time for PEN International and an important initiative.
I talked a great deal with him about literature and education and PEN’s African school programs. He immediately sent us to see the Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology who is responsible for education. His name is Prof. Jean-Pierre O. Ezin. He in turn invited PEN to the annual meeting of African education Ministers. We are now working on that.
On a separate related subject, one of the biggest challenges for writers in Ethiopia is the weakness of the publishing system and the high cost of books. All of us at PEN have to keep reminding ourselves that without a strong publishing system, reasonably priced books and a healthy translation quota, freedom of expression is more theoretical than real.
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Djibouti was an equally exciting and rich experience. The situation is complex and our two Centres are very much in what might be called The Girona Manifesto school.
The Somali speaking and Afar speaking Centres represent languages that were entirely oral until the early 1960’s (Somali) and the early 1970’s (Afar). The vast majority of Somali and Afar speakers live in the surrounding countries – Somalia, Somaliland, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Kenya. The political catastrophe of Somalia and Eritrea, means that many people and in particular many writers are in exile around the world. The result is that our two PEN Centres in Djibouti must try to represent a whole region, along with our Centres in Kenya and Ethiopia.
The Somali speaking Centre has been established in efficient offices for some time. My coming to Djibouti seems to have resulted in the same becoming possible for the Afar speaking Centre. They are next door to each other on the same floor in the Centre of Djibouti.
After inviting me, they organized a joint public meeting to which some 100 intellectuals came. This was given wide coverage around the country. I also had working meetings with each of the Centre’s executives. In each case, about 20 writers were present, ranging from elders to youth. These Centres have branches in schools and colleges and in the surrounding countries. The founder of Somali PEN, Mohamed Dahir Afrah was there, as well as todays President Adden Hassan Aden. The Afar Centre President is Aicha Robleh, a very well-known playwright. With her were the former President, Chehem Watta and the Secretary General, Mohamed Houmed Hassan known as Charlie.
As in Ethiopia, both Djibouti Centres are very interested in literature and education. Most of our Centres in Africa feel strongly that this is the way to build a solid broad basis for creativity and free speech. In Djibouti, their interest is linked to the happy but complicated triangle of French (the official language of education and government), Somali and Afar (the two maternal languages recently introduced into the education system). Both our Centres want to strengthen the maternal languages without weakening French.
They also suffer greatly from the absence of any creative writing publishing system. We met with the President of the Republic and suggested the creation of a cooperative publisher run by the two PEN Centres.
It has been an exciting three weeks and I am grateful to everyone at the Ethiopia, Somali speaking and Afar speaking Centers for their wonderful welcome.
As I saw in Sierra Leone and at the PAN meeting in Dakar last December, we have remarkable Centres in Africa.
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Finally, this trip began with a week in South Korea. I initially went for a big public meeting on the economic state of the world – a meeting unrelated to PEN. But in the end, there was a great deal of talk about PEN’s work and the upcoming PEN Congress.
The other half of the trip, involved joining Hori Takeaki, Markéta Hejkalová and Laura McVeigh to work with Gil-Won Lee and his Korean PEN Centre on the upcoming Congress in Gyeongju. Gil-won and his colleagues are working very hard to welcome as many of you as possible and to put together a great literary program. I think it will be a very successful congress with many innovations.
Best wishes to you all,
John Ralston Saul