Writers and Free Expression Project

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.

#100PENMembers No.9: Sophia Wadia

Sophia Wadia founded the Indian Branch of the PEN in 1933, and even ran it from her home, before relocating it to ‘Theosophy Hall’ in Bombay in the mid 50s.

Sophia Wadia

Under Wadia’s directorship, the All-India PEN centre was one of the most prominent and successful of all global PEN centres. From the start, she enlisted the participation of major Indian writers and pro-Independence politicians, receiving the enthusiastic support of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, and also future Prime Ministers and Presidents of India, Nehru, (India’s first Prime Minister) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (future President of India 1962-67), and Zakir Husain (President of India from 1967 -1968), all of whom played an active role in PEN. She received the Padma shri (one of the highest civilian awards in India) from the hands of Nehru in 1960.

Wadia had been born Sophia Camacho in Columbia, but married theosophist B. P Wadia in 1927, and then settled in Bombay. At the 1947 Benares Conference Sarojini Naidu described Wadia as “the founder, the god-mother, the nurse, the ayah, the guardian, she was everything of this P.E.N.” 

Wadia was, indeed, a formidable and inescapable presence , and a tireless organizer. She edited The Indian PEN magazine, as well as the series of “introductions” to Assamese, Bengali, Indo-Anglian, Telugu and other regional literatures which the Center started to publish in 1941.  [under the name “P. E. N. Books. The Indian Literatures”.] In her foreword to the series, Sophia Wadia explained that the project represented a systematic attempt to “popularise the story of the Indian literatures”, and the first line also gives the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial thrust of the project, i.e.: “India’s ruling passion is for freedom from colonial domination.” 

She was also instrumental in organizing the ‘All-India Writers’ Conferences”, starting in 1945 in Jaipur and then regularly all over India (Banares, Baroda, Bhubhaneshwar, etc.-)

She represented India at many of PEN’s international Congresses and was an extremely vocal (and respected) voice in these congresses, where she championed not only the voice of India, but the voice of the “East”, which could not be excluded “if the PEN is to be truly international” 

India’s Season of Dissent: An Interview with Poet Karthika Naïr

Our Co-Investigator Laetitia Zecchini interviewed the poet Karthika Naïr, discussing free expression, literary activism and the importance of being a political poet.

Born in Kerala, the poet moved to France in 2000, subsequently working for several cultural institutions (Cité de la Musique, Centre national de la danse, Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration…) as a dance producer, dance-writer, or “dance enabler,” as she sometimes likes to define herself. Her closest associations have been with choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Akram Khan.1 She published three collections of poetry; Bearings in 1999; Until the Lions, Echoes from the Mahabharata in 2015, which won the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year 2015 (for fiction), and Over & Underground in Paris and Mumbai, in 2018, co-authored with poet Sampurna Chattarji and the artists Joëlle Jollivet and Roshni Vyam. With Joëlle Jollivet, she also brought out a children’s book, The Honey Hunter/Le Tigre de Miel, first published in 2013 and translated into French, German and Bangla.

Her poignant retelling of the Mahabharata in Until the LionsEchoes from the Mahabharata, is “among other things, a passionate antiwar manifesto,” as David Shulman recently suggested. The epic is recast from the perspective of those who have been promised to erasure and are often the first casualties of war: the faceless, the nameless and unremembered by/of history, many of whom are women (spouses, lovers, mothers, sisters, etc…). The “echoes” of the Mahabharata are not only the echoes of all the other Mahabharatas in whose lineage Karthika Naïr places herself, the ocean of stories and (re)tellings to which the epic continues to give birth. Her poems’ unflinching confrontation with the violence of the world, and of India in particular, are about today. In the powerful, damaged and enraged voices of those who refuse to be muted or unaccounted, we hear echoes of the struggles of Dalits, Adivasis, women, Muslims, but also of all the other (increasingly) threatened minorities whose dissenting views and narratives infuriate the sentinels of cultural and religious majoritarianism: activists, journalists, students, artists, writers…

In her recent introduction to the American edition of Until the Lions, Karthika Naïr writes: 

‘For many Indian writers and cultural practitioners, 2015 seemed to have represented a turning point. By 2015, casualties were not statistics anymore, reported with increasing urgency by PEN or FreeMuse. They were names, faces, voices you knew, had read, watched, heard. Some, those first met when young—in the flesh, or through words, chords, images—and dearly loved. Artists, writers, activists: some whose work, whose life had powered your own, from near or far. People who had merely gone out one day to celebrate art and debate, laughter and sport. Narendra Dabholkar. Ahmed Rajib Haider. Gulnar (Muskan). Bernard Maris. Govind Pansare. Avijit Roy. 21 visitors to Bardo National Museum. H Farook. M Kalburgi. Francisco Hernández. 89 music lovers attending an Eagles of Death Metal gig at Bataclan. The living are targeted in other ways. With book bans. Prison. Exile. Fatwa. Smear campaigns. Accusations of sedition… Kamel Daoud. Oleg Sentsov. Perumal Murugan. Atena Farghadani. Fatima Naoot. The 50-odd Indian writers (followed by film-makers and artists)—who had returned awards and honors as protest against the spate of murders of intellectuals and minorities—hounded as anti-nationals by several media houses and right-wing politicians.’

