#100PENMembers No.15: Tōson Shimazaki

Today we feature one of International PEN’s most important 1930s members. From its founding, International PEN wanted to create a centre in Japan, but it was not until 1935 that the ‘Nippon PEN Club’ was founded under the Presidency of the groundbreaking poet and novelist, Tōson Shimazaki. 

Tōson Shimazaki

Shimazaki, in his novels The Broken Commandment(1906) and The Family (1910-11) had spearheaded the creation of Japanese naturalist literature. His subsequent work, New Life (1918-1919), which narrated his extramarital relations with his niece, sparked a national scandal, forcing him to flee to France. He returned to Japan in the late 1920s and published his epic historical novel, Before The Dawn (1929), which told the story of the Meiji Restoration and the mid-to late nineteenth century westernization of Japan. 

From the start Nippon PEN, which received money from the Japanese government, was very successful, with 105 founding members and its own journal. Shimazaki was key to its success. On its founding, he spoke of the Club’s importance at this perilous moment for the world when ‘the East and the West are entering a stage of great transition’. He also discussed the isolation of many Japanese writers since the Meiji Restoration, and his hopes that PEN networks would help Japanese writers reach a broader global audience. 

These ambitions spearheaded a program of translations of Japanese literature, and high profile participation in PEN events. Shimazaki travelled to the 1936 International PEN Congress in Buenos Aires. Urgent issues were discussed at the Congress, including the Spanish Civil War, Italian Fascism, and the plight of refugees. He introduced himself and Japanese PEN, to the Congress by speaking ‘a few words in Japanese’. He followed up this introduction by referring to Goethe’s dream of ‘world literature’ and proposing that the organisation make the dream a reality by establishing an international review. In a subsequent essay he suggested that the world literature of Goethe’s dream had shifted its coordinates beyond Europe, and eastwards to Tokyo, and described Japanese literature as a ‘literary melting pot’ which has absorbed the literatures of the world and produced a new literature from the ‘chaos’. Nippon PEN’s proposal that the 1940 International PEN Congress be held in Tokyo was accepted; the outbreak of war made the event impossible and Shimazaki was to die in 1943. 

There was, however, a hugely successful congress in Tokyo in 1957, which sought to showcase not only Japan to visitors from all over the world but to develop East-West relations within PEN itself. In many ways, this was Shimazaki’s true legacy.

#100PENMembers No.14: Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is not only a prominent PEN Member of several decade’s standing, and a fierce free speech advocate, his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses was also the subject of one of the organisation’s most high profile and most divisive free expression battles.

Sir Salman Rushdie. Photo: Brad Trent/Redux/Eyevine

Rushdie took on the Presidency of PEN America from 2004-2006, and created the PEN World Voices Festival in 2005, an annual week-long event drawing writers from around the world. He received the English PEN Pinter award in 2014

As a young writer, Rushdie attended the 48thNew York PEN Congress in 1986, where along with other delegates including J. M. Coetzee, Susan Sontag, Nadine Gordimer, Edward Said and others, he debated ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State’. 

Retrospectively, he viewed this discussion as a debate about the role of literature in the waning years of the Cold War. Two years after the New York Congress, however, he would find himself and his novel, The Satanic Verses confronting a very different set of free speech issues, and testing PEN’s cohesion in ways that had not been seen since the 1933 Dubrovnik Congress.

The Rushdie case exposed a rift in PEN – particularly between its Eastern and Western centres. It ignited debates about the rights – and limits – to free expression in the context of different global understandings of blasphemy, the persecution of religious minorities and linguistic harm. 

The circumstances around the publication, global controversy and murderous reception of  The Satanic Versesare well known. Considered blasphemous under Islamic state and religious law, Iran’s religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, called for Rushdie’s death and one Islamic group offered a financial reward for the author’s killing. Rushdie was forced into hiding, in fear of his life.

A truly global case of literary censorship, suppression and persecution, International PEN’s intervention was inevitable – the threat to Rushdie’s life directly contravened all of its principles and policies in defence of literary free expression. PEN joined the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, just six days after the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, beginning a long campaign to defend Rushdie.

Photograph courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin

On 2nd March 1989 the ‘World Statement of Writers in Support of Rushdie’, signed by more than 1000 writers, was sent to governments, newspapers and the UN. Vigils were held outside the United Nations in New York and at other key government buildings in other cities around the world. Letters were sent to the Iranian government and to individual national governments by PEN Centres in countries as diverse as Argentina, India, Mexico, France. PEN worked with organisations such as the Society of Authors, the Booksellers Association, the Publishers Association and Article 19.

