What is the relationship between literature and free expression in today’s globally interconnected world? Writers have often seen their poems, plays, essays, novels, short stories and other writings censored on grounds of blasphemy, libel, political sedition, obscenity or offence. They have also often been eloquent defenders of the right to free expression and in some cases they have formed collectives to protect themselves against authority.
While many national legislatures, working in concert with international declarations and charters, have committed themselves to defending free expression as a fundamental right, numerous writers are subject to censorship. As well as the complex relations between writers and the modern state, some of the greatest threats to free expression today do not always come from the state but from non-state actors who use violence, or the threat of violence, to shut down voices they do not like.
The Writers and Free Expression project looks to the role of non-governmental international writers’ organisations, primarily but not exclusively International PEN (founded in 1921), in order to understand what kind of collective agency writers have in shaping or influencing the right to free expression. The project brings together scholars, writers and activists with particular expertise in three geo-political areas, the UK, South Africa and India, in order to investigate how international instances of censorship and the forms of resistance it has provoked have played out in different parts of the world.
While organisations like PEN have mobilised writers to campaign on behalf of writers in exile, of imprisoned writers or censored works, they have also been forums for passionate disagreements about the boundaries to free expression, the universality of rights, the function of literature, and the public role of literary intellectuals. In the 1940s, for example, the writers involved in International PEN disagreed about whether to defend the rights to free expression of Nazi and Fascist collaborators such as Knut Hamsun and Ezra Pound, and in 2016 New York PEN was divided over whether a bravery award should be bestowed on the editors of French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
Such historical and contemporary disagreements reveal important pressure points in the interpretation of the right to free expression. These debates often transcend individual differences of opinion to reveal geo-political, racial, religious, and gendered divisions. This project brings together writers and activists with particular expertise in three geo-political areas, the UK, South Africa and India, in order to investigate how international instances of censorship have played out in different parts of the world.