Karthika Naïr. 2020. Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. Archipelago Books, USA (See Auth (…)

It was perhaps only natural that Karthika Naïr, who considers herself a political poet (or rather: “how can literature not be political?”) would be moved to write on Shaheen Bagh, when in December 2019, a handful of Muslim women came out of their homes in Delhi to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and resolved not to move before they were heard. Shaheen Bagh was also a peaceful resistance to and against violence: the violence to which Muslims and women have been subjected for so long in India; the violence unleashed at the Jamia Millia University campus a few days earlier, and the constant threat of violence (by the police and by right-wing “goons”) to which the protestors were subjected during the one-hundred days during which the sit-in lasted. The “dogs of carnage” summoned by Karthika Naïr in her ghazal, eventually broke loose, unleashing terror in the streets of Delhi. But what happened at Shaheen Bagh is and must be remembered. And the task of the poet is also to make sure that these voices continue to be heard.

In the following interview conducted over Skype, and revised over email in September 2020, we talk of Shaheen Bagh and of her poem “Ghazal: India’s Season of Dissent; of the activism of Indian writers and artists; of the politics of literature; of the relevance of poetry to protest movements and resistance struggles; of how literary texts can “respond” to violence, grief and pain. And since Karthika Naïr’s poetry and biography constantly weave together a multitude of contexts, voices, and cultural backgrounds, she also throws light on the interconnection and intersectionality of these struggles; on the resonances of the anti-CAA protests and of Shaheen Bagh outside India; on how terror and resistance to terror are echoed in different parts of the world.

LZ : From Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, to Turbine Bagh in London, we also witness an internationalization of struggles that are staged or made visible in different parts of the world. And Shaheen Bagh captured worldwide media attention. I was also thinking of a recent appeal by some prominent world intellectuals who have urged the release of writers and activists Varavara Rao and G. N. Saibaba.You yourself have been very much a part of many of these international campaigns to free writers, journalists, activists. But going back to what you were saying about “petition activism,” these campaigns and the media attention can both give incredible visibility, perhaps agency, but can conversely also highlight a form of powerlessness…So, for instance, Varavara Rao who is 80 years old and was diagnosed with Covid, and G.N. Saibaba who is 90 % handicapped, are still in prison and their lives, as we speak, are at risk. That is a question we’ll keep returning to, no doubt. But what can these campaigns and petitions do? How does that kind of activism help? 

KN : I think we need to be very clear about what petitions can do, and what they can’t. The best thing they can do is, indeed, visibilize. It may be never immediate enough, of course. But there is a specific end and one can manage to have a cumulative movement which gathers force from both physical real-life presence and mobilization, and campaigns or petitions that are internationalized. One of the best examples of that I would say is actually Shahidul Alam’s liberation from a Dhaka prison, where people in situ but also people from all around the world put enormous pressure. 

I do think that petitions are useful to that extent, inasmuch as they create awareness, give visibility, disseminate knowledge and information about certain cases, and help people use other platforms as well to protest, or dissent or demand. And in certain happy cases, it is generating enough of a momentum…But there are also worrying aspects as well: one, with the profusion of online appeals, there is the danger of, shall we call it, petition fatigue; the other, of petitions generating the false and easy reassurance that we’ve done our bit with a click on a button, that nothing more is required.

LZ: If we return to your ghazal, you’ve said that poetry has a treasure trove of forms at its disposal, and that these forms have specific functions—that they do different things, and are chosen for what they can do. In the context of Shaheen Bagh and the persecution of Muslim minorities in India, the choice of a ghazal seems both formal and political. Would you like to elaborate a little? 

KN: Of course. Well there are many reasons why I chose this specific form. One of which is also heritage. And the people that I quote or that inspire me here, are people like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Kafi Azmi. The ghazal has an extraordinary history, and an enormous capacity for expansion, it can contain everything from a love song, with which it is (sometimes unfortunately) most famously associated, to an anthem: it has been the instrument of so much reflection, protest, and dissent. I was again inscribing myself in that literary and activist lineage, in that tradition of dissent.