However, the matter divided the PEN organisation itself, pitting national centres against one another. The Indian Centre was circumspect in its support of Rushdie, choosing to refrain from public defences of the author in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of Indian Muslims. Its long-running publication The Indian PENnot only published a skit that referred to Rushdie as ‘Mr Satan’, they also ran a review which advocated banning The Satanic Verses ‘without reading’ it. The issue split apart PEN members at the 1990 PEN congress in Funchal, Madeira, with English PEN protesting by quoting Heinrich Heine: “You start by banning books. The next day you burn books. And the day after that you burn people.’ 

Most Centres agreed with English PEN that they could not support the banning of any book  or threats of violence towards authors. 

However, while PEN members did not advocate banning Rushdie’s novel, the PEN archives show that a number of them argued that the novel raised issues around the limits to literary expression. Edward Said, in a collection of essays published by PEN America in 1989 which reflected on Rushdie’s novel, both condemned the violent threats to Rushdie’s life, and also questioned the way the book played into existing East-West, colonial and postcolonial power structures. He argued that for many Muslims the question over Rushdie’s book was ‘why must a Moslem [sic], who could be defending and sympathetically interpreting, now represent us so roughly, so expertly and so disrespectfully to an audience already primed to excoriate our traditions, reality, history, religion, language, and origins?’ 

The fatwa was renewed in 2016. Thirty years on, the Rushdie debate remains a serious faultline in the history of free speech.

In our 2018 podcast Professor Anshuman Mondal explores the Rushdie affair and its implications for free speech debates. 

Read more about the Satanic Verses controversy in our PEN Case Study.

#100PENMembers No.13: Nadine Gordimer

Today we focus on one of the most pivotal PEN members in its history. Nobel Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer, was not only a prominent figure within International PEN for many years, she also played a leading part in challenging the racist exclusions within South African PEN. She was central to the creation of the short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN from 1978 to 1981, and a lifelong campaigner against apartheid. 

Nadine Gordimer
Photo: Nobel Prize Foundation Archive

Up until this point, South African PEN had largely excluded black writers. Gordimer was, like the wider PEN membership across the world, concerned about the South African centre’s long-standing failure to live up to PEN’s non-racial ideals. She had been a combative figure in South African PEN since the early 1960s, and had long thought that most members were amateurs, not really writers. In 1975 the newly formed local Artists’ and Writers’ Guild chastised Cape Town PEN – then the only active branch – for its ludicrous categories of membership and for being unaware of the names of black writers. 

Things came to a head at the International Congress in Stockholm in 1978. The new black-led Johannesburg PEN centre received strong backing from delegates at the Congress, including Wole Soyinka, who spoke on behalf of the Union of Writers of the African Peoples and Per Wästberg, the President of Swedish PEN. 

At the meeting Mothobi Mutloatse, who went on to chair the Johannesburg centre, also called for the disestablishment of Cape Town PEN, ‘for its unsatisfactory record up to date.’ Though Peter Elstob, the International Secretary, defended its record, Mutloatse’s intervention provoked a media storm and much heated debate. 

In the end, Johannesburg PEN, with Gordimer’s help, brought together members of other writers organisations to create a genuinely mixed racial grouping. 

By so doing it represented a new departure for South African PEN, though, as Gordimer commented, the alliance was fragile. ‘It is such a delicate fabric that we have managed to weave crisscross’, she wrote in a letter, ‘we are aware that a snagged fingernail could rip it’. The ‘snag’ proved to be the wider political climate at the time that made co-operation untenable. 

After the new centre was disbanded in January 1981, key black members, including Mutloatse, Sipho Sepamla and Miriam Tlali, formed the African Writers Association, which was not aligned to International PEN. 

Gordimer, however, continued to work for International PEN. As John Ralston Saul, PEN International President, said when she died in 2014, she was, ‘a great writer imbued with great courage.  Nadine Gordimer was one of the defining voices of PEN in the modern era, combining creativity, ethics and the resolve necessary to stand up to racism and authoritarianism’.

#100PENMembers No.12: John Galsworthy

When Catherine Dawson Scott took the decision to create International PEN, she immediately contacted John Galsworthy to see if he would agree to become PEN President. He was to steer the organisation from 1921 until his death in 1933. 

John Galsworthy

The globally well-connected novelist, playwright, and essayist was pivotal to the organisation’s early success, as he persuaded an impressive array of writers to join as honorary members, including Rabindranath Tagore, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad, Bertrand Russell, Selma Lagerlöff, Maurice Maeterlinck, Robert Frost, Maxim Gorki, Vicente Ibanez, Arthur Schnitzler and Benedette Croce, and spearheaded the establishment of centres across Europe and further afield, with early centres being created in Mexico City, New York, Toronto, China and South Africa. 

