NOVEMBER 22, 2011

President Wade

Mr. Kebé, President of PEN Senegal
Mr. Beye, Secretary General of PEN Senegal
Mr. Harruna Attah, Secretary General of PAN
Prof. Okai, Secretary General of the Pan African Writers Association
Members of PEN everywhere in Africa

President Wade, it’s a great honour to have you with us today.
As you know, PEN has always been an apolitical organization.  Independent.   Irascible.  As it should be.   That independence is central to the role of the writer.   And that is why today, in our 90th year, we are still, and every day more and more, all over the world, the preeminent organization dedicated to the defense of freedom of expression.

All the same, it is always a pleasure for us to find ourselves with a head of state who is a writer. All the more so in a country like Senegal where all of the presidents, one after the other, have supported the cause of PEN.

I thank you for your hospitality.  And I also thank PEN Senegal on behalf of all of us who have come from abroad.  Its members have worked very hard to make this important meeting possible.

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Sixteen years ago, on November 10, our friend Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged. Léopold Senghor wrote of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.: ‘Since we did not help him, we have not been able to mourn him.’

Well, we did everything we could to help Ken Saro-Wiwa – we the writers of PEN International from around the world – and we lost him, and we still mourn him.  That great defeat is a constant reminder of the fight for freedom of expression in all its shapes, in all its grandeur as well as its details.

Today, there are some eight hundred human beings on our list of persecuted or jailed writers. Others are beaten up every day somewhere in the world.  Or threatened.  Or they are broken in fallacious trials.  Freedom of expression is always fragile.  The reality is that we must get up every morning and set about reasserting this principle in our lives; lives which for some of us are tranquil and reassuring.  This recurring threat makes me think specifically about those laws in many parts of Africa which have criminalized what is called insult and defamation.  The decriminalization of these laws is a matter of urgency.

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What is PEN? A literary movement, or a movement to defend freedom of expression?  This debate is 90 years old.  In fact, literature and freedom of expression are the same thing.  Literature without confidence in one’s self – in one’s imagination – linked to freedom of expression, is no more than a matter of style.

And freedom of expression without literature – without imagination – to take as an example, our situation today, is a world reduced to technocratic statements, consultant jargon and the dialect of economists.  To understand what I am saying, you have only to look at the catastrophes of debt and poverty that this approach without imagination has produced.

PEN believes in freedom of expression without limit and without borders.  We believe in strong criticism, in aggressive debate, in novels and poems and plays that entertain, disturb, contradict. We believe in what could be called an uncomfortable life for those who have public and private power.  This is the best protection we have, we the citizens of the world, against violence and dictatorship.

Whether it is in novels or in speeches, in newspapers or in letters, in conversations or on stage, an aggressive use of freedom of expression serves us all.

That is why George Konrád, one of my predecessors as International President, said – “It is not true that a separate peace can be made with the creators”.  No separate peace can be made with the community of writers.

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We are here in Dakar to talk about PAN – the PEN African Network.  PAN is taking our work – PEN’s – in new directions.  The Network began in 2003 at the International Congress in Mexico City. Mohamed Magani, one of PAN’s first Secretaries General, is here and carries the memories of this work over 8 years to create the Network and give it direction.  With this work, PAN has begun to change PEN.

For example, in a number of countries – I think of Sierra Leone and Guinée Conakry – PEN and PAN – one and the same – are taking our message to teenagers through large reading clubs in schools.
I have just seen several examples of this in Sierra Leone – very moving examples.  These are teenagers who would probably have been blocked from education beyond school because of the social/political situation.  Our school clubs have them reading and writing in an energetic, muscular, public way.
I heard a student – Mohamed Kanneh – declaim, before his friends, as well as senior PEN members, a poem beginning, “My agony is my life”.  And another, “Sometimes in the land, anarchy was the wind that blew”.
Another student – Baba Tejan Kabba – read a remarkable poem against violence.
I say their names because they deserve to be heard.  At 15, in a difficult world, they have the courage and the desire to raise their voices.  And in the difficult world of writers, perhaps they will be heard.
In a village called Lunsar, at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, hundreds of young women literally jostled each other, in a raucous, positive atmosphere, in order to perform plays they had written.
And all of this, in a country emerging from disaster.  This is literature and freedom of expression playing its role.  This is African PEN – PEN International – playing its role in the real world. And over the next few days we will be hearing about programs around the continent and trying to develop strategies – broad, long-term strategies.
Yet all of this represents only a small part of PEN’s work.

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One more example. To lose your language is also to lose your freedom of expression.  For just that reason, PEN has worked over the last twenty years towards a definition of linguistic rights, and a strong defence of those rights.

Today there are hundreds of languages threatened with disappearance.  The languages of power see in this mere inevitability.  We believe it is a matter of political intent.  And to defend these languages is not a matter of charity.  Nor do we want to preserve them merely for them to be converted into subjects of historical study in universities.

Each time a language disappears, a door shuts on a part of our imagination; of our ability to understand this planet.

During our last Congress, in Belgrade, we adopted a charter of linguistics rights.

It is a short document.  One page.  A beautiful text which has already been translated into a dozen languages, and translations keep coming in.  This declaration is called the Girona Manifesto, after the name of that city in Catalonia where we completed the final draft.  It is an important and useful tool for the public fight against the disappearance of languages.

Here again – on this question of smaller languages or languages threatened with disappearance – the PEN African Network has an important role to play.

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One last point.  Of course, the seventeen African PEN Centres – and there are more to come – have a role to play in these matters and on this continent.  An essential role.

But, equally important, we also need to feel their influence around the world within this great coalition of creativity which is PEN International.

Thank you.

Opening Address By John Ralston Saul At The PAN Meeting In Dakar, Senegal