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.
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
In the second part of Rachel Potter’s interview with him, former President of International PEN John Ralston Saul talks free expression, the impact of the internet and hate speech.
John Ralston Saul suggests that today’s free speech and free expression issues stem from globalisation and cultures which were local coming into closer proximity than ever before.
During his presidency of international PEN a number of free expression issues began to emerge, largely as a result of wide spread internet access and the proliferation of social media as a vehicle for both outrage and defiance.
This, he maintains, is part of the problem with the Charlie Hebdo case.
‘[O]ne of the effects of the internet has been to take this very local phenomenon of humour and make it international. Suddenly something which makes somebody in the sixth arrondissment [of Paris] or East London, or Moscow, laugh, is being seen in Tehran. And that creates a new situation and that’s where we are. We don’t have the answer to that.’
Essentially, he feels, the issue is one not of a global system of censorship or policing of speech or expression, but a sense of shared responsibility and foresight as to the consequences of these kinds of global systems and processes.
‘My own gut feeling is that, and this is in an ideal world; my gut feel is that writers have a job, that editors have a job, that publishers have a job. Let’s call that job ‘responsibility’.
‘You could even call it professionalism. Our job is to write, but to stand as a barrier to hatred.’
There is also a responsibility which lies, for Ralston Saul, with the global media platforms which allow this sort of information to proliferate however:
‘We’re seeing this with Facebook right now.
‘Just because you’re thirty years old and wearing a t-shirt and pretending you’re eighteen and you are the head of Facebook and you talk like somebody who is not very sophisticated and ‘Golly-gee we’re just an organisation that allows people to have communities’…like hell.
‘You have a responsibility. You have a responsibility as an Editor and as a Publisher. You have a responsibility to ensure that your system of distribution is not used to provoke hatred. That is a responsibility.
‘People like Facebook are not doing their job. I’m sorry. These internet organisations are trying to get away with murder.’
‘I do mean murder. The racist Buddhist monk in Myanmar who has led the violent actions against the Rohingya has done this to a great extent through the internet.
‘He sets up accounts on Facebook and says these incredibly untrue and racist things, which cause riots and cause murder. Eventually Facebook shuts him down and he simply sets up another page.
‘I’m terribly sorry, Facebook has an enormous responsibility. They are associated with murder. So let’s not be soft about this.’
Read the rest of the second part of the interview here.
John Ralston Saul talks to Rachel Potter about fighting for freedom of expression, internationalism and how to harness the power of an international network of writers.
Ralston Saul sees PEN as chiefly a free expression organisation. He spent much of his time as International President – a post which he vacated in 2015 following a six year term – campaigning internationally on this issue.
‘We’re fundamentally not an NGO. We’re not at all that sort of thing. We’re a grassroots freedom of expression literary organisation. And in order to do that we have to make sure that the Centres feel they are directly involved in what’s happening.‘
He highlights the importance of PEN’s work in raising the profile of free expression issues: ‘There are lots of places where no one talks about freedom of expression. It just doesn’t seem worth it. It’s too difficult. Too dangerous.
‘So you try to create an atmosphere where people start talking about freedom of expression.
‘The newspapers start reporting it, the politicians have to deal with it differently.’
During his tenure he was involved in negotiations with governments all over the world about the rights of writers and on behalf of PEN members in prison. He acknowledges however that these attempts are not always successful.
Yet Ralston Saul remains confident in the power of PEN’s worldwide reach and the solidarity of writers standing together.
At a meeting in Mexico over the fate of imprisoned journalists, he recalls a government official questioning this mission: ‘[H]e said: “I don’t know why you are here to try to stand up for these, unprofessional part-time people who say they’re journalists. They don’t even have a journalist card”.’
‘In other words, “you’re very grand people, what are you doing defending these miserable, unprofessional whatever…”’
‘We expected this and had thought it through, so I said ‘Well Minister, we’re not in the least bit interested in whether you give them an official journalism card or not. If you want to give them a card that’s your business.