Dawson Scott’s internationalist ambitions chimed with Galsworthy’s new liberal internationalism. Galsworthy had long been a defender of women’s rights and free expression, particularly in the theatre. His views shaped the structure of the PEN organisation, with its annual International Congresses, its protocols on membership and voting rights, and, significantly, its binding principles, which he penned in 1926, and succeeded in getting ratified at the annual congress in 1927. These principles, which included the declaration that ‘Literature, national though it may be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations, even in time of war’ and that ‘works of art’ are ‘the patrimony of humanity’ continue to form the basis of PEN’s international charter. 

Hermon Ould (right) with John Galsworthy and C.A. Dawson Scott, founder of PEN

While Galsworthy’s initial activities on PEN’s behalf were focused on establishing new centres, he also shaped its early activism. In 1931, he issued PEN’s first declaration in direct response to a specific event. The ‘Appeal to All Governments’ called on governments to respect the rights of religious and political prisoners, and was designed to respond to and intervene in the League of Nations World Disarmament Conference which was held in Geneva in February 1932.  ‘From time to time’, the Appeal stated, ‘the conscience of the World is stirred and shocked by revelations of the ill treatment, in this, that or the other country, of people imprisoned on political or religious grounds.’ This admonishment to the World that it respect the rights of the unfairly imprisoned was the first, but by no means the last, PEN appeal to the world’s ‘conscience’. 

#100PENMembers No.11: Arthur Miller

The acclaimed playwright was the first American to hold the International PEN Presidency, following his unanimous election to the post at the 1965 Bled Congress.

Arthur Miller
Photo: AP Images

Arthur Miller’s term as President, from 1966 until 1969, was shaped both by the Cold War and by the explosion of racial tensions within PEN.

He entered his Presidency as PEN pulled itself apart over the implications for its Charter and its ethos of the Playwrights’ boycott of South Africa. In 1965 playwrights from across the world had begun to refuse to allow their work to be performed in South Africa because theatres were so strictly racially segregated, with white and black South Africans attending entirely separate performances. Often non-white South Africans were not allowed into theatres at all.

South African PEN – at that point a largely white organisation – protested vehemently to PEN arguing that the restriction of performances in South Africa represented an infringement of PEN’s free speech commitments, whilst not recognising their own complicity in a system which not only restricted the non-white population’s access to the arts but also censored their writing and voices at every level.

Among Miller’s early duties was an attempt to manage this dispute when the majority of PEN International centres voted in support of the boycott and to try to smooth tensions within the divided organisation.

Perhaps the most famous myth surrounding Miller’s Presidency was when, in 1969, he apparently helped free Wole Soyinka from prison. Soyinka, at this point a little-known playwright, had been imprisoned by General Yakubu Gowon’s government during the Biafran war. The story goes that, while many attempts by PEN to free Soyinka had tried and failed, and many letters of protest had been sent, Gowon, on receiving one signed by Arthur Miller asked if this was, in fact, the husband of Marilyn Monroe. On being assured that the letter had indeed been sent by that Arthur Miller, he had apparently released Soyinka immediately. Soyinka, of course, went on to become one of the world’s most admired writers and to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

The problem with the story is that there is no evidence for it in the archives – though Miller did receive regular updates on Soyinka’s imprisonment and dispatched various members of PEN staff to Nigeria to further make his case. In fact, Soyinka himself rubbished the claims years later having, in his own words, ‘checked with the man who signed the release warrant.’ The story continues in perpetuity as one of PEN’s most compelling and oft-quoted myths, demonstrating perhaps the ongoing feeling within the organisation that its petitions and tireless campaigning was often ineffective with comparison to the harnessing of the star power of its more famous members and affiliates.

Nevertheless, Miller was no stranger to adversity and censorship himself – he was descended from Polish refugees and had himself been interrogated by the infamous HUAM (House Un-American Activities Committee) which sought to root out Communist sympathisers within American society. This witchhunt, which he later scrutinised in his work, most notably The Crucible, may have informed his desire to interact with Soviet writers.

His overriding ambition during his tenure as President was to establish a PEN Centre in the Soviet Union. In fact, PEN, from its very beginning, had wanted to create a centre in Russia. Along with International Secretary David Carver, Miller held many meetings with the Soviet Writers Union to further this aim. The Soviets were apprehensive about joining PEN, honing in on the organisation’s commitment to free speech over and above political affiliations, a stance they viewed as hostile to Soviet commitments to political ideas of free expression and socially-engaged literature. 

