The Writers and Free Expression project explores the role writers play in defending free expression in today’s globally interconnected world. Focusing on writers organisations, most significantly International PEN, the project considers the history of writers’ activism since 1921 and the current challenges writers face in defending free expression. The project brings together scholars, writers and activists with particular expertise in three geo-political areas, the UK, South Africa and India, to investigate these questions in their international dimensions.
English PEN have begun to unveil some of the events and schemes which they will use to celebrate their centenary year, 2021.
PEN was founded by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott in London, initially as a literary dining club, and evolved into one of the first and largest free expression organisations in the world.
From its first meeting in the Florence Restaurant in London’s Soho on the 5th October 1921, it went on to become a forerunner for organisations like Amnesty International, Index on Censorship and Article 19.
‘Common Currency’ – the title of these Centenary events – is a title taken from the PEN Charter.
This particular part of the Charter proved contentious in the early days (although it was worded slightly differently) leading many members to insist that the organisation should exist entirely separately from politics.
However, under the leadership of H.G. Wells, it became a much more serious campaigning organisation, particularly following the ejection of the German Centre in 1933.
In the first event Fatima Bhutto introduces her essay ‘A World on Fire’ commissioned by New Writing North and English PEN and taking as its starting point the PEN Women’s Manifesto of 2017.
Common Currency is a unique project that combines timely debates on freedom of expression, creative campaigning and a celebration of diverse voices.
Hannah Trevarthen, Events and Partnerships Manager at English PEN said: ‘We’re really excited about the upcoming Centenary celebrations across the UK and Ireland exploring three key themes: free speech and democracy; languages and ideas crossing borders; and celebrating women.
‘We chose the name “common currency’, as the notion that the power of stories, sharing knowledge and ideas brings people together is as important as ever.’
More events are forthcoming, including an address by Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, which will discuss the future implications of coronavirus for Bristol and cities like it.
More information on the events is available on the English PEN website.
Sir Ronald Harwood, President of English PEN (1989-1993) and of PEN International (1993-1997) has been a key figure in campaigning for free expression across the world.
A familiar name in PEN’s meeting minutes from the 1980s and 1990s, Harwood was still lending his name to campaigns calling out the persecution of writers around the world in the years leading up to his death on 8th September 2020 aged 85.
He is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning adaptation, The Pianist (2002) of Wladyslaw Szpilmann’s book about the Warsaw ghetto.
Harwood was born in Cape Town, South Africa, Ronald Horwitz to Jewish Lithuanian refugee Isaac Horwitz and his wife Isobel.
As English President during the Salman Rushdie affair he played a crucial role in consultations with the British government, defending Rushdie on the world stage and conveying the views of British writers to the other members of International PEN and to the media.
When Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses came out in 1988 its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and other key figures from Islamic scripture caused huge offense in the Muslim world.
This led to riots and angry protests in the UK, widespread calls to ban the book and eventually to the declaration of a fatwa by Ayatollah Kohmeini, calling on all pious Muslims to kill Rushdie in order to defend the honour of the faith and the Prophet.
Rushdie’s book was controversial, even within PEN itself, but figures like Harwood were among those pushing for the organisation to defend it.
One incident in particular, from the 1990 International PEN Congress in Funchal, Madeira finds Harwood defending Salman Rushdie in front of members from across the world.
Harwood has discovered a particularly damning condemnation of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, published in Indian PEN, the publication of the Indian PEN Centre. Harwood brings it to the attention of the Congress not, for the ‘savage criticism which the writers was perfectly entitled for make’ but the second part of the article which as Harwood explains was ‘more serious in terms of what International PEN stood for’ particularly as this piece had been published by and presumably reflected the views of Indian PEN.
Harwood’s chief condemnation was not that the writer found the book offensive but the PEN members had advocated burning it without reading it. Harwood then quotes Heine: ‘You start by banning books. The next day you burn books. And the day after that you burn people.’
Whilst Harwood does not wish to make an evaluative case on the basis of the relative merits of Rushdie’s work, like many of his generation and particularly as himself the child of a Lithuanian refugee, he views free expression as an unassailable part of maintaining a healthy society and political discourse.
Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.
