#100PENMembers No.59: John Ralston Saul

John Ralston Saul is a Canadian writer, philosopher and political activist.

John Ralston Saul. Image by Gianluca Battista.

Highly active in the organisation for decades, he was President of Canadian PEN from 1990-1992, President of PEN International from 2009-2015 and is now President Emeritus, using his position to speak out on a range of issues.

Never afraid of controversy or of tackling difficult issues, Ralston Saul has been at the centre of some of PEN’s most important recent moments.

In a 2018 interview with the our team, he remembered a meeting with Mexican politicians about journalists in jail. Ralston Saul recalls: ‘Almost immediately [the Minister] 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…”

Ralston Saul simply responded:‘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.’

He was also part of the group who pushed for Chinua Achebe’s Presidency in 1989, believing – rightly, in retrospect – that it was time for an International President from Africa.

‘He was a great man and of course a great writer. […] So he didn’t quite win, but that was the first step in what were a series of very interesting politics which led to a series of big changes and the modernisation of PEN. 

‘A first step to becoming the kind of organisation that it is now – far more democratic, far more international. A lot of people worked very hard for 10-15 years to make that happen.’

This notion of internationalism is central to Ralston Saul’s work with the organisation and he describes how, in terms of the Presidency of PEN International ‘I was basically elected by Latin America, Africa, Asia – I’m simplifying. But people know that even though I am what I am, I was going to carry the cause of the real internationalisation of the organisation.’

With this came a determination to travel to PEN Centres across the world, from the most large, established and celebrated centre to the smallest and least know, often finding he was the first President to visit and that writers were amazed that he had come to hear their views and experiences.

It also underpinned his work – alongside Director of PEN International Carles Torner and his successor to the International Presidency Jennifer Clement – on linguistic rights within the organisation.

In his final speech as International President he said: ‘It has been a privilege to serve this cause – the cause of pen. I will now return in the ranks and, like all members, I will continue with them, to serve.’

We spoke to John Ralston Saul in 2018 about these incidents as well as about Facebook, privacy law and a writer’s responsibility:

Read John Ralston Saul Interview Part One

Read Interview Part Two.

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