Nevertheless, Miller persisted. He invited the Soviet writers to the incendiary 1966 New York International PEN Congress. The Soviets did not attend, having been tipped off shortly before the Congress that a defector – the writer and PEN member Valery Tarsis – would attend and would denounce the Soviet regime and his treatment at its hands to the gathered international audience.

Miller and Carver’s progress with the Soviet branch was largely halted by this development, of which they had been largely unaware. There were a number of fascinating interactions between PEN and the Russians during Miller’s Presidency, much to the disgust of the large number of PEN branches exiled from Iron-Curtain countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia and Latvia. However, his hands-on style and his desire to encourage dialogue between all sides during this particularly fraught period of the Cold War was in some ways essential for holding the organisation together. 

Miller remained a PEN member and campaigned for free expression throughout his long life. The annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture stands as testament to his legacy within the organisation. It has been delivered by Christopher Hitchens, Hilary Clinton, Salman Rushdie,  Roxane Gay, Arundhati Roy and, of course, Wole Soyinka.

#100PENMembers No.10: Storm Jameson

Margaret Storm Jameson was President of the English PEN Centre during the war years 1938-1944. A prolific novelist and essayist, she made a significant mark on PEN.

During her relatively short stint as President she became a hugely influential figure within both English and International PEN, going on to serve on committees such as the Writers in Exile Committee and the Writers in Prison Committee and as an International Vice President well into the 1970s.

Storm Jameson at the World PEN Congress
Photo: John Philips

She was also another figure instrumental in defining PEN’s future politics and the principles which would motivate the organisation for decades to come. Like Wells, Jameson was dedicated to PEN’s mission to safeguard free expression across the world, but by the time Jameson took over the situation in Europe was sufficiently serious to warrant a more practical response.

In 1938, along with International Secretary Hermon Ould, she set up the PEN Refugee Fund, to help to get writers facing persecution out of Europe and to ensure that they had the means for survival in the UK.

She and Ould called on PEN’s bigger names such as Forster, Priestley and Wells to make the case to government for financial support, even asking them to act as guarantors for refugees themselves. When the Fund began they believed that they might help a few hundred refugees to escape Europe but by 1938 they were writing hundreds of letters, securing visas, lobbying Parliament and raising money by any means possible.

The scheme that had begun by helping writers with securing safe passage to the UK became an elaborate organisation, requiring government funding. It provided not only travel costs and help with paperwork, but also funding for food and typewriter ribbon, help with rent, advice on publishing and introductions to the London literary scene.

Vera Brittain, Rebecca West, Noel Streathfeild, Henrietta Leslie, as well as Forster, Wells and Priestley were drafted in to help out, fundraising and writing letters, as well as offering advice.

 In 1941, at the height of the Blitz, Jameson and Ould organised the famous London Wartime Congress, which brought refugee writers from Europe together with influential literary figures from all over the world. Food for the Congress was tricky to come by but Ould and Jameson pulled out all the stops and managed to arrange a lavish dinner at the Ritz to reward their long-suffering guests and bring some cheer to Blitz-ravaged London.

Despite wartime conditions and the difficulty of traveling to England, more than 800 guests attended from more than 30 countries including India, China and Mexico. It was so well-attended that half of the guests had to dine downstairs in the Crypt!

Another PEN figure motivated by the organisation’s original tenets of internationalism and friendship, Jameson continued her work following the war. In recognition of her work with refugees, Jameson was invited to serve as a Honorary President of the Writers in Exile Center in 1952.

She also served on the Writers in Prison Committee and worked throughout her life to help and support writers from all over the world.

Even in her eighties there are still letters from Jameson recommending writers for membership of PEN or asking about publishing opportunities for young writers who had asked for her help.

Find out more about Storm Jameson and her work.

#100PENMembers No.9: Sophia Wadia

Sophia Wadia founded the Indian Branch of the PEN in 1933, and even ran it from her home, before relocating it to ‘Theosophy Hall’ in Bombay in the mid 50s.

Sophia Wadia

Under Wadia’s directorship, the All-India PEN centre was one of the most prominent and successful of all global PEN centres. From the start, she enlisted the participation of major Indian writers and pro-Independence politicians, receiving the enthusiastic support of Rabindranath Tagore and Sarojini Naidu, and also future Prime Ministers and Presidents of India, Nehru, (India’s first Prime Minister) Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (future President of India 1962-67), and Zakir Husain (President of India from 1967 -1968), all of whom played an active role in PEN. She received the Padma shri (one of the highest civilian awards in India) from the hands of Nehru in 1960.