1. This is the first article of the original statement of aims that PEN, the world’s largest and oldest association of writers, formally agreed in Brussels at its 5th international Congress in 1927. PEN was founded in London in 1921 and held its first official Congress there in 1923. Haunted by the horrors of the First World War, the statement is universalist in aspiration and anti-nationalist in spirit, though it presupposes the primacy of the nation at every point — not just in the sub-clause ‘national though it be in origin’ but in the phrase ‘between nations’. As this wording was preserved when the three-part statement became the four-part PEN Charter in 1948, it effectively stood as an emblem of PEN’s internationalist vision for just over seventy-five years.
1.1 The statement also reflected the ‘new idealism’ of PEN’s founding President, the British novelist John Galsworthy. ‘All works of the imagination’, Galsworthy wrote in an article on ‘International Thought’ for the London Times on 30 October 1923, ‘are the property of mankind at large’ and ‘any real work of art, however individual and racial in root and fibre, is impersonal and universal in its appeal.’ As I argue in the book, this kind of thinking, which combined the national and the universal, also underpinned the development of English as an academic subject in late-Victorian Oxford where Galsworthy studied law, graduating in 1889. Yet this was not simply a matter of literary aesthetics for Galsworthy. It concerned the writer’s special calling. At a time when governments, journalists, scientists and financiers continued to see themselves as ‘trustees for competitive sections of mankind’—again he had in mind the malign nationalism that led to the First World War—he argued writers had a ‘plain duty’ to be the heralds of a co-operative, rules-based international order and the champions of ‘a new idealism.’ At the same time, Galsworthy always insisted on PEN being an association not an amalgamation of national centres.
2. Such at least was the vision. Not everyone agreed, even in the 1920s. Some doubted PEN could ever stand above, or even outside, politics and others worried that Galsworthy made it look too much like a literary rival to the League of Nations. And then reality got in the way. Since some languages do not have a localized territory or the backing of a state, alternative, culture-based centres were formed almost immediately, beginning in 1922 with the Catalans in Barcelona, followed a year later by the Spanish in Madrid. Scottish PEN was founded in 1927. Then there was the question of exiles (Russian and German in the first instance) and the tensions between the Flemish and the French in Belgium. The greatest challenge in the interwar years, however, came from Yiddish writers who found themselves adrift after the Polish centre in Warsaw turned down their request for co-membership. After much debate, the solution, formally accepted in 1927, was to establish a Yiddish centre in the contested city of Vilna (now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania) with further branches in New York and Warsaw. Two years later, at the 1929 Congress in Vienna, it was then agreed that ‘the method of dividing the P.E.N into sections and the right of voting at congresses should be based on literary and cultural’, rather than national grounds. Despite this, the first article of the Charter remained unchanged until 2003.
3. At the 67th international Congress, held in London in November 2001, the Canadian and German PEN centres initiated a discussion to revise the original wording. Reflecting some of the interwar concerns, the President of PEN Canada, the exiled Iranian writer Reza Baraheni, was among the leading proponents for change. They set out four main reasons for doing so.
a. [The original wording] had never been historically correct, and intrinsically excludes all literature written before the development of nation states.
b. erroneously accepts without question the late 18th-century proposition that literatures are “national”, a concept promoted by developing nation states in order to foster the citizens’ identification with the nation, and opposed even then by Goethe and others who believed in “world literature” and held that in an age of unlimited intellectual exchange literature belongs to the whole world.
c. totally neglects the post-colonial development in Africa and the Arab states, where literature is predominantly seen in a pan-African or pan-Arab context, and in the case of Africa is written in a wide variety of cross-border indigenous and colonial languages.
d. culturally marginalizes literature written by exiled, emigrated or migrant writers.
4. Following their interventions, the Canadian and German centres proposed a new formulation at the next Congress, held in Ohrid, Macedonia in September 2002:
Literature of whatever provenance or language is a world cultural heritage and must be protected and upheld at all times as the free and common currency of all people, particularly in periods of political or international upheaval.
This effectively removed the contentious phrasing about the ‘national’, though the sentence read like something composed by committee via email over some months, which is, in fact, how it emerged. Again, not everyone was happy. Writers from the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc spoke against the change, describing what the almost talismanic 1948 Charter, which champions free expression, meant to them throughout the dark years of the Cold War. They also worried about the loss of the word ‘national’, which had acquired a new significance for them since 1989 and for everyone in the era of globalization. By contrast, African writers spoke for the proposal because they liked the word ‘protected’, which addressed concerns they had about marginalized languages and literatures.
