Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee is one of PEN International’s Vice Presidents and a frequent signatory to its many campaigns. His relationship with PEN has not always been easy, however.
‘While there is nothing special about writers as human beings,’ Coetzee remarked in in an 2019 interview with our co-investigator Peter McDonald, ‘there is (sometimes) something special about what they write.’ From his debut with Dusklands (1974) to The Death of Jesus (2019), Coetzee has done more than contribute ‘something special’ to the history of literary writing in the English language. He has re-shaped the ethical and political terms in which we think the literary life, in part, as the citation for his Nobel Prize put it in 2003, by portraying in ‘innumerable guises’—fictive, autobiographical, sociological, philosophical—‘the surprising involvement of the outsider.’ His collection of essays Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (1996) remains one of the most incisive reflections not just on the harms of censorship but on the terms in which writers have, individually and collectively, claimed the right to speak truth to power.
For Coetzee, the history of PEN in South Africa in the apartheid era did rather too much to confirm that ‘there is nothing special about writers as human beings.’ Speaking of that period, he said in the interview: ‘As I remember it, the Cape Town PEN of my youth was more or less indistinguishable from the [local] English Association, culturally conservative, disdainful of Afrikaners and the Afrikaans language, and a bit timid. I never considered joining.’ Under the often-controversial presidency of the bestselling re-teller of classical histories Mary Renault in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Cape Town branch in fact narrowly missed being expelled from the international body on more than one occasion. Starting in 2007, Coetzee did, however, agree to judge the SA PEN literary award, an annual short-story prize for writing across Africa, a role which kept him engaged with the local literary scene following his move to Australia in 2002.
About PEN International, which elected him Vice President in 2006, Coetzee was more positive: ‘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.’ This last observation is significant. For various ethical and strategic reasons, International PEN has always been careful about using the ‘oxygen of publicity’ in its difficult and sometimes dangerous human rights work.