Wadia had been born Sophia Camacho in Columbia, but married theosophist B. P Wadia in 1927, and then settled in Bombay. At the 1947 Benares Conference Sarojini Naidu described Wadia as “the founder, the god-mother, the nurse, the ayah, the guardian, she was everything of this P.E.N.” 

Wadia was, indeed, a formidable and inescapable presence , and a tireless organizer. She edited The Indian PEN magazine, as well as the series of “introductions” to Assamese, Bengali, Indo-Anglian, Telugu and other regional literatures which the Center started to publish in 1941.  [under the name “P. E. N. Books. The Indian Literatures”.] In her foreword to the series, Sophia Wadia explained that the project represented a systematic attempt to “popularise the story of the Indian literatures”, and the first line also gives the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial thrust of the project, i.e.: “India’s ruling passion is for freedom from colonial domination.” 

She was also instrumental in organizing the ‘All-India Writers’ Conferences”, starting in 1945 in Jaipur and then regularly all over India (Banares, Baroda, Bhubhaneshwar, etc.-)

She represented India at many of PEN’s international Congresses and was an extremely vocal (and respected) voice in these congresses, where she championed not only the voice of India, but the voice of the “East”, which could not be excluded “if the PEN is to be truly international” 

India’s Season of Dissent: An Interview with Poet Karthika Naïr

Our Co-Investigator Laetitia Zecchini interviewed the poet Karthika Naïr, discussing free expression, literary activism and the importance of being a political poet.

Born in Kerala, the poet moved to France in 2000, subsequently working for several cultural institutions (Cité de la Musique, Centre national de la danse, Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration…) as a dance producer, dance-writer, or “dance enabler,” as she sometimes likes to define herself. Her closest associations have been with choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Damien Jalet and Akram Khan.1 She published three collections of poetry; Bearings in 1999; Until the Lions, Echoes from the Mahabharata in 2015, which won the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year 2015 (for fiction), and Over & Underground in Paris and Mumbai, in 2018, co-authored with poet Sampurna Chattarji and the artists Joëlle Jollivet and Roshni Vyam. With Joëlle Jollivet, she also brought out a children’s book, The Honey Hunter/Le Tigre de Miel, first published in 2013 and translated into French, German and Bangla.

Her poignant retelling of the Mahabharata in Until the LionsEchoes from the Mahabharata, is “among other things, a passionate antiwar manifesto,” as David Shulman recently suggested. The epic is recast from the perspective of those who have been promised to erasure and are often the first casualties of war: the faceless, the nameless and unremembered by/of history, many of whom are women (spouses, lovers, mothers, sisters, etc…). The “echoes” of the Mahabharata are not only the echoes of all the other Mahabharatas in whose lineage Karthika Naïr places herself, the ocean of stories and (re)tellings to which the epic continues to give birth. Her poems’ unflinching confrontation with the violence of the world, and of India in particular, are about today. In the powerful, damaged and enraged voices of those who refuse to be muted or unaccounted, we hear echoes of the struggles of Dalits, Adivasis, women, Muslims, but also of all the other (increasingly) threatened minorities whose dissenting views and narratives infuriate the sentinels of cultural and religious majoritarianism: activists, journalists, students, artists, writers…

In her recent introduction to the American edition of Until the Lions, Karthika Naïr writes: 

‘For many Indian writers and cultural practitioners, 2015 seemed to have represented a turning point. By 2015, casualties were not statistics anymore, reported with increasing urgency by PEN or FreeMuse. They were names, faces, voices you knew, had read, watched, heard. Some, those first met when young—in the flesh, or through words, chords, images—and dearly loved. Artists, writers, activists: some whose work, whose life had powered your own, from near or far. People who had merely gone out one day to celebrate art and debate, laughter and sport. Narendra Dabholkar. Ahmed Rajib Haider. Gulnar (Muskan). Bernard Maris. Govind Pansare. Avijit Roy. 21 visitors to Bardo National Museum. H Farook. M Kalburgi. Francisco Hernández. 89 music lovers attending an Eagles of Death Metal gig at Bataclan. The living are targeted in other ways. With book bans. Prison. Exile. Fatwa. Smear campaigns. Accusations of sedition… Kamel Daoud. Oleg Sentsov. Perumal Murugan. Atena Farghadani. Fatima Naoot. The 50-odd Indian writers (followed by film-makers and artists)—who had returned awards and honors as protest against the spate of murders of intellectuals and minorities—hounded as anti-nationals by several media houses and right-wing politicians.’