5. For the English writer Victoria Glendenning and literary agent Susanna Nicklin, the problems were stylistic. Feeling that the new version was not ‘in keeping with the spare, clear wording of the Charter,’ they proposed an alternative, which involved subtracting rather than re-writing. This broke with protocol — according to PEN’s rules, you cannot amend an amendment in the course of discussion — but, characteristically, an unfussy solution was found: the English and Canadian delegates were sent away to re-draft the amendment, a task that took four hours. Why so long? Again characteristically, the debates reflected everything for which PEN stands—‘communication, tolerance, impassioned discussion, literary quotation, story-telling, poetic digressions, tales of wrongful imprisonment, life-stories’ and more, as Glendenning and Nicklin reported.
6. What resulted was a small but significant reformulation, which re-founded PEN as a truly supranational, non-statist world association, equal to the broader vision of ‘language communities’ articulated in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights(1996), a document PEN did much to shape (see the ‘Linguistic Rights’ post):
Literature knows no frontiers, and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.
The amendment was formally incorporated into the Charter when it was ratified a year later at the 69th Congress in Mexico City, a meeting otherwise dominated by reports on the growing number of attacks on writers and journalists around the world—775 in 2003 alone.
Free expression organisations have a number of issues to concern themselves with in a global pandemic – the wellbeing of writers in prison, the infringements of government legislation on personal freedoms and human rights, the ways in which discourse of infection might manifest themselves in hate speech or acts.
However, alongside the current global pandemic, runs another contagion which concerns writers organisations, governments and citizens-alike: the spread of disinformation.
In the current circumstances disinformation is not only harmful to planned containment measures and public-uptake of government of World Health Organisation advice, it is also a threat to life.
In fact, the WHO has already referred to an ‘infodemic’ around the virus with theories abounding on social media and beyond espousing bleach or garlic as cures for the virus and speculating on potential causes for the outbreak.
As part of their work around COVID-19, Article 19 are seeking to tackle disinformation.
Acting Executive Director Quinn McKew said: ‘The spread of COVID-19 across the globe has been matched by the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus.
‘We have also seen some states attempt to stifle media reporting on the spread of the virus and use repressive legislation to arrest people who are sharing information about it.’
She went on that responsibility lay with governments, the media and media companies to ensure that they was full transparency in the reporting and management of the crisis.
She said that: ‘Independent media, ethical journalism, citizen reporting, open public discourse and the free flow of information are indispensable in the global effort to counter COVID-19.’
The WHO has already launched the WHO Information Network for Epidemics, which is working with platforms such as Facebook, Tiktok, Google, Baidu, Weibo and Pintrest to try to foreground ‘accurate information from trusted sources’.
Article 19 views the combatting of this fake news as an essential part of its campaigning around free expression and accurate reporting.
In early March it released clear warnings to governments, the media and social media about their handling of information around the outbreak.
However, Article 19 wanted to call on governments to ensure that accurate reporting of the crisis was not impeded, that transparent and trustworthy information was available widely.
It also called on journalists and the media to ensure that reporting was fair and impartial and included a right to reply and on social media companies to continue to work with the WHO and to ensure that processes to tackle disinformation or hate speech remained clear and easily understood.
Due to current circumstances, we have been forced to delay the conferences in India and South Africa that we were planning for 2020 and early 2021.
The team are already looking at when and in what form these might be rescheduled.
In the meantime, we are hoping to bring you a series of reports looking at free expression through a series of dialogues between our researchers and key writers or campaigners, and the impact that current world events from COVID-19 to climate change are having on writers and writing worldwide.
By Rachel Potter
It is ironic that Elif Şhafak’s fiction has been targeted by the Turkish authorities twice, but for entirely different reasons. In 2006, she was taken to court by a Turkish lawyer for insulting Turkishness in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul because it refers to the First World War Armenian massacre as a genocide.
This is a criminal act under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which prohibits the ‘public denigration’ of Turkishness, the Turkish Republic, the Grand National Assembly, the government, judiciary, military and security services’. The terms of the law are extremely broad, and hundreds of writers and journalists have been targeted under its terms.
Last week, she was investigated by a prosecutor for a very different crime; the fictional representation of sexual violence and child abuse in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). It is not just the legal authorities who are after Şhafak. She has been attacked on social media for her latest novel, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds (2019) which depicts the final moments in the life of a murdered sex worker.
As she put it, she is ‘dealing with thousands of bots and trolls’. The criticisms of her fictional representations of sexual violence are part of a much broader recent clamp-down on Turkish writers. Ayşe Kulin has been subject to widespread online abuse for her fictional depiction of sexual scenes. Novelist Abdullah Şevki has been arrested because his first-person representation of sexual assault on a child has been deemed to be, in itself, a form of ‘child abuse’. As Şhafak said to The Guardian of the Turkish authorities ‘This is a very new focus for them.’