LZ: You’ve also said that forms are your weapons…

KN: Yes, but in this particular context I wanted to inscribe myself in this lineage of the ghazal as an activist writer’s tool, or basically as a writer’s tool. Because like Arundhati Roy says, that’s a bit of a tautology “activist writer.” When you are a writer, you are political. To state the obvious, for a writer to say I am not political, for me, is also extremely political, because it means that you are so privileged that you don’t have to have any politics. So, the ghazal was a great way to inscribe myself in a tradition and say, again, that this kind of literary activism is nothing new. It is part of something that has been going on for ever so long, which is that literature, or poetry, is a way of situating yourself in society, in a nation, on a globe just as much as it is of situating yourself inside a body or a heart. And how you situate yourself in a body is probably the first political thing you do. 

For instance, in the first three couplets, the qafiyais the following pattern of words: “nation,” Going back to the ghazal, it’s a form which really lends itself to sort of hammering the same theme but with variations. You’ve got the radif (refrain word or phrase, which corresponds here to the word “dissent”) and you’ve got the qafiya (the rhyming pattern that must precede the radif). Imagine drawing loops of the same size, in the air, each distinct, but touching the same point on the floor—so the point of landing will be identical each time, though the curve will be different. I also love the fact that the couplets which have the same refrain, and the same meter, are self-contained, but that the change in rhyming words can allow the development of a thought, an idea with each successive couplet.

LZ: I wanted to quote the words of writer Githa Hariharan, who is also the co-founder of this extraordinary platform, The Indian Writers’ Forum, to which you have contributed.14 In a text written for the 3rd anniversary of Gauri Lankesh’s brutal murder, she paints a very dark picture of the situation in India today, with the growing list of political prisoners languishing in prison without trial, the attacks on Muslims, minorities, academics, students; the charges of sedition, conspiracy, contempt of court or “unlawful activities” levelled at many citizens. And yet, she says “we still have voices that speak up”: “If we speak, Gauri will continue to speak…They cannot silence us all.”

KN: I really think The Indian Writers Forum has been doing a wonderful job for so many years as a sentinel. It reminds me of that old saying about those who stay awake, so others can sleep in peace. Now I don’t think anyone of us can sleep in peace right now, but the IWF has been there as the eyes in the dark for so long. And they are putting what they see in the dark out there. And that’s precious. I think we also have to remember that it’s extremely fragile… Remember that whether through fiscal legislation, or through other means, so many NGOs in India are under increasing threat. And for years I was not able to give a donation to IWF because I am a foreign national. The irony of it is that political parties can receive unlimited foreign funding without any examination or questioning, but NGOs are suspect. So even when you are not hounding an organization actively, you are cutting off its blood supply. In other words, supporting something like IWF is more and more vital. 

More generally, I think, yes, we have to resist and speak up a long time before we are on our knees. There is so much that we have to be constantly vigilant about. Here as well (i.e. in France). A few months ago, I heard someone who is a leftist and an activist say that he was going to vote Marine Le Pen in the next election, because he said, “it can’t get much worse.” And I said, it can get much worse. You are a straight, white man in your 70s. Yes, things are going to be ok for you on a quotidian level. But for anybody who is different in any way, in terms of race, in terms of sexuality, in terms of language, in terms of religion, in terms of dissent or mobility, no it is not going to be ok. The alternative cannot be the Marine Le Pens of the world, because India is standing testimony to how little it takes to dismantle a democracy. 5 years! When you had 65 years behind you… What I mean is all you need is the wrong regime in power, in both houses of the Parliament, with enough clout to purchase or threaten free press. No country is invulnerable in its democratic or republican principles. 

LZ: I’d like to raise with you the question of literary texts as responses or reactions to specific events. Of course, you cannot predict from where a poem really springs, and a writer always writes with everything he or she experiences, but you’ve written many poems that seem to articulate a kind of response, like your ghazal around Shaheen Bagh, or your powerful text on the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 attacks in Paris in Over and Underground in Paris & Mumbai. You also wrote a recent poem triggered by a self-portrait of the photographer Khadija Saye, who was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire…And that made me think of a short newspaper column written by Adil Jussawalla called “Poems after Ayodhya,” where he takes issue with the fact that you should expect poets to voice their immediate protest or shock about the riots. And he has this fabulous sentence where he writes that “the state of the country is not a workshop that makes poems happen…” 

KN: Bless him! But, whether we like it or not, poetry is political. Take the Romantic movement, for instance, which all seems very innocuous, but for me was intensely political as well, because you were taking the divine out of the established places and the realm of religion, and placing it in nature for instance, or within the discovery of a wider world. But I agree completely with Adil and do get uncomfortable with poems that are for example titled “Kargil” or “Palestine.” And very conflicted about what one could call a form of disaster porn. But it’s sensitive, isn’t it? And I always think of something Larbi (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) told me: should me no shoulds, in other words, let there be no rules on what can or cannot be tackled by art. So I also think that everyone responds as he or she can, and the poem will speak for itself. Nothing should come between that compulsion to speak and the page, if you see what I mean. My own take is that I try to situate it in the intersection between the personal and the political and that’s the way it’s been for Charlie Hebdo for instance…Even today, I mourn Bernard Maris like somebody I knew. And so I write also from a very personal space, of what I lost in that bloody massacre.