Karthika Naïr. 2020. Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata. Archipelago Books, USA (See Auth (…)

It was perhaps only natural that Karthika Naïr, who considers herself a political poet (or rather: “how can literature not be political?”) would be moved to write on Shaheen Bagh, when in December 2019, a handful of Muslim women came out of their homes in Delhi to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and resolved not to move before they were heard. Shaheen Bagh was also a peaceful resistance to and against violence: the violence to which Muslims and women have been subjected for so long in India; the violence unleashed at the Jamia Millia University campus a few days earlier, and the constant threat of violence (by the police and by right-wing “goons”) to which the protestors were subjected during the one-hundred days during which the sit-in lasted. The “dogs of carnage” summoned by Karthika Naïr in her ghazal, eventually broke loose, unleashing terror in the streets of Delhi. But what happened at Shaheen Bagh is and must be remembered. And the task of the poet is also to make sure that these voices continue to be heard.

In the following interview conducted over Skype, and revised over email in September 2020, we talk of Shaheen Bagh and of her poem “Ghazal: India’s Season of Dissent; of the activism of Indian writers and artists; of the politics of literature; of the relevance of poetry to protest movements and resistance struggles; of how literary texts can “respond” to violence, grief and pain. And since Karthika Naïr’s poetry and biography constantly weave together a multitude of contexts, voices, and cultural backgrounds, she also throws light on the interconnection and intersectionality of these struggles; on the resonances of the anti-CAA protests and of Shaheen Bagh outside India; on how terror and resistance to terror are echoed in different parts of the world.

LZ : From Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, to Turbine Bagh in London, we also witness an internationalization of struggles that are staged or made visible in different parts of the world. And Shaheen Bagh captured worldwide media attention. I was also thinking of a recent appeal by some prominent world intellectuals who have urged the release of writers and activists Varavara Rao and G. N. Saibaba.You yourself have been very much a part of many of these international campaigns to free writers, journalists, activists. But going back to what you were saying about “petition activism,” these campaigns and the media attention can both give incredible visibility, perhaps agency, but can conversely also highlight a form of powerlessness…So, for instance, Varavara Rao who is 80 years old and was diagnosed with Covid, and G.N. Saibaba who is 90 % handicapped, are still in prison and their lives, as we speak, are at risk. That is a question we’ll keep returning to, no doubt. But what can these campaigns and petitions do? How does that kind of activism help? 

KN : I think we need to be very clear about what petitions can do, and what they can’t. The best thing they can do is, indeed, visibilize. It may be never immediate enough, of course. But there is a specific end and one can manage to have a cumulative movement which gathers force from both physical real-life presence and mobilization, and campaigns or petitions that are internationalized. One of the best examples of that I would say is actually Shahidul Alam’s liberation from a Dhaka prison, where people in situ but also people from all around the world put enormous pressure. 

I do think that petitions are useful to that extent, inasmuch as they create awareness, give visibility, disseminate knowledge and information about certain cases, and help people use other platforms as well to protest, or dissent or demand. And in certain happy cases, it is generating enough of a momentum…But there are also worrying aspects as well: one, with the profusion of online appeals, there is the danger of, shall we call it, petition fatigue; the other, of petitions generating the false and easy reassurance that we’ve done our bit with a click on a button, that nothing more is required.

LZ: If we return to your ghazal, you’ve said that poetry has a treasure trove of forms at its disposal, and that these forms have specific functions—that they do different things, and are chosen for what they can do. In the context of Shaheen Bagh and the persecution of Muslim minorities in India, the choice of a ghazal seems both formal and political. Would you like to elaborate a little? 

KN: Of course. Well there are many reasons why I chose this specific form. One of which is also heritage. And the people that I quote or that inspire me here, are people like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Firaq Gorakhpuri and Kafi Azmi. The ghazal has an extraordinary history, and an enormous capacity for expansion, it can contain everything from a love song, with which it is (sometimes unfortunately) most famously associated, to an anthem: it has been the instrument of so much reflection, protest, and dissent. I was again inscribing myself in that literary and activist lineage, in that tradition of dissent.

LZ: You’ve also said that forms are your weapons…

KN: Yes, but in this particular context I wanted to inscribe myself in this lineage of the ghazal as an activist writer’s tool, or basically as a writer’s tool. Because like Arundhati Roy says, that’s a bit of a tautology “activist writer.” When you are a writer, you are political. To state the obvious, for a writer to say I am not political, for me, is also extremely political, because it means that you are so privileged that you don’t have to have any politics. So, the ghazal was a great way to inscribe myself in a tradition and say, again, that this kind of literary activism is nothing new. It is part of something that has been going on for ever so long, which is that literature, or poetry, is a way of situating yourself in society, in a nation, on a globe just as much as it is of situating yourself inside a body or a heart. And how you situate yourself in a body is probably the first political thing you do. 