Since its inception in 1923 the Turkish Republic has strongly policed its writers. Its penal code, taken from Mussolini’s Italy, put serious curbs on freedom of expression. Turkish writers have often refused to be silenced, and many of them have struggled against censorship. The modernist poet Nâzim Hikmet spent much of his adult life in prison and died in exile. Novelist Yaşhar Kemal, Turkey’s most famous writer in the 1950s and 1960s, was harassed and prosecuted. Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, was sued by Kemal Keriçsiz in 2005 for insulting Turkishness by mentioning the Armenian genocide.
In the early 2000s, Turkey was in talks with the European Union about its possible entry into the EU, and the long conflict with Kurdish separatists seemed to be finished. A new generation of Turkish writers, including Latife Tekin, Asli Erdoğan, Perihan Mağden and Elif Şhafak, mined Turkey’s cultural history by mixing Turkish and Ottoman traditions with European forms. With the declaration of the state of emergency after the attempted coup in July 2016 and the rule by executive decree that followed the position of writers and journalists in Turkey has become even more perilous. Over 150 journalists and writers are in prison and more than 180 media outlets and publishing houses have been closed down.
When I spoke to Şhafak in 2017 about her experiences of censorship she talked about Turkey’s cosmopolitan history, and the modern-day battle between nationalist and cosmopolitan visions of Turkish identity. She described the role of literary censorship in Turkey’s governmental imposition of a one-dimensional form of national identity on its people.
The recent targeting of the fictional depiction of sexual violence has moved the goal posts; from the prohibition of references to events in Turkey’s modern history, to a ban on depictions of sexual violence and paedophilia. While the objects of attack are different, both involve the representation of Turkish identity, whether national, familial or sexual. The view of fiction is also similar. Fiction is seen as that which enacts or brings into being the thing or activity it represents. Literature, on this view, has the power to undermine Turkish identity, and the representation of sexual assault is itself a form of ‘child abuse’. Şhafak sees it from the opposite way round; that the attack on fictional representations of sexual violence diverts attention from the rising incidents of sexual violence against children in Turkey.
International PEN has long defended writers’ rights in Turkey, attacking anti-terrorism legislation, criminal defamation and the law prohibiting insulting Turkishness. It monitors ongoing criminal trials, including against novelist Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet Altan, as well as the group Academics for Peace. Responding to the recent attacks on Turkish writers who depict sexual violence, English PEN director Antonia Byatt said that ‘Freedom of expression in Turkey is increasingly under serious threat’.
Many writers who have spoken out against Government censorship have talked of the fragility or ‘paranoia’, as J. M. Coetzee put it in an important essay, of heavily prohibitive nation States. The paranoid state, as Coetzee also insightfully pointed out, induces watchfulness and mutual suspicion, encouraging the breakdown of ‘human sympathy and trust between people’.
The attack on Turkish writers is being undertaken both by legal authorities within Turkey, and, in the cases of Kulin and of Şhafak who lives in London, by hate mail via social media. Both have the power to have a chilling effect on expression. At the moment online censorious hate speech has an enormous power to violate the private sphere.
It seems unlikely that Şhafak, who, along with PEN, has long campaigned for writers’ rights to free expression as well as minority rights and rights for women, will allow such attacks to change her own forthright views and expressions on the subject of violence against women and children. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge the power of this violation, in limiting, distorting or forcefully politicising expression.
The fact that Şhafak has been targeted twice and for different reasons is a revealing one. It invites us to look beyond the particular reasons given for censorship and see the wider pattern. The targeting also has paradoxical effects. While it seeks to silence the literary depiction of sexual violence, it serves to highlight the fact of sexual violence. And while it aims to suppress writers it also effectively gives to literature a forceful power to insult and undermine the Turkish State.
In our latest free expression podcast, Professor Anshuman Mondal of the University of East Anglia talks to Professor Rachel Potter about Salman Rushdie, thirty years after the Satanic Verses affair.
Mondal, who has written extensively on Rushdie and particularly on free expression and Islam, explores the implications of the West-versus-East narrative at the centre of the Rushdie scandal and discusses how anti-censorship discourses work within global politics often to the detriment of non-Western cultures and belief systems.