You can read the full interview which is part of a special issue on ‘The Hindutva Turn: Authoritarianism and Resistance in India’ in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.

#100PENMembers No.8: E.M. Forster

Today we consider one of PEN’s most famous early members. It is no accident that E. M. Forster decided to join International PEN a month after the infamous 1928 London trial of Radclyffe Hall novel, The Well of Loneliness. Hall’s novel was banned as obscene in 1928 because of its sincere representation of a lesbian relationship. As a writer with first-hand experience of self-censoring his writing of gay sexuality, the Well trial, which split apart British culture, was important in Forster’s assumption of a more public intellectual role defending free expression. 

E.M. Forster by fellow Bloomsbury member Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

Forster, who described himself as a liberal who has found liberalism ‘crumbling beneath him’, was insightful about both the importance of free expression to individual self-development and the dangers associated with the powerful censoriousness of popular opinion, particularly with regard to the suppression of gay and lesbian sexuality. 

He became a prominent and active PEN member. His name was liberally applied to PEN’s paperwork from 1928 onwards. He was asked, but politely declined, to become London PEN President on 12thJuly, 1935, but did take over the reins briefly when, along with François Mauriac and Ignazio Silone, he formed part of a joint International PEN Presidential committee during 1946 and 1947. 

He signed many key PEN protest letters and declarations, including the reaffirmation of PEN’s principles on free expression in 1935, the letter sent to General Franco in support of imprisoned writer, Arthur Koestler in 1938, the International PEN statement to the Press defending ‘freedom of conscience’ and the ‘liberty to speak’ against Nazism-Fascism on July 10th1940, and the collective English PEN letter to The Times in 1957 on behalf of imprisoned Hungarian writers, including Tibor Déry. 

As well as signing letters and declarations, Forster also presided over the 1944 London PEN conference which celebrated the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, updating Milton’s argument for his criticism of the suppressive state mechanisms of both authoritarian regimesand modern democracies. He appeared as a prominent guest speaker at the 1944 All-India PEN Congress on literature, one of the largest literary congresses ever held in India, with writers and politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in attendance. 

#100PENMembers No.7: Tsitsi Dangarembga

Our seventh influential PEN member has just received an award for her campaigning and is the subject of ongoing court proceedings in her Zimbabwe for her role in peaceful protests last summer.

Photo Credit: Hannah Mentz

Tsitsi Dangarembga will today receive the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. Since it was established in 2005, this annual award has been given to a range of prominent writers for their ‘work in fighting for freedom of expression’. 

The internationally-acclaimed Dangarembga was short-listed for the Booker Prize this year for her novel, This Mournable Body.

She was arrested in July 2020 during anti-corruption protests against the Mnangagwa government, and in defence of Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist recently arrested for protesting and for criticising the government. Dangarembga wrote about the events that day for PEN

Talking to al Jazeera she said: ‘My arrest and the arrests of others who protested on July 31, or even in the days leading up to July 31 indicate that the right to peaceful protest is seriously eroded in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean citizens are expected to keep silent and docilely accept whatever the authorities decide to do, or face arrest for peacefully expressed differences of opinion.’

She was charged in September with the intention to incite public violence and freed on bail. She was still awaiting trial at the time of writing. Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said: ‘In a bizarre turn of events that could be part of a surreal novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested for peacefully expressing her opinion over rising corruption in Zimbabwe, and then released as if the government was being magnanimous. She was arrested because she said on social media: Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action – which the government confused for ‘insurrection.’ Zimbabwe’s authorities need to get not only their semantics but also their understanding of human rights and free expression right.’ 

Dangarembga has always been a trailblazer and began her career writing plays before turning to novels:”There were simply no plays with roles for black women, or at least we didn’t have access to them at the time. The writers in Zimbabwe were basically men at the time. And so I really didn’t see that the situation would be remedied unless some women sat down and wrote something, so that’s what I did!” Her debut novel Nervous Conditions (1988) was the first to be published in English by a Black woman in Zimbabwe.

