October 15 2013

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

By now all Centres will have the International Secretary’s summary of the 79th Congress in Reykjavik and will know what an important gathering it was.

Let me highlight a few things.

There is now a Myanmar PEN Centre, after more than half a century of dictatorship http://www.pen-international.org/09/2013/introducing-pen-myanmar-nay-phone-latt/. The whole Assembly felt the historic weight of this moment. As someone who started writing about the situation in Burma in 1980, I was deeply touched. The situation is still uncertain in Myanmar, but the Centre is in place. And the Publishers Circle workshop in Yangon was the last step in making it possible.

We welcomed a second new Centre. A second from India – PEN Delhi Centre. Kiran Desai came over from the Reykjavik International Literary Festival to make the presentation to the Assembly (http://www.pen-international.org/09/2013/introducing-pen-delhi-kiran-desai/). It’s always said that India is the world’s largest democracy. And their literature is remarkable. But there are major challenges around the publishing of the many languages in the country; and the Delhi Centre will work to include those writers and their literatures. Also, freedom of expression is fragile. The new Centre began to work within days of the Congress by speaking up in defense of Professor UR Ananthamurthy, who has been harshly attacked for expressing his opinion of Mr Narendra Modi, a prime ministerial candidate in the forthcoming elections.

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We are finding solid ways to intervene on digital issues. Our Digital Declaration gives us a strong base and groups outside of PEN are starting to use it. In Reykjavik we took the next step with a group set up to work out how we should deal with the increasingly unstable area of copyright. PEN has traditionally stayed away from copyright as a more professional issue. But in this explosive era of new technologies it is moving into our domaine.

And with the leadership of American and English PEN we took a clear stand on the surveillance mechanisms which are cutting like chainsaws through long established citizen’s rights, in particular free expression (http://www.pen-international.org/campaigns/how-to-campaign/resolution-on-surveillance-submitted-by-american-pen-and-english-pen/). Every day it becomes clearer that this situation is getting worse and that PEN has the responsibility to play as visible role as possible.

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We also took a strong stand against three laws in particular being put through in Russia to limit free expression (http://www.pen-international.org/resolution-the-russian-federation/). And these represent only a small part of the problems developing in that country. We began talking with Russian PEN about how to deal with this worsening situation. As many of you already know, the PEN Assembly suspended its work to walk as a whole on the Russian Embassy in order to deliver its Resolution.

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Finally, the Peace Committee brought its Manifesto to the Assembly and it was approved (http://www.penslovenia-zdruzenje.si/en_photogallery). This was an important step in strengthening our work by fleshing out the principles of each committee. We began with the Girona Manifesto of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. Now we have the Bled Manifesto for peace. This was Edvard Kovac’s final contribution as Chair of the Committee. A remarkable way to end his six year mandate. We are all very grateful.

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Eric Lax stepped down after six years as Treasurer and Officer. PEN is in solid financial shape. In fact we are growing. The perfect comment on a retiring Treasurer! During its post Congress retreat the Board co-opted Eric for one more year to a non-voting position so that he could work with our new Treasurer, Jarkko Tontti, to make the transition perfectly smooth. But now is the moment to say how grateful we are to Eric for all that he has done to make PEN International stable and increasingly strong in very difficult economic times.

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The Congress was filled with wonderful moments. Antonio Skármeta from Chile spoke in the Assembly – the first time the Chilean Centre has been present for decades. He then spoke again during the opening ceremony, which fell exactly on the fortieth anniversary of the Pinochet Coup.

And it was important that a large number of delegates took part in the public events of the literary festival along with Icelandic writers.

Once it was all over, while everyone else was exploring Iceland, the Board and Committee Chairs went off to the quiet island of Viðey in Kollafjörður Bay, to work out how we can carry out the Assembly’s wishes. You will hear more about this.

In the meantime, many thanks to everyone at Icelandic PEN for their welcome and their hard work.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul

September letter from John Ralston Saul, International President to the PEN membership