‘Whereas I have no problem with writers mobilising on behalf of another writer I think that writers just like any other constituency have the political right and the duty to do so, what I would try to do is to just problematize this notion that writing and that writing and especially imaginative writing of a certain kind, it is on a special pedestal.
‘It is something special, something really truly remarkable that is so exceptional that it needs a special provision and special exceptions and so forth and I’m not entirely sure that that’s the case and I think that that’s one of the strands of the discourse established at that time that I am still working on and trying to address.’
He also responded to some of the documents we found in the PEN Archives which relate to the Rushdie case, including letters from PEN Centres lending their support to Rushdie’s cause and an essay written by postcolonial scholar Edward Said and published by the PEN America Center.
‘Edward Said quotes Rushdie’s essay ‘Outside the Whale’ and I think that that is a great reminder to both Rushdie himself and to the rest of us about the way in which writers are invested in these situations, they aren’t neutral players and they can’t be observers.
‘However, I’m constantly struggling always to remind everyone of the complexity of the situation, so I’m going to complicate that position.
‘It emerges most importantly in the trope that Rushdie himself uses in his essays ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ and ‘A Thousand Days in a Balloon’, those essays that were published and were brilliant responses under considerable duress, but he uses this trope of the imagination in a sort of quasi-romantic way and one of the things that I’m really interested in is that this trope of the imagination is quarantined from everything else.
‘It’s a sort of performative contradiction in the essay in that he talks about the imagination or the writer’s imagination being responsible for being able to think differently, for enacting changes in the world and so on and so forth and yet at the same time this faculty of the imagination is free-floating and is quarantined from the messiness of the real world.’
He also traces some of the current narratives around Islam to the Rushdie case: ‘In terms of the Rushdie case, what was problematic was this framing of free speech as part of a civilizational struggle and Rushdie himself does it actually in the novel and in the para-textual interventions that he makes during the controversy.
‘But that discourse set the scene for that civilizational battle that free speech is part of the west and is a civilizational value and I don’t think that’s helpful at all.’
Discussing the changes of recent years, Mondal describes how arguments against censorship must be nuanced and complicated – they are never black and white, right or wrong: ‘Principles are a good starting point but if you are going to end there then you’ve got a problem.
‘I value free expression but I want it to be adequate to the predicament of the world today as a very globalised multiracial, multicultural, multi-religious global society with all of these factors that need to be negotiated. It’s not enough to rely on the principle, we have to think harder.’
For more information on the Rushdie affair, read our case study on PEN’s response.
Our Indian Research Associate Chinmay Sharma attended International PEN’s Congress in Pune and reports back on his experience here, reflecting on the importance of such an event at a time of increased danger not only for Indian writers, but for writers and journalists all over the world…
Travelling from permanently-humid Mumbai to balmy Pune to attend the first PEN Congress to be held in India held between 25th and 29th September, 2018, I couldn’t help but think about the apposite timing as free speech issues had come to occupy front page headlines in India in the preceding months. The main organiser of the conference, Prof. Ganesh Devy, had been on the forefront in the battle of free speech in India in recent years. Following the assassinations of three rationalists— Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare— by suspected associates of Hindu right groups, Devy joined a host of writers like Nayantara Sahgal and Ashok Vajpeyi in returning their Sahitya Akademi awards protesting the central government’s silence and complicity in the murders. To further underline the urgent threats to free speech, a month before the Congress, five civil rights activists— Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Pereira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha— were arrested by the Pune police on trumped up charges, while three more— Kranti, Stan Swami, and Anand Teltumbde— had their homes raided.
Holding the Congress in Pune in this context was significant because Pune is seen as a stronghold of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent body of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress theme—Experiments with Truth— alluded not just to Mahatma Gandhi, who had spent some time in Pune under house arrest at the Aga Khan Palace, but also, perhaps obliquely, to the rise of ‘fake news’.
Also, hot on the heels of PEN International releasing their Women’s Manifesto in March, 2018, the Congress would focus on four themes— Gandhi, women writers and free speech, the rise of fake news, and the threats to free speech in India—with a fifth, underlying theme— the global rise of the far right and its consequences.