‘Literature and journalism is decided by the readers not by governments. Secondly, it’s not your job to tell us who we represent.
‘We represent every writer in Mexico from Carlos Fuentes to these unknown volunteer part-time journalists up on the border. Every one of them equally.
‘And we can ask every Nobel Prize winner in the world to stand up for either Carlos Fuentes or for that part-time journalist. And they will stand up! That’s how we work.’
Read more of the interview here.
This week more than 400 PEN members from across the world are gathering in Pune, India for the PEN International Congress.
Writers from all over the world – including Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ashok Vajpeyi, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Ashis Nandy and PEN International President Jennifer Clement – will gather to discuss linguistic rights, the freedoms of writers across the world and key PEN achievements of the last 12 months including the Women’s Manifesto and the Make Space campaign for displaced writers.
These Congresses have a special place in the history of PEN and are often places where key organisational policy and standpoints are decided.
At one of the first congresses in 1933, then International President H.G. Wells expelled the German PEN delegates for their stance on the increasing persecution of Jewish writers in Germany.
As an organisation dedicated to political impartiality but also to human rights and artistic freedom, this was the first time PEN had taken serious stance on the politics of its member centres and marked a crucial step toward the organisation becoming a more active force in world politics.
Since then these annual congresses have brought delegates together to discuss such key world events as the end of World War Two, the impact on writers of the fall of the Berlin Wall and whether to become involved in the campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela.
In the business-sessions of these Congresses writers such as Arthur Miller (then International President) have fought to diffuse Cold War tensions between individual national Centres, to offer responses to Apartheid in South Africa, to support writers in prison across the world, to persuade, unite and meaningfully deploy a hugely diverse community of writers from more than 100 centres across the world.
Resolutions have been offered in solidarity with Salman Rushdie, in condemnation of the killing of Mexican journalists, on UN policy on censorship and much much more, helping PEN to forge its identity as an international campaigning organisation.
More informally, these sessions have always included social trips and dinners, bringing writers together to share creative practice and to forge friendships.
E.M. Forster and Hermon Ould travelled to first PEN Congress held in India – in Jaipur in 1945 – both forming close and lasting friendships with Indian colleagues and even travelling widely throughout the country as part of their trip.
Since that time Indian PEN has played a key role in the organisation, leading on important issues such as linguistic rights. Working with Laetitia Zecchini, our Research Associate Chinmay Sharma is currently working through the archives of Indian PEN to unearth its fascinating history. He will also be attending the Pune Congress.
Project Co-Investigator and author of The Literature Police, Peter McDonald discusses charts the origins of censorship and asks how – in the age of digital technology and powerful non-state actors – our ideas about censorship and free expression have evolved…
Once upon a time we all knew what censorship was, who the good and bad guys were, and what could be done to make the world a better place. Look up the noun “censor” in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll find an outline of a much-told story under definition 2 (b):
An official in some countries whose duty it is to inspect all books, journals, dramatic pieces, etc, before publication, to secure that they shall contain nothing immoral, heretical, or offensive to the government.
Attributing the first instance of this usage to the English poet John Milton, the lexicographers illustrated it with a quotation from his anti-censorship pamphlet, Areopagitica (1644).
He (the author) … must appear in print like a punie (i.e. a new schoolboy) with his guardian, and his censors hand on the back of his title, to be his bayl and suretye that he is no idiot, or seducer.
Following Milton’s gendered rendering, the story, therefore, went something like this: the censor was the bad guy (Milton’s “temporising and extemporising licencer” with his “cursory eyes”). The writer was the good guy (Milton’s “learned” champion of “free writing and free speaking”). And the plot involved the struggle of the latter against the former not just in his own interests, as a member of the “Republic of Letters”, but in the interests of creating a freer and more grown-up commonwealth for all.
True, the odds were stacked in favour of the all-powerful, infantilising state. Yet no matter how often the struggle played out, the outcome was assured: the seemingly puny champions of freedom and truth would prevail in the end.
