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.
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’.