OCTOBER 12, 2011

Dear friends, Dear PEN members,

Those of you who were in Belgrade have had some time to report to your members. And all of you have received a fast, preliminary report from our Executive Director, Laura McVeigh – a very good new initiative. The cleared up resolutions have also gone out to you – again a new emphasis on getting action documents to you fast.

It was a very successful Congress, thanks to the incredible work of Serbian PEN. For those of you who were not in Belgrade, here are a few highlights:

•    Almost 90 Centres sent delegates, maintaining the high level of the Congress in Tokyo. Could we get to 100 in Korea? One solution would be more pairing of Centres. 

•    There was strong representation from all areas except Latin America. We must concentrate on this.

•    The Belgrade Congress was to be centered on Balkan reconciliation and that was very much the feeling. A Balkan network was created with 13 PEN Centres at a very moving meeting. This act of reconciliation carries an important message about the Balkans, but also to other divided areas in the world.

•    The Assembly has clearly asked for some reform of PEN’s structures. I am very excited about this and would add that we need serious changes in the make-up of the Assembly itself.

Immediately after the Congress there was a Board and Committee Chairs retreat. We have set up a small Committee chaired by Eric Lax to consult you on structural reforms and to make a proposal. The Executive and Laura will tackle the question of Assembly structures. All suggestions are very welcome. 

•    The Girona Manifesto is now an official PEN International policy. I think of it as our Charter on Linguistic Rights. With the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, we must now develop policies to give the Manifesto some real legs. 

•    The Peace Committee put forward what is in effect its charter; its rules for action. This also was adopted by the Assembly. 

•    There was a concentrated focus on the terrible situation in Mexico. On the Day of the Dead – November 2 – there will be a global PEN action. If you haven’t heard about it already, you will.

•    The Board decided that the distribution inside PEN of Rapid Action Network urgent messages, that up until now have been limited to WIPC member Centres, should go to all Centres. We are all concerned by the state of writers.

•    Out of the opening full Assembly discussion on PEN’s future came the welcome suggestion that we move urgently to develop a PEN International strategy on the effect of new technologies on freedom of expression. We ran out of time to discuss this at the Board retreat, so the Executive has set up a three person Committee, chaired by Hori Takeaki and including Marian Botsford Fraser. We need the third member as fast as possible. Again, all suggestions are welcome. The committee will gather information and make recommendations to the Board. We hope to have a clear strategy to bring to the next Congress.

•    Regarding new faces at the Congress, for the first time in years Brazilian PEN was present and eager to play a role. They have already offered to try to help in Latin America. Haitian PEN was also back and eager to develop their Centre.

•    The China PEN Centre (Beijing) was present for the first time since Berlin. This produced a clear difference of opinion on the situation in China. Their view was not shared by other delegates. In an unprecedented initiative, the Assembly opened with a motion from the floor, moved by Serbian PEN and second by Japan PEN, to congratulate Mario Vargas Llosa and Liu Xiaobo on their Nobel prizes and call for the release of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia. This was passed unanimously. Later a detailed resolution from the Writers in Prison committee on the situation of imprisoned writers in China was passed with no objections. 

Of course, the discussion over the situation in China was not an easy one for delegates. But the reality is that the China PEN Centre (Beijing) was present; their delegates expressed themselves; delegates from the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and many others Centres replied; PEN International’s position was reaffirmed by the Assembly; many delegates took the opportunity to have lengthy conversations with the returning Centre. 

All of this was a demonstration of our Charter. We stand for unlimited freedom of expression. We also stand for dialogue and bringing people together. And the clarity of our position, along with our belief in dialogue, are all part of our work to free writers in China.

Immediately after the Congress, the Board, the Committee Chairs and the senior staff held their retreat at Novi Sad. For once we weren’t struggling to hear each other over bad phone lines. We missed Mohamed Magani, who had just retired. We welcomed back Yang Lian, who was re-elected in Belgrade, and we welcomed Sylvestre Clancier who had been elected by the Assembly. Twenty four hours of working together was incredibly valuable and we will try to do it again in late spring/early summer.

Immediately after the retreat, I went to the Gothenburg Book Fair to take part in an unprecedented ceremony – the 10th anniversary of Dawit Isaak’s imprisonment with his colleagues in Eritrea, many of whom have died in what amounts to a death camp. With two Nobel laureates – our former president, Mario Vargas Llosa and Herta Müller – alongside Peter Englund, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, and Ola Larsmo, the President of Swedish PEN, we launched a new Eritrean campaign. I then met with some Swedish publishers who have joined the PEN International Publishers Circle, and then with Finnish Publishers, who we hope will join. 

Enough!  This is very long, but a lot had happened.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul

October Monthly Letter From John Ralston Saul To The PEN Membership