There wasn’t much room for us so-called “ordinary readers” in all this. We were either the innocents the paternalistic-repressive state was supposedly trying to protect, or the voiceless fellow citizens on whose behalf the writers were supposedly fighting. But, if we wanted to make the world a better place, it was clear who we needed to support.
Messiness of history
For about three centuries, that is, for the greater part of what we could call the “age of print”, this story had some currency and even some plausibility. I’ll gloss over the messiness of the actual history that all too often throws up inconvenient facts. It reveals in some cases, for example, censors who were not cursory or paranoid state bureaucrats but “learned men” in Milton’s sense who believed they were making the world a better place.
And the canonical story hardly dated overnight. Even in the early years of the digital revolution, it looked like it had plenty of time to run.
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
Barlow wasn’t being quixotic. Far from showing any signs of weariness, the old state giants were already gearing up to make the most of the opportunities the new technologies afforded for extending their sovereignty, whether repressively (think of China), defensively (think of the UK) or aggressively (think of Russia).
The complication was that the emerging tech giants of the post-industrial world were themselves poised to become the new disrupters in ways Barlow did not anticipate.
Over the course of the next decade the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter — the “private superpowers” as historian and commentator Timothy Garton Ash dubs them — turned Barlow’s brave new cyber world into a vast profit-making machine effectively run on surveillance algorithms. At the same time they created the conditions for other actors, whether of the state (think of Donald Trump), allied to it (think of India’s social media vigilantes), or outside it (think of the worldwide population of trolls), to wield new forms of “temporising and extemporising” power.
Sometimes adding the threat of violence to the mix, these new enemies of free expression act like a novel breed of self-appointed censor, deforming, infantilising or closing down public debate at every opportunity.
Freedom to hold opinions
Opening the digital Pandora’s Box may have spelt the end of the old story but well before the 1990s developments in international law had already introduced other complications:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
In the aftermath of World War II and amid the gathering shadows of the Cold War, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) represented a major turning point in the long story. It marked the moment the battle-scarred “giants of flesh and steel” collectively agreed if not to curb their powers, then at least to affirm the freedom of expression as a shared ideal.
Only six years later, however, another key UN instrument, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (drafted 1954, signed 1966), added some significant qualifications. The first was under its own Article 19(3) which covers the “rights and reputations of others” as well as “national security”, “public order” and “public health or morals”. Then in Article 20 it prohibited “propaganda for war” and “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.
As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the phrase “hate speech”, the origins of which it traces to a report about Hitler in the New York Syracuse Herald for 29 September 1938, now encompasses
hatred or intolerance, esp towards a particular social group on the basis of ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexuality, etc.
At the same time Article 15(3) of the companion Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights embellished the Universal Declaration. It specifically required states,
to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.
Taken together, these legal, cultural and technological developments made the canonical story look less and less tenable in the new millennium. They have also reopened the most basic questions once again: What is censorship? If thinking in simple binaries still makes any sense, then who is on the side of the good and who the bad? And what can we ordinary citizen-netizens do to make the world a better place?
This piece first appeared on The Conversation on 9th September 2018.
In the latest of our candid interviews with PEN members past and present, Adil Jussawalla discusses with Laetitia Zecchini the political and cultural climate of 70s Bombay; the Bombay PEN Center under Nissim Ezekiel’s leadership; his own relationship with the PEN All-India Center and with Nissim; the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Ezekiel’s controversial support of the ban; the Cultural Cold War, the ideological factions in the Bombay of the 60s and 70s and its publishing scene; the Indian Congress for Cultural Freedom (ICCF), The Indian PEN, Quest, Playboy and the “corner-lending libraries” of the city; the particular status and position of Indian poetry / literature in English; the specific predicaments in which free speech, writers and writers’ organisations find themselves in India; the power(lessness) of words and writers’ organizations…
Jussawalla was a somewhat reluctant PEN member but one who was present during some of PEN-India’s most important moments: ‘I was never really involved with PEN, except in the ways that I do get involved, by thrusting some advice on Nissim, unwanted advice perhaps, or suggesting some things. But I felt that Nissim was open to suggestions.