Dangarembga holds a placard during the 31st July Protests in Harare. Photo Credit: AFP

As part of her activism work and to defend free speech in Zimbabwe, Dangarembga revived the dormant Zimbabwean PEN branch in 2016. She currently holds the post of International Chair of  Creative Writing (Africa) at the University of East Anglia.

The award ceremony takes place tonight as part of the opening night of the online Winternachten International Literature Festival The Hague, and can be streamed live (tickets & more details: writersunited.nl).

Get involved: Find out how you can lend your support to Tsitsi.

#100PENMembers No.6: Ken Saro-Wiwa

Ken Saro-Wiwa, an honorary member of American PEN with close ties to the American West branch, was the first of our #PEN100Members to need the organisation’s help when he was imprisoned for his environmental campaigning.

Ken Saro Wiwa

Many of Saro-Wiwa’s 1970s and 1980s works, most prominently his play Transistor Radio and his novel Sozaboy, which dealt with the Biafran War, were political. By the early 1990s he had begun to focus his politics into direct environmental and civil rights activism, particularly the defence of the land of the minority Ogoni people of Nigeria, of whom he was a key member. Their land needed protection from the environmental destruction caused by the excavation of crude oil by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company, which had struck oil on the Ogoni land in 1958 and since then extracted an estimated $30bn worth of oil, with no formal compensation of the Ogoni for the loss of their land or livelihoods.

Because Saro-Wiwa’s international profile as a writer meant that his protests had global reach, he was seen as particularly troublesome by the Nigerian government and he endured several spells of imprisonment as a result of his activism. 

In May 1994 Saro-Wiwa and several fellow activists were arrested, accused of murder by the Nigerian government.

PEN, as well as trying to support Saro Wiwa through statements and letters to the press, also developed its strategy of getting members to write to him in prison to keep his spirits up. Writing to prisoners remains a key part of the organisation’s work, with prisoners often commenting on how important such contact can be. Saro-Wiwa even managed to have several letters smuggled out of the prison thanking them for their efforts and writing that with their support he would survive his unjust imprisonment.

Letter from Ken Sara Wiwa to English PEN February 1995, from the International PEN Archives at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. Appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In this typed-up version of a letter he had smuggled out of jail in 21stFebruary 1995, he expresses his thanks to International PEN for its work on his behalf, saying that he is ‘in good spirits’ and that he hopes that ‘with your support I’ll survive my travails.’

PEN and other organisations such as Amnesty International and Article 19 lobbied governments across the world for Saro-Wiwa’s release, including Sani Abacha’s Nigerian government. They even approached Shell for support but their protests fell on deaf ears. 

On 10 November 1995, Saro-Wiwa and several other Ogoni leaders were executed after a short trial. British Prime Minister John Major described the case as ‘judicial murder’.

Our Case Study, compiled from information held in the PEN International Archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, tells the story in greater detail.

PEN continues to appeal to the Nigerian government to overturn the murder conviction.

Most importantly, Saro-Wiwa’s tragic case became symbolic of the plight of writers and activists in prison across the world.

In mid-November every year PEN’s international community come together to focus their thoughts and efforts on writers in prison around the world. They call it day of the Imprisoned Writer (15th Nov). It’s proximity to the anniversary of Ken’s execution makes it all the more poignant.Read more about PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee here.

Case Study: Ken Saro-Wiwa

The case of Ken Saro Wiwa was one of PEN’s most high-profile and one of its most distressing.

Saro Wiwa was a Nigerian writer, television producer and environmental activist who was executed on 10 November 1995.

He had been instrumental in defending the land of the Ogoni, a minority people in Nigeria of whom he was a key member, from the environmental destruction caused by the excavation of crude oil by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company.

Royal Dutch Shell had struck oil on the Ogoni land in 1958 and since then an estimated $30bn worth has been extracted, but there has been no formal compensation of the Ogoni for the loss of their land or livelihoods.

The landscape has been devastated by spills, waste and acid rain, harming wildlife and making farming impossible.

After decades of poor treatment the MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) was founded with Saro Wiwa as the President.

On 23 January 1993, Saro Wiwa gathered 300,000 Ogoni to take part in a peaceful protest to demand some compensation from the oil companies for the loss of their livelihoods and to help them to begin to clean up their land.

This marked Saro Wiwa out, leading to repeated spells of imprisonment until, on 27th May 1994, armed police came for him during the night and abducted him from his home.

Several other MOSOP leaders were taken at the same time, accused of the murder of several Ogoni leaders.

The Nigerian government then took control of Ogoni lands, terrorising villages and subjecting the people to mass arrest, rape and summary executions.

PEN, who had maintained a relationship with Saro-Wiwa throughout his earlier imprisonments, were on high alert and they worked with other organisations including Index on Censorship, Amnesty and even the Body Shop to try to secure his release.