The first day of the Congress was dominated by welcome events. Post-lunch, Jennifer Clement, PEN International President, and Carles Tormer, PEN International Secretary delivered their welcome address. Jennifer spoke about violence against women as a way of silencing women, while Carles invoked the myth of the Hindu god Ganesha, the reputed scribe for the Mahabharata, light-heartedly remarking that Ganesha was the first member of PEN. Following this we were taken to visit the Aga Khan Palace to pay our respects at the memorial built to commemorate Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, and his private secretary, Mahadev Desai. From the Palace we were transported to Symbiosis University where Devy made a speech explaining his rationale behind choosing Pune as the host city. He argued that Pune had been a crucial city in pre-historic and historic migratory routes, and that people travelling those routes came up with stories that became both the Mahabharata and the waritradition (a devotional procession in honour of the local deity Vithoba). Devy ended by talking about the multilingualism of Pune, and stressed the need to keep the multiplicity of culture, by preserving Truth, and thus preserving Democracy.
The first two mornings of the Congress were assigned to committee meetings of the PEN International—Women Writers (WW), Writers for Peace (WfP), Writers in Prison (WiP), and Translation & Linguistic Rights (TLR)—which hosted panel discussions and where delegates would debate committee resolutions before bringing it on to the floor of the General Assembly. The panels on women in literature, and on free speech particularly stood out.
Sara Iacovelli from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, gave a presentation on the VIDA count to the WW committee and later to the General Assembly. The count analyzes gender parity in the literary field in the US using different metrics like literary review mentions, literary magazine appearances etc. Over the past few years they have expanded their analysis to include race and sexuality. The hope was that national PEN delegates could use the VIDA methodology or partner with VIDA to carry out similar analyses in their respective countries as a crucial first step towards addressing gender inequality in their respective literary spheres.
The WiP committee session, hosted a panel on Freedom of Expression in India with the journalist Raksha Kumar, academic Apoorvanand Jha, and the famous Telugu author ‘Volga’. Raksha, who had co-authored the PEN report on Freedom of Expression in India, mainly spoke about the threats facing journalists in India today— both legal threats, and threats, often fatal, to their life. Apoorvanand spoke about the increasing curbs on academic freedom of expression through funding decisions, personnel hiring decisions, and fomenting trouble in the university campuses a la JNU. Volga took a different route and spoke about the restrictions on free speech for women, at once individual and systemic, who have to contend with censorship efforts of their family before that of government or ‘activist’ groups.
The General Assembly finally met in the afternoon of the 26th. The main business of the day was outlining the key challenges faced by PEN International and national PEN centres, PEN International’s launch of their Women’s manifesto, and an address to the delegates by Ganesh Devy stressing again the diversity of India. The third and fifth day were devoted to matters of the General Assembly, with the delegates focusing on PEN committee resolutions. Most notably, the new PEN International Vice Presidents were announced— the renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and the Indian authors Nayantara Sehgal and Perumal Murugan. PEN’s report on the dire condition of freedom of speech in Venezuela, Hungary and India were discussed, with PEN Hungary dominating the topic of discussion. The general assembly also hosted panels on defamation laws and how they are used to target free speech; the dilemma of hate speech; and the rise of xenophobia.
Holding the Congress in Pune, with the Gandhian imagery (but Nehruvian ethos of unity in diversity), sent a subtle message of solidarity with Indian writers and resistance against attacks on free speech, as made clear on the last day of the Congress when the senior officials called a press conference to launch their report on the dire condition of Free Speech in India. Writers and journalists from across the world were apprised of the situation directly, which could be helpful in creating an international consensus and solidarity around conserving freedom of speech in the future, not just in India, but in other countries as well. There was an overarching consensus on the urgent need for continuing the work PEN International was doing. Warts and all, it was still a crucial voice that spoke up on behalf of writers in prisons, refugees, and writers under threat.
Peter McDonald talks to J.M. Coetzee about free expression, writers’ groups in South Africa and the place of writing and writers in the world…
Peter McDonald: The South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s, the first decades of your career as a published author, was a place of many writers’ groups. The most established—PEN South Africa (1927) and the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (1934)—were still in existence, albeit in variously fragile or altered states. By the time the Afrikaans group severed its ties with PEN International in 1967, for instance, the local, English-language branch was split between two often rivalrous centres, one in Johannesburg, the other in Cape Town. However, the former was more or less defunct when Dusklandsappeared in 1974, leaving only the latter then under Mary Renault’s presidency. From then on, a wide array of younger, more active local groups began to emerge, including the white-led Artists’ and Writers’ Guild (1974), the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde (1975), the Medu Arts Ensemble (1977), a revived, short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN (1978), the African Writers’ Association (1981), the Writers’ Forum (1985), and the Congress of South African Writers (1987). To what extent were you aware of these various groups and their activities? And did you formally join or simply associate with any of them?1
J.M. Coetzee: Of the organizations you mention, (a) I was aware of PEN but never thought of joining, it seemed too Anglo and too tame; (b) I can’t remember whether I was actually a dues-paying member of the Skrywersgilde, but I certainly attended some events and was friendly with André Brink and Elsa Joubert as well as with the secretary of the Gilde, Amanda Botha; (c) I was aware of COSAW but didn’t like its politics.