‘I must have been visiting Nissim there, in his PEN office, even before the 70s. Quite frankly I must say that I went to the PEN office because of Nissim, to be able to have a conversation with him for a brief while.’
Jussawalla also feels that the history of Indian PEN shows often an organisation reluctant to take a stance on certain key political issues, particularly within India itself:
‘I don’t think there were no statements at all in the history of the PEN All-India Center. But the people in charge really felt that it’s not their business to talk about these issues.”
Describing himself as a left liberal, Jussawalla describes his own meanderings through the political world of Bombay during the 1970s and 1980s and the ways in which this sometimes brought him into disagreements with key members of All-India PEN.
Speaking of Ezekiel’s support of India’s ban on Rushdie’s novel, Jussawalla points out the extent to which this undermined both his and the organisation’s previous stance on free expression: ‘But I think what distressed and disturbed Nissim’s friends and others is that they felt that at least he should have come out and said that this is his personal opinion and does not reflect the views of PEN.
‘Otherwise, he should have stepped down from PEN. And he didn’t. But you see, such is the climate here, Laetitia, that his sacrifice if he had stepped down from PEN would have meant nothing. Because whoever would have taken his place would have believed in the same thing.’
However, he remains ambivalent about freedom of expression, as a deeply complex idea:
‘I might even say that I sympathize with Nissim’s position or with the dilemma he was in. I would be in a similar dilemma. I do not believe in an absolute right to free speech which would never be relativized. This is a human thing.
‘There are certain unwritten codes of behaviour in a society. See, I would not like to say that I am the kind of person who will tell a woman what to wear or not to wear. But I would say that there are certain occasions in this country that you do not dress as freely as you would like to.’
Our South African Research Associate Kate Highman talks us through the racial politics she uncovered whilst investigating the archives of the Johannesburg PEN Centre…
There is a telling moment in the archives of Johannesburg PEN – the iteration of it that ran from the 1927 to 1974 – where a funding application to the Department of Education, Arts and Science lists as the persons whose interests PEN represents as ‘Europeans’, rather than ‘non-Europeans’.
Telling, as the Centre generally insisted on its non-racial bona fides – after all, the 1948 PEN Charter pledged its members ‘to do their utmost to dispel all national, race and class hatreds’ and stipulated that membership will be open to all, ‘without regard to nationality, race, colour or religion.’ (In 2017, the Charter was reformulated so that members are now pledged to ‘dispel all hatreds’, not confined to those of nationality, race, colour or religion.)’
Nevertheless, the Centre remained almost exclusively white for its entire duration –with at most three members of colour over its span of nearly half a century.
Even in the early 1970s, when the dwindling organisation was desperate for new members – cold-calling various white individuals to solicit their membership – they clearly struggled to extend these invitations to writers of colour.
Minutes of a 1972 meeting show extended debate about whether to invite black author ‘Oswald Mshali’ (sic) to join PEN, as well as an unusually direct glimpse of the racism that appears to have subtended its ostensibly hapless racial exclusivity: ‘several members had indicated that if Non-Europeans joined they would resign’.
Whether Mtshali joined is unclear from the archives (in the end it was ‘unanimously agreed’ to invite him); either way, the organisation was shortly defunct. Had Mtshali declined membership, it would not be surprising given PEN’s earlier treatment of him.
While a contributor to the PEN publication New South African Writing (1969), he was not invited to its launch party, for this would have necessitated holding the event at a venue open to all races or applying for a permit for him to attend – something the Chair, Edgar Bernstein, did not do, instead writing to Mtshali that while the Centre would have ‘liked’ to invite him, PEN was bound by ‘the laws of the land’.