PEN Rapid Action Network fax from the PEN international Archive. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

That day, the PEN Rapid Action Network informed its members of by fax  Saro Wiwa’s latest arrest and its circumstances:

‘The Writers in Prison Committee calls on the Nigerian authorities to clarify the reasons for the arrest of Ken Saro-Wiwa and to ensure that he be given immediate access to his family, a lawyer and any necessary medical care and that he be held in humane conditions.’ 

On the 2ndJune Mandy Garner Chair of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee wrote to Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, Nigerian High Commissioner in London asking for a meeting to discuss Saro-Wiwa’s arrest. 

In a letter to the Times of London days later, PEN International President Ronald Harwood raises concerns that Saro-Wiwa, a PEN member, ‘is reported to be held incommunicado in leg irons and handcuffs. He is said to have been denied access to the medication that he needs to control his high blood pressure.’

A further R.A.N. update on 17 June describes that ‘[t]he [PEN] Writers in Prison  Committee believes that Ken Saro-Wiwa, a long-time and internationally-known advocate of peaceful protest, is detained because of his non-violent campaign on minority rights and environmental pollution, in violation of his right to freedom of expression, as laid down in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. 

Whilst Saro-Wiwa had been in good health until his repeated imprisonments and the mistreatment that accompanied them, the stress and physical hardship was taking a toll on his body. He suffered a heart attack whilst in prison.

In June 1994 PEN negotiated with the Nigerian government for a doctor to visit him and a report on his health was sent to the English PEN office in London. It made grave reading. 

P.E.N. continue to write to the Nigerian government and its representatives. Members of PEN branches from across the world wrote to Saro-Wiwa in prison, pledging their support.

In August, English PEN received a letter from Saro Wiwa himself advising that they contact Shell International in London and its employees because ‘if Shell wants me released tomorrow, it will happen.’ 

PEN immediately stepped up its efforts on Saro Wiwa’s behalf, contacting Shell and the British government in September to make Saro-Wiwa’s case. Their protests and those of many others both within Nigeria and across the world, fell on deaf ears.

By October of that year, Saro-Wiwa was on hunger strike. However, as his letters indicate, even he himself believed that he would eventually be released. In one letter, smuggled out of jail in 21stFebruary 1995, he expresses his thanks to International PEN for its work on his behalf, saying that he is ‘in good spirits’ and that he hopes that ‘with your support I’ll survive my travails.’

Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were formally charged in January 1995. But human rights organisations around the world were deeply troubled by the legal process afforded to Saro Wiwa and his co-defendents. Article 19, the Law Society and the Bar Human Rights Committee reported in June 1995 that it was clear that ‘the trial is fundamentally flawed and there is grave reason to fear that its continuation will represent a gross injustice and an abuse of human rights. It went on that: ‘The tribunal established to hear the case is neither independent nor impartial.’

PEN Rapid Action Network fax from the PEN international Archive. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In October 1995 Saro Wiwa and his colleagues were found guilty of murder. They were hanged on 10thNovember 1995.

The British Prime Minister John Major described the case as ‘judicial murder’. 

PEN continues to appeal to have the conviction over-turned. Shell continues to operate in the Niger Delta, organisations like Amnesty continue to lobby them to take responsibility for the environmental damage in the area.

#100PENMembers No.5: Margaret Atwood

With Twitter deciding, this weekend, to ban Donald Trump permanently from its platform, and Amazon pulling support for Parler, the so-called ‘free speech’ social network, the issue of online speech and its limits has reached a crisis point. 

Portrait by Alasdair McLellan for The Gentlewoman

The dangers posed by the sheer reach and power of Trump’s online speech were predicted by many, including our PEN member for today, Margaret Atwood. She admitted in 2018 that there were horrifying similarities between the fictional state of Gilead in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale and Trump’s Presidency: ‘We’re not living in Gilead, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on’. 

But the issue of online censorship is complex. For some, the decision by social media companies to censor Trump’s words has come far too late. Others, including Angela Merkel, who clearly condemned the violent attack on the Capitol last week, have nevertheless questioned the fact that it is social media companies who are deciding on the limits to expression. 

Not even Atwood could have predicted that, along with her fictional handmaid’s costumes becoming a global symbol for feminist pro-choice demonstrators they have also, during the COVID pandemic, been appropriated by Trump-supporting, far-right protestors at anti-quarantine rallies. 

But it has also been a feature of recent history that the right to free speech itself has become politicised and weaponised by the extreme right, appealed to as a so-called ‘American’ or ‘Western’ value connected to constitutional history, and defined against anti-Western cultures and progressive liberal values. 