PMcD:What concerned you about COSAW’s politics?
JMC: COSAW conceived of itself as an arm of the Struggle. I was not part of the Struggle.
PMcD: What about the later decades from the 1990s onwards?
JMC: I don’t recall relations with any writers’ organizations in the 1990s. At a certain moment I began to be courted by PEN International, but that may have been after the 2003 Nobel Prize.
PMcD: As a contribution to the vast body of writing about censorship, Giving Offense (1996) stands out in part because you take issue, as a writer, with ‘the craft-solidarity of men and women of letters’ (44).2 You point, for instance, to the ‘dynamic of escalation in which the rivals, writer and censor, become less and less distinguishable’ and you challenge the commonly-held ‘myth’ among writers—even ‘intellectuals as a class’—that they will ‘outlast their foes and even write their epitaph’ (44, 118). Underlying this self-aggrandizing narrative, you also see a larger story at work, the origins of which you trace to ‘the Judaeo-Christian teaching of the vindication of the truth in the fullness of time’ (44). State censorship was a pressing concern for you more or less from the start of your career, given the circumstances in South Africa at the time. Yet it appears this particular turn in your thinking—your move to a certain style of auto-critique—happened sometime in the late 1980s. Was this a self-generated intellectual shift on your part or were there particular events or experiences that prompted you to start questioning the ethos, perhaps even the ‘groupthink’, of your own profession?
JMC: I believe it was self-generated (to use your term). I don’t remember that there were any events or experiences that prompted the shift. It struck me that the orthodox position taken by the profession—that ‘the word’ would ultimately triumph—failed to take into account those (many?) writers whose word the state had successfully stifled and/or expunged—and who had therefore failed to become part of the historical record—to say nothing of those (many?) projects that had been abandoned or less than wholeheartedly tackled because their authors could foresee no way in which these would see the light of day, by which I mean be published in a normal way.
PMcD: In the introduction to Giving Offense you note—presciently from today’s perspective—that ‘the bans effected by monopolies or near-monopolies can in practice be no less complete than those implemented by bodies of censors with the force of the law behind them’ (x). In the book itself you focused on the latter, that is, on the way state censorship deforms not just public life but the ‘inner drama’ of writing (38). Since the collection appeared, however, the digital revolution has given renewed impetus to the former—I have in mind the rise of private corporations (monopolies?) like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It also created the conditions for a new breed of self-appointed cyber-censor to emerge who sometimes works in concert with the state, sometimes outside it. Do you think these technological developments, all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?
JMC: You ask: “Do you think these technological developments [social media in particular], all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?”
I am not the best person to whom to address this question. I belong to a generation (the last generation?) that can manage to live happily and successfully outside the ambit of social media. From my sketchy knowledge of what pressures social media are capable of exerting, I would guess that these pressures are better considered under the rubric of social conformity or groupthink rather than under the rubric of censorship.
PMcD: For a writers’ group, the International PEN Club, as it was called at its founding in 1921, is unusual because it was not established to oppose censorship or champion free expression. Those key commitments, which began to take shape in 1933 following the Nazification of German PEN, the book burnings and the persecution of writers in Germany, were formally codified as Article 4 of the PEN Charter only in 1948. At first the organization promoted international solidarity among writers as a counter to the malign nationalism that many felt had led to the First World War. John Galsworthy, the founding President, also believed that as ‘trustees for human nature’ (his phrase) writers had a special calling to act as a counter to politicians. Hence Article 1 of the Charter, which was ratified in 1927: ‘Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.’ The phrase ‘national though it be in origin’ was dropped in 2003. On the same occasion, ‘should’ became ‘must’ and ‘between nations’ was changed to ‘among people’. So Article 1 now reads: ‘Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.’
You never considered joining PEN South Africa, which was regularly criticized at the international level throughout the 1970s and 1980s for its inertia and lack of inclusiveness—it narrowly avoided being expelled on more than one occasion. But you were elected Vice President of what is now called PEN International in 2006, a capacity in which you continue to serve. What value do you see in this association and what good do you think writers can do collectively today?