Going through the Centre’s papers, it becomes clear that again and again it is PEN’s adherence to petty apartheid and the letter of the law that helps keep it so overwhelmingly white. And ironically, it is the sociality that lies at PEN’s core (it was originally conceived as dinner club for writers) that enables this. For the PEN ‘luncheon’ (it’s never simply ‘lunch’) or ‘sherry party’ is invariably held at a ‘whites-only’ venue.
The fundamental bad faith of hosting PEN events in whites-only venues is something that Nadine Gordimer pointed out in 1965, in an archly polite letter explaining her refusal of their invitation to host a lunch in her honour:
‘For some time it has seemed to me to be improper and distasteful that PEN – a non-racial, no-colour-bar body by constitution – should hold official gatherings in hotels and restaurants which, in accordance with licensing laws, are reserved for the use of white people only. I feel there is little excuse for us to meet in self-congratulation, as it were, while we have so little cause for congratulation where efforts to make the comradeship of South African writers non-racial are concerned’.
Gordimer’s phrase ‘meeting in self-congratulation’ sticks, as does her barb about what is ‘(im)proper and (dis)tasteful’. For she not only touches here on the Centre’s inflated sense of its own importance, but does so in the terms that matter most to it.
Leafing through the archives it becomes clear that the organisation is animated by an almost neurotic concern with what is ‘proper’ and ‘tasteful’.
This is evident in its anxiety that membership be limited to writers of sufficiently ‘literary’ merit (a mystical term of much confusion), as well as the menus for the luncheons and sherry parties, the choice of venues, the official letterheads, etc. It is an anxiety and self-importance very much rooted in the Centre’s awareness of itself as part of a prestigious international organisation — one, moreover, of European origin, with its headquarters in England, the imperial centre.
Reflecting back on the funding application which describes the people whose interests PEN served as exclusively ‘Europeans’, it is telling not just because it is unusually frank about the Centre’s actual membership, but because of the way PEN inscribed itself into South African society — at least until 1978, when a new, black-led PEN emerged in Johannesburg.
Answering to, and in the language of, the white supremacist government, the organisation (as constituted by the Johannesburg and Cape Town Centres and the Afrikaans Skrywerskring, which disaffiliated from PEN in 1967) arguably not only paid it lip service but – more troublingly — served to uphold, or at least legitimise, the status quo of European domination in South Africa, using ‘literature’ to do so.
All of this raises a number of questions that we hope to consider in conversation with the current, very different South African PEN Centre, in a conference planned for September 2020:
– How does (and did) PEN, an organisation founded in England but born in the spirit of internationalism, ‘translate’ across different political, legal and cultural contexts?
– How have issues of race played out in the history of PEN internationally, and how did International PEN, and the wider community of PEN centres, shape, regard and respond to the practices of the various PEN centres in South Africa?
– How do issues of race and free expression continue to intersect, and how does PEN address such intersections?
David Carver was the Secretary of International PEN from Herman’s Ould’s death in 1951 until his own in May 1974.
A musician and singer by trade, Carver proved as dedicated a Secretary to PEN as Ould, but his approach to the organisation was completely different.
While Ould was ever the diplomat, influencing PEN members almost without their knowing through his friendship and good humour, Carver was slightly more high-handed in his management style.
Although International Presidents often had limited time in which to serve, the International Secretary position was so onerous that once a candidate agreed, they held the position until they were forced to withdraw due to ill-health (or instincts of self-preservation!)
In this role they provided a central point for Centres around the world, as well as acting as a secretary to English PEN, organising all of the international events and overseeing PEN’s dealings with international organisations such as the UN.
This meant that figures such as Ould and Carver had a very significant influence on shaping PEN, often over several decades, and provided a steadying influence and sense of continuity through the choppy political waters of the twentieth century.
Never afraid to wade into national or even international politics, Carver was in many ways the ideal personality to shepherd to organisation through the Cold War years.