What are the implications for novelists and poets, who have long defended the rights of writers to free speech? How can free speech be reclaimed as a progressive value? 

When Atwood first started work for Canadian PEN in the early 1980s the organisation, as she wrily described it, consisted of  ‘no money and some postage stamps and dining room tables.’ 

A pivotal member since those modest early days when PEN Canada had recently moved from Montreal to its new home in Toronto, Atwood has been very active in both PEN USA and PEN Canada. She now serves as a PEN International Vice President whilst retaining her membership of both Centres.

As the award-winning author of thirty works of fiction, poetry and critical essays, and one of the most important writers of the last sixty years, she has consistently used her global voice in PEN to represent and publicise the plight of persecuted, imprisoned and censored writers. As she put it, she acts as ‘a stand-in for the thousands of people around the world who speak and act against [human rights] abuses’. 

The policing of language and behavior, as well as the solidarity and pleasures ignited by the free use of language, are central to many of her novels, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and The Testaments (2019). Campaigning for free expression has also been an integral part of Atwood’s life.  She won PEN’s Pinter Prize in 2016 in recognition of her work defending writer’s rights. On accepting the award, she nominated Ahmedu Rashid Chowdhury for the international prize, after the publisher from Bangladesh survived a machete and gun attack by Islamic extremists.

The Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses affair in 1989 was a turning-point for literary free speech debates, and it was significant for Atwood. She put her name to the PEN Rushdie petition which was signed by writers from all over the world. The letter was circulated widely to global newspapers, was presented to the United Nations and sent to Iranian representatives. She also addressed the specific challenges faced by Canadians, joining a campaign to defend the ‘lives and property of Canadian booksellers, Canadian publishers, and Canadian readers’ threatened because of Ayatolleh Khomeini’s ‘appalling incitement to murder Salman Rushdie’. This was designed for submission to the Prime Minister of Canada but also to garner press attention worldwide.

Image ‘Canadians Under Attack’ from the International PEN Archive appears courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

Since then she has served as a figurehead for Canadian PEN and PEN America, spearheading action for writers in prison all over the world and using her global fame to raise issues and funds. She even performed a duet with fellow writer Robertson Davies at the 1990 PEN Canada Benefit! 

She is a very active International Vice President. She continues to write to Writers in Prison around the world, often making her correspondence public in order to draw attention to key causes. In 2016, in her letter to the Turkish author Asli Erdroğan, she wrote that ‘You are not alone: you have the entire PEN community of writers from around the world fighting for your freedom.’ She was a prominent signatory to the 2017 ‘Make Space Campaign’, which highlighted the position of writers displaced through racism and xenophobia, and sought to challenge hostility to refugees and asylum seekers. 

Most recently, she wrote, with J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie 150 others, a defence of free expression which raised anxieties that it was ‘daily becoming more constricted’ as ‘a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.’

This intervention proved controversial, with some arguing that it failed to acknowledge the structural inequalities that allow free speech to some, and denies it to others. The furore it caused reveals the increased politicization of disagreements about free speech. It seems likely that Atwood, a life-long free speech advocate, will continue to be at the centre of these debates around what may be said and written and will continue her fierce defence of writers’ rights around the world.

#100PENMembers No.4: Toni Morrison

Today we turn to one of the most important PEN members in the organisation’s history. The Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison was not only one of the most significant writers of the last fifty years, she was also one of the world’s most powerful and insightful free speech advocates. She was a leading member of PEN America for many years, and became Vice President of International PEN in 2006. 

Toni Morrison

She used her role in PEN to amplify African-American voices within the organisation and her worldwide fame and influence to support PEN’s free expression campaigning.

Invoking the famous line from PEN’s 1927 Principles that literature ‘knows no frontiers’, she spoke of her ‘respect’ for the PEN organisation as having ‘no borders’. 

She saw PEN as an important means with which to mobilise a collaborative activism in defence of free expression and articulated this in her work on the collection of essays, Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word which she edited and published in conjunction with PEN in 2009. 

In her powerful introductory essay to the book, entitled ‘Peril’, she described the different kinds of threats to writers’ freedoms: the censorship imposed by authoritarian regimes, and also the prohibitions within liberal democracies: the corporate thief, the corrupt justice system and what she called the ‘comatose public’. She also exposed the perils of self-censorship, the ‘erasure’ of voices, of ‘unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overheard by the wrong people’. 

Morrison also argued that writers have a particular responsibility for defending free expression. The protection of writers, she suggested, should be ‘initiated by other writers’; a statement that deliberately foregrounded the importance of the PEN community for highlighting the plight of persecuted and silenced writers. 