JMC: As I remember it, the Cape Town PEN of my youth was more or less indistinguishable from the English Association,3culturally conservative, disdainful of Afrikaners and the Afrikaans language, and a bit timid. I never considered joining. PEN International is a different story. It is a big organization whose word carries a certain weight. It speaks up on behalf of persecuted writers—in practice, in our day, mainly persecuted journalists—and does a lot of good work behind the scenes too.
PMcD: In 1986 you attended PEN International’s 48thCongress in New York, together with Sipho Sepamla, Nadine Gordimer and a host of other leading writers, including Joseph Brodsky, Günter Grass, Wole Soyinka, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie. The Congress theme that year was ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.’ Looking back on the occasion in 2011, Rushdie commented: ‘In 1986 it still felt natural for writers to claim to be, as Shelley said, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty, transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow’s great formulation, “open the universe a little more.” Twenty-five years later, it is harder to make such exalted claims for mere wordsmiths. Harder, but no less necessary.’ Do you agree? And, if so, what factors have made it harder in your view?
JMC: I would prefer not to frame the question in Rushdie’s terms, which seem to me extreme. I would prefer to rephrase the question as follows: Is it true that works of literature no longer carry as much weight, in the eyes of the public, as they once did? If it is true, why should it be so?
I am not going to attack the question frontally, but I will make four observations that relate to it.
One. If we are thinking of the effect of books on public opinion, then we must concede that some of the books that have had the greatest effect on public opinion have not been great books. Examples: The Jungle (1904) by Upton Sinclair; Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.
Two. If, on the other hand, we are thinking of the effect books can have on the way we see the world, then we may seriously have to consider that some books can indeed have this shaping power, even on people who do not read them but absorb them from the surrounding discourse. Example: War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy.
Three. There was a time (the time of Dickens, the time of Zola) when the printed novel was as good a medium as any for airing concern over pressing social issues. This is no longer true. The lag time between writing and publication is too long. There are too many competing media, of equal or greater immediate impact. Example: cinema.
Four. Because of the way the publishing industry operates (has been forced to operate) nowadays, the public has unprecedented access to writers in person, and is thus able to confirm quite speedily that there is nothing special about them. This has in fact always been true. There was nothing special about, for example, Leo Tolstoy.
Observations One, Three and Four go some way toward accounting for the declining prestige of the writer. Nevertheless:
Five. While there is nothing special about writers as human beings, there is (sometimes) something special about what they write.
©J. M. Coetzee 2019
(This copyrighted interview forms part of the AHRC-funded ‘Writers and Free Expression’ project—Do not reproduce all or any part of it without permission. If you wish to quote it for academic purposes, please reference the project blog.)
1For more details about these various groups, see Peter D. McDonald, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences(Oxford, 2009), Chapter 3.
2See J. M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship(Chicago, 1996).
3JMC notes: The English Association (Cape Town) saw its task as promoting English literature (understood in a fairly traditional sense) and the values associated therewith among the general educated public.
Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International, discusses his history with the organisation and the evolution of PEN’s stance on linguistic rights in this latest fascinating interview with Peter McDonald…
This Declaration considers as a language community any human society established historically in a particular territorial space, whether this space be recognized or not, which identifies itself as a people and has developed a common language as a natural means of communication and cultural cohesion among its members.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights (1996), the first sentence of which appears above, lays the foundation for its central and most contentious claim: language communities, not just individuals, have rights.
Once this was agreed by all the parties involved in the drafting process, Carles Torner notes in this interview, ‘then everything fell into place’, but, equally, ‘we all knew that by acknowledging collective rights…we were condemning the Declaration‘, ensuring it would be unacceptable to many state authorities and almost impossible to make a text of international law.
This may be frustrating, Torner adds, but, given the inspiration it continues to afford marginalized communities around the world, the Declaration remains not just a landmark document in the history of human rights but a ‘utopian vision into what could be international law’. After all, ‘the issue is not whether or not you reach a utopia. It is all about the process, the pilgrimage you are making toward articulating it.’
Carles Torner, a leading Catalan writer and human rights activist, is currently Executive Director of PEN International. In this extended interview, which addresses a number of themes central to this site and the associated book, he discusses what it is to be a poet and an activist, the background to his involvement with organisations like PEN and UNESCO, the part he played in the formulation of the Universal Declaration in the 1990s, and the role he continues to play in its future.
You can read the full interview Carles Torner Interview 2018