During his tenure as International Secretary, Carver spent a good deal of time making peace between Communist elements within PEN and other member Centres.
He was highly involved, in the 1950s and 1960s, with President Arthur Miller, in encouraging the Soviet Writers Union to form a Russian PEN Centre.
During this time he visited Russia and even took part in talks with key Soviet officials about the possibility of Russia joining the organisation.
He arranged for Soviet observers to attend the PEN Congress in New York in 1966, and encouraged a continuing dialogue between the Russians and other members of PEN.
However, he soon lost patience with the Russians, writing an incendiary piece for the Russian newspaper Investia , about his frustrations at dealing with Alexei Surkov, the head of the Soviet Writers Union.
In 1961 even spoke out on the BBC – blaming Surkov for the detainment by the Russian authorities of Boris Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaya and almost causing an international crisis!
Carver was highly effective and a great many key advancements in the management and policy of PEN were brought in under his instruction, such as building PEN’s status as a key advisor to UNESCO, organising the first international conference in Africa (in Ivory Coast in 1967), building better links to PEN India and to the other Asian Centres and organising some of the most high profile free expression campaigns – such as the campaign to free Wole Soyinka, the boycott of South Africa by PEN’s playwrights and PEN’s centrality to the International Year of Human Rights in 1968.
He and his wife Blanche, were regular attendees of all of PEN’s events and conferences and both were well-loved by members from all over the world.
Carver was a somewhat dominant personality and whilst his bullishness in the face of adversity meant he was often not an ideal mediator during the heady days of the Cold War, his skillset could not have been more suited to dealing with the political intrigue and crises of those years.
Not only did he keep the organisation together during this time, his determination to become involved in political processes, from writing to Eastern European dictators to clandestine meetings with Russian spies, actually served PEN remarkably well.
He was replaced following his death in 1974 by Peter Elstob.
One of the most famous cases in PEN’s history of campaigning for free expression was the case of Salman Rushdie.
The case raised a number of serious issues around free expression and religious freedom, issues which would become increasingly important in the decades to come.
It concerned the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988) which was considered blasphemous under Islamic state and religious law.
As a consequence the religious leader of Iran – the Ayatollah Khomeini – called for Rushdie’s death and one Islamic group even went so far as to offer a financial reward for the killing of the writer.
Rushdie was forced into hiding, in fear of his life.
PEN’s intervention in the case was inevitable – the threat to Rushdie’s life directly contravened all of its policies on free expression.
PEN joined the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, just six days after the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, beginning a long campaign to defend Rushdie.
By 2nd March 1989, writers around the world presented their World Statement of Writers in Support of Rushdie to governments, newspaper and the UN.
The statement was signed by more than 1000 writers including PEN members and Centres.
Vigils were held outside the United Nations in New York and at other key government buildings in other cities around the world.
Letters were sent to the Iranian government and to individual national governments by PEN Centres in countries as diverse as Argentina, India, Mexico, France,
PEN worked with organisations such as the Society of Authors, the Booksellers Association, the Publishers Association and Article 19.
However, the matter divided PEN itself, pitting national centres against one another and causing rifts within International PEN itself.
While PEN was united in its condemnation of the death penalty for any writer, many members were critical of the book and some Centres refused to support the campaign at all.
The Rushdie affair raised the issue within PEN and the wider world of how far free expression arguments could be supported if they involved the endangering of other freedoms, such as religious freedom.
It marked an extremely high profile engagement with issues of free expression for PEN and placed a great deal of pressure on the organisation to present a united front, which they did.
However, in terms of our research, it is fascinating to revisit the Rushdie files to explore not only the debates which took place behind the scenes within PEN itself, but also to view the case in light of more recent free expression events, such as Charlie Hebdo.
Indeed, the balancing of these rights and freedoms have become even more delicate in recent years, as free speech and free expression arguments have been employed to defend hate speech or incitement – as Rachel Potter will discuss in her forthcoming post on free speech and the Alt-Right.