For instance, in the first three couplets, the qafiyais the following pattern of words: “nation,” Going back to the ghazal, it’s a form which really lends itself to sort of hammering the same theme but with variations. You’ve got the radif (refrain word or phrase, which corresponds here to the word “dissent”) and you’ve got the qafiya (the rhyming pattern that must precede the radif). Imagine drawing loops of the same size, in the air, each distinct, but touching the same point on the floor—so the point of landing will be identical each time, though the curve will be different. I also love the fact that the couplets which have the same refrain, and the same meter, are self-contained, but that the change in rhyming words can allow the development of a thought, an idea with each successive couplet.

LZ: I wanted to quote the words of writer Githa Hariharan, who is also the co-founder of this extraordinary platform, The Indian Writers’ Forum, to which you have contributed.14 In a text written for the 3rd anniversary of Gauri Lankesh’s brutal murder, she paints a very dark picture of the situation in India today, with the growing list of political prisoners languishing in prison without trial, the attacks on Muslims, minorities, academics, students; the charges of sedition, conspiracy, contempt of court or “unlawful activities” levelled at many citizens. And yet, she says “we still have voices that speak up”: “If we speak, Gauri will continue to speak…They cannot silence us all.”

KN: I really think The Indian Writers Forum has been doing a wonderful job for so many years as a sentinel. It reminds me of that old saying about those who stay awake, so others can sleep in peace. Now I don’t think anyone of us can sleep in peace right now, but the IWF has been there as the eyes in the dark for so long. And they are putting what they see in the dark out there. And that’s precious. I think we also have to remember that it’s extremely fragile… Remember that whether through fiscal legislation, or through other means, so many NGOs in India are under increasing threat. And for years I was not able to give a donation to IWF because I am a foreign national. The irony of it is that political parties can receive unlimited foreign funding without any examination or questioning, but NGOs are suspect. So even when you are not hounding an organization actively, you are cutting off its blood supply. In other words, supporting something like IWF is more and more vital. 

More generally, I think, yes, we have to resist and speak up a long time before we are on our knees. There is so much that we have to be constantly vigilant about. Here as well (i.e. in France). A few months ago, I heard someone who is a leftist and an activist say that he was going to vote Marine Le Pen in the next election, because he said, “it can’t get much worse.” And I said, it can get much worse. You are a straight, white man in your 70s. Yes, things are going to be ok for you on a quotidian level. But for anybody who is different in any way, in terms of race, in terms of sexuality, in terms of language, in terms of religion, in terms of dissent or mobility, no it is not going to be ok. The alternative cannot be the Marine Le Pens of the world, because India is standing testimony to how little it takes to dismantle a democracy. 5 years! When you had 65 years behind you… What I mean is all you need is the wrong regime in power, in both houses of the Parliament, with enough clout to purchase or threaten free press. No country is invulnerable in its democratic or republican principles. 

LZ: I’d like to raise with you the question of literary texts as responses or reactions to specific events. Of course, you cannot predict from where a poem really springs, and a writer always writes with everything he or she experiences, but you’ve written many poems that seem to articulate a kind of response, like your ghazal around Shaheen Bagh, or your powerful text on the Charlie Hebdo and November 2015 attacks in Paris in Over and Underground in Paris & Mumbai. You also wrote a recent poem triggered by a self-portrait of the photographer Khadija Saye, who was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire…And that made me think of a short newspaper column written by Adil Jussawalla called “Poems after Ayodhya,” where he takes issue with the fact that you should expect poets to voice their immediate protest or shock about the riots. And he has this fabulous sentence where he writes that “the state of the country is not a workshop that makes poems happen…” 

KN: Bless him! But, whether we like it or not, poetry is political. Take the Romantic movement, for instance, which all seems very innocuous, but for me was intensely political as well, because you were taking the divine out of the established places and the realm of religion, and placing it in nature for instance, or within the discovery of a wider world. But I agree completely with Adil and do get uncomfortable with poems that are for example titled “Kargil” or “Palestine.” And very conflicted about what one could call a form of disaster porn. But it’s sensitive, isn’t it? And I always think of something Larbi (Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) told me: should me no shoulds, in other words, let there be no rules on what can or cannot be tackled by art. So I also think that everyone responds as he or she can, and the poem will speak for itself. Nothing should come between that compulsion to speak and the page, if you see what I mean. My own take is that I try to situate it in the intersection between the personal and the political and that’s the way it’s been for Charlie Hebdo for instance…Even today, I mourn Bernard Maris like somebody I knew. And so I write also from a very personal space, of what I lost in that bloody massacre.

You can read the full interview which is part of a special issue on ‘The Hindutva Turn: Authoritarianism and Resistance in India’ in the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal.

