NOVEMBER 15, 2013
Dear PEN members, Dear friends,
I am writing this on November 15th, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. A year ago some twenty of us from around the world were in Istanbul and Ankara with PEN Turkey, meeting with political leaders and drawing attention to the endangered state of free expression, with so many writers in prison or endlessly on trial. In some ways the situation is now worse. The government and the courts are not acting in a more responsible way. But these things do not go in a straight line. Yesterday I was on the phone with a senior writer in Istanbul who insisted that now at least the fundamental issues of free expression have been dragged out into the public place and therefore into the public debate – and this has happened, he insisted, in part because of the PEN Delegation’s intervention.
The situation in Mexico is similar in some ways – our role, working closely with the three PEN Centres in Mexico, has been to get the essential importance of free expression onto the public agenda. Only in the public space do writers have real influence.
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October is the month of the Frankfurt Book Fair and I was there with James Tennant, as well as Ola Wallin and Martin Kaunitz from Swedish PEN and Tiina Lehtoranta from Finnish PEN. We held a public event to focus on the Publishers Circle intervention in Myanmar.
Ronald Blunden of Hachette, Jo Lusby of Penguin and Ola Wallin, talked to a crowd of publishers about their time in Yangon working with emerging Myanmar publishers. We also held a private session to discuss our future strategy – how to improve on the sort of workshops we developed in Yangon, how to follow-up in Myanmar and what country to go to next. John Makinson, Chair of Penguin Random House took part with Sarah MacLachlan, President of House of Anansi Press, Peter Wilcke, CEO of Norstedts and Per Almgren, CEO of Natur & Kultur.
The very good news is that the German Holtzbrinck Publishing Group has now officially joined the Circle, as has the British I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. Their Chairman and Publisher, Iradj Bagherzade, also took part in the morning’s private session
Finally, German PEN ran an important public event on the situation in Mexico. There was a large crowd. This is the PEN way – we will keep on drawing attention to situations such as that in Mexico as long as the problems remain.
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During this time Russian PEN took a stand in support of the Bolotnaya Square prisoners with 57 of the Centre’s members signing their names. I should add that a number of us will be in Moscow in late November. I will tell you all about that in my next letter.
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In mid-October our International Vice-President, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman and Sarah Hoffman from PEN American Centre, went to Qatar to support the jailed poet Mohammed al-Ajami, who has just been condemned to 15 years of prison for two poems. It was a tough trip, but an essential first step in launching an international campaign. Fifteen years for two poems. I repeat, fifteen years for two poems. Authoritarian regimes exist in a deeply contradictory state of mind. They dismiss the importance of thought and creativity, yet demonstrate the opposite by their punishment of writers. It is a wonderful, terrifying testimony to the power of the word.
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Late in the month I was in Belgrade on other business, but was able to spend a lot of time with our Serbian Centre – Vida Ognjenovic, Neda Nikolic Bobic, Vladislav Bajac and others – going over the evolution of the PEN Balkan Network and other regional issues.
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After a month in various parts of Europe I cannot help but comment on the return of hate speech. This is as true in Western Europe as it is in Central or the Balkans. All of this is related to the rise of populism. I keep coming back to this. The rise of ugly populism. We are now witnessing the rise of open, mainstream racism in several major European democracies. There is an apparently growing fear of the other in some parts of society. Incidents of violence related to race. An anti-democratic atmosphere in many circles. These are uncertain, troubling times and we must be firm and clear about the role of writers, literature and free expression in affirming the sort of open atmosphere proper to a healthy society.
Best wishes to you all,
John Ralston Saul