Her work for PEN arose from lifelong interests, both in giving voice to ‘invisible’ black experiences, and in dissecting the power of language. In her 1993 Nobel Prize speech, she exposed the power of language both to paralyse and to activate. While many Western legal systems prohibit certain kinds of language by separating out words and the actions they incite, she famously identified language itself as having agency: ‘Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge’. At the same time, however, she did not suggest that there should be more prohibitions on language. Instead, she argued that language has, as she put it, the ‘agency’ to change the world. Language is an ‘act with consequences’. 

In 2016 she was honoured with the PEN Saul Bellow Award, reflecting what PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel called ‘her unmatched ability to use story to kindle empathy and rouse the imaginations of millions to contemplate lived experiences other than their own’.

#100PENMembers No. 3: H.G. Wells

Author H.G. Wells (1866 – 1946) Shown: H.G. Wells (1932)

A personal friend of Dawson Scott, H.G. Wells attended the first meeting of PEN. His main contribution to the organisation, however, was in shaping its commitment to free speech activism after he became International PEN President on John Galsworthy’s death in 1933. 

In Spring 1933, the Nazis took control of Berlin PEN and resolutely refused to protest when Socialist and Jewish writers were thrown out of Germany.

One of Wells’ first tasks as President was to steer the infamous 1933 PEN congress in Dubrovnik. There were passionate speeches on both sides, with the Nazi PEN members insisting that PEN should remain apolitical, and one of Germany’s most famous literary exiles, Ernst Toller, demanding that PEN act to protect Germany’s persecuted writers.

When Wells, hampered by protocol, nevertheless threatened to resign rather than suppress the issue of free speech in Germany, the Nazi PEN members stormed out. 

It was the first time a PEN centre had effectively been turfed out of the International organisation. The fall-out was momentous. While some members bemoaned PEN’s new political stance, Wells argued that PEN should become an organisation committed to defending what he called, at the 1934 Edinburgh PEN Congress, the ‘one end’ of freedom of expression. It is a commitment to free speech activism that has defined the organisation ever since. 

At the same time, however, as political events spiralled out of control in Germany, Spain, and Italy, Wells was also often exasperated with what he saw as PEN’s ineffectiveness in defending persecuted writers, and after the 1936 Barcelona PEN Congress he resigned as International PEN President. He continued, however, to participate in PEN activities, even travelling to Stockholm for the 1939 PEN Congress, despite the fact that it had to be cancelled because of the outbreak of war. 

Wells continued to agitate for the right to free expression, something that formed part of his 1939 ‘Declaration of Rights’. A document that influenced the penning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights some of Wells’ rights now strike an anachronistic note, such as the right not to be sterilized.

His free speech commitments to ‘access to information’ and to ‘freedom of discussion’, however, not only feature in the UDHR, but also continue to be central human rights in today’s world.  

#100PENMembers No.2: Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International

Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

While we began with PEN’s founder, we now turn to its current International President.

It is fitting that in PEN’s centenary year the organisation has its first ever female International President. Jennifer Clement took over in 2015, after having already run Mexican PEN from 2009-2012. A prize-winning novelist and poet, Jennifer has been extremely active in pushing forwards PEN’s feminist agenda, and is responsible for spearheading the writing and endorsement of PEN’s 2017 Women’s Manifesto and The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, issued in 2019. 

Jennifer’s literary interests have fuelled her activism. Many of her novels and poems are steeped in the Mexican landscape, and relate the stories of deprived, threatened or silenced women. Her first novel, A True Story Based on Lies tells the story of a young Mexican peasant girl who works as a domestic servant.Discussing her 2014 novel, Prayers for the Stolen she describes its origins in the reality of Mexico’s stolen, hidden and missing women. As she put it, ‘I have spent more than ten years listening to women affected by Mexico’s violence’. The novel’s fictional story of one such woman, Ladydi Garcia Martínez was ‘inspired’ by the ‘truth’ of these voices, as Jennifer says, and this truth seems to have, in turn, energised the creation of the PEN Women’s Manifesto, which advocates for women’s rights to non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity. The Manifesto not only insists that women and girls should be able to ‘express themselves freely’; it also details the material, legal, economic and educational conditions needed for expression.  

Last year, meanwhile, she launched The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, which is a striking declaration of the rights of the literary imagination to wander freely across physical, emotional and psychological frontiers. Calling for the rights of the ‘empathetic imagination’, the Manifesto is a timely defence of the free play of the literary imagination against the prohibitions of censorship and self-censorship. 

In honour of PEN’s 100thbirthday Jennifer has helped organise a celebratory Congress in September at which, for the first time in the organisation’s history, representatives from all global PEN centres will gather together to talk and debate. 

We interviewed Jennifer about her Presidency and about the role of women in PEN in 2017.