#100PENMembers No.8: E.M. Forster

Today we consider one of PEN’s most famous early members. It is no accident that E. M. Forster decided to join International PEN a month after the infamous 1928 London trial of Radclyffe Hall novel, The Well of Loneliness. Hall’s novel was banned as obscene in 1928 because of its sincere representation of a lesbian relationship. As a writer with first-hand experience of self-censoring his writing of gay sexuality, the Well trial, which split apart British culture, was important in Forster’s assumption of a more public intellectual role defending free expression. 

E.M. Forster by fellow Bloomsbury member Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920

Forster, who described himself as a liberal who has found liberalism ‘crumbling beneath him’, was insightful about both the importance of free expression to individual self-development and the dangers associated with the powerful censoriousness of popular opinion, particularly with regard to the suppression of gay and lesbian sexuality. 

He became a prominent and active PEN member. His name was liberally applied to PEN’s paperwork from 1928 onwards. He was asked, but politely declined, to become London PEN President on 12thJuly, 1935, but did take over the reins briefly when, along with François Mauriac and Ignazio Silone, he formed part of a joint International PEN Presidential committee during 1946 and 1947. 

He signed many key PEN protest letters and declarations, including the reaffirmation of PEN’s principles on free expression in 1935, the letter sent to General Franco in support of imprisoned writer, Arthur Koestler in 1938, the International PEN statement to the Press defending ‘freedom of conscience’ and the ‘liberty to speak’ against Nazism-Fascism on July 10th1940, and the collective English PEN letter to The Times in 1957 on behalf of imprisoned Hungarian writers, including Tibor Déry. 

As well as signing letters and declarations, Forster also presided over the 1944 London PEN conference which celebrated the tercentenary of Milton’s Areopagitica, updating Milton’s argument for his criticism of the suppressive state mechanisms of both authoritarian regimesand modern democracies. He appeared as a prominent guest speaker at the 1945 All-India PEN Congress on literature in Jaipur, one of the largest literary congresses ever held in India, with writers and politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan in attendance. 

#100PENMembers No.7: Tsitsi Dangarembga

Our seventh influential PEN member has just received an award for her campaigning and is the subject of ongoing court proceedings in her Zimbabwe for her role in peaceful protests last summer.

Photo Credit: Hannah Mentz

Tsitsi Dangarembga will today receive the PEN Award for Freedom of Expression. Since it was established in 2005, this annual award has been given to a range of prominent writers for their ‘work in fighting for freedom of expression’. 

The internationally-acclaimed Dangarembga was short-listed for the Booker Prize this year for her novel, This Mournable Body.

She was arrested in July 2020 during anti-corruption protests against the Mnangagwa government, and in defence of Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist recently arrested for protesting and for criticising the government. Dangarembga wrote about the events that day for PEN

Talking to al Jazeera she said: ‘My arrest and the arrests of others who protested on July 31, or even in the days leading up to July 31 indicate that the right to peaceful protest is seriously eroded in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean citizens are expected to keep silent and docilely accept whatever the authorities decide to do, or face arrest for peacefully expressed differences of opinion.’

She was charged in September with the intention to incite public violence and freed on bail. She was still awaiting trial at the time of writing. Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said: ‘In a bizarre turn of events that could be part of a surreal novel, Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested for peacefully expressing her opinion over rising corruption in Zimbabwe, and then released as if the government was being magnanimous. She was arrested because she said on social media: Friends, here is a principle. If you want your suffering to end, you have to act. Action comes from hope. This the principle of faith and action – which the government confused for ‘insurrection.’ Zimbabwe’s authorities need to get not only their semantics but also their understanding of human rights and free expression right.’ 

Dangarembga has always been a trailblazer and began her career writing plays before turning to novels:”There were simply no plays with roles for black women, or at least we didn’t have access to them at the time. The writers in Zimbabwe were basically men at the time. And so I really didn’t see that the situation would be remedied unless some women sat down and wrote something, so that’s what I did!” Her debut novel Nervous Conditions (1988) was the first to be published in English by a Black woman in Zimbabwe.

Dangarembga holds a placard during the 31st July Protests in Harare. Photo Credit: AFP

As part of her activism work and to defend free speech in Zimbabwe, Dangarembga revived the dormant Zimbabwean PEN branch in 2016. She currently holds the post of International Chair of  Creative Writing (Africa) at the University of East Anglia.

The award ceremony takes place tonight as part of the opening night of the online Winternachten International Literature Festival The Hague, and can be streamed live (tickets & more details: writersunited.nl).

Get involved: Find out how you can lend your support to Tsitsi.