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.