#100PENMembers No.26: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, writer, civil rights activist, feminist, filmmaker, survivor and PEN member used her writing to change the perceptions of contemporary America and the world.

Maya Angelou, 1974. (Photo by Craig Herndon / The Washington Post)

Her work opened up the world’s eyes to suffering, not only of African Americans but of women, the poor, the destitute and the forgotten.

A member of PEN America, Angelou is one of the country’s most frequently banned authors.

Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), one of the most influential in American literature, received 39 public bans in America for its tackling of themes of childhood rape, sexuality and racism and continues to be a controversial inclusion on reading lists in high schools and colleges across her home country.

The memoir describes Angelou’s childhood in the Southern United States, as she navigated the Jim Crow laws and racially-segregated society, seeing the black community repeatedly falling victim to poverty and violence as they skirted the sidelines of the faceless and affluent whites living in the more prosperous areas of town. It also includes a description of Angelou’s own childhood experience of sexual violence.

Whilst the sexual violence is most often cited as the reason for banning the book in schools, it is often described in reports by school boards as being ‘sexually explicit’, as ‘encouraging homosexuality’ and as being ‘anti-white’.

Nonetheless, the book received a National Book Award and remained on US bestseller lists for almost two years.

In response to the book being banned in Huntington Beach, California in 2010, Angelou told the local newspaper ‘I’m always sorry that people ban my books. Many times I’ve been called the most banned. And many times my books are banned by people who never read two sentences. I feel sorry for the young person who doesn’t get to read.’

Angelou also won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry in 1972, Tony and Emmy Awards and Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word album in 1993, 1995, and 2002.

But the reach of Angelou’s voice stretches far beyond her successful writing career –she political campaigner who worked closely with civil rights activists such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.

Maya Angelou with the novelist James Baldwin

‘We are all political, whether we accept it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not. Everything is a political act.’

Maya Angelou

Much like inspirational young poet Amanda Gorman who read at Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration, Angelou read the poem ‘On the Pulse of the Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993. 

In recognition of her political work and her tremendous achievements in the arts, Angelou received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011.

#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” 

English PEN Announce Centenary Programme

English PEN have begun to unveil some of the events and schemes which they will use to celebrate their centenary year, 2021.

PEN was founded by Catherine Amy Dawson Scott in London, initially as a literary dining club, and evolved into one of the first and largest free expression organisations in the world.

From its first meeting in the Florence Restaurant in London’s Soho on the 5th October 1921, it went on to become a forerunner for organisations like Amnesty International, Index on Censorship and Article 19.

‘Common Currency’ – the title of these Centenary events – is a title taken from the PEN Charter.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2020-09-29-at-10.58.30.png
From the PEN Charter

This particular part of the Charter proved contentious in the early days (although it was worded slightly differently) leading many members to insist that the organisation should exist entirely separately from politics.

However, under the leadership of H.G. Wells, it became a much more serious campaigning organisation, particularly following the ejection of the German Centre in 1933.

In the first event Fatima Bhutto introduces her essay ‘A World on Fire’ commissioned by New Writing North and English PEN and taking as its starting point the PEN Women’s Manifesto of 2017.

Common Currency is a unique project that combines timely debates on freedom of expression, creative campaigning and a celebration of diverse voices.

Hannah Trevarthen, Events and Partnerships Manager at English PEN said: ‘We’re really excited about the upcoming Centenary celebrations across the UK and Ireland exploring three key themes:  free speech and democracy; languages and ideas crossing borders; and celebrating women.

‘We chose the name “common currency’, as the notion that the power of stories, sharing knowledge and ideas brings people together is as important as ever.’

More events are forthcoming, including an address by Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas, which will discuss the future implications of coronavirus for Bristol and cities like it.

More information on the events is available on the English PEN website.

Ronald Harwood: Lifelong Free Expression Campaigner and PEN President Emeritus

Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Sir Ronald Harwood, President of English PEN (1989-1993) and of PEN International (1993-1997) has been a key figure in campaigning for free expression across the world.

A familiar name in PEN’s meeting minutes from the 1980s and 1990s, Harwood was still lending his name to campaigns calling out the persecution of writers around the world in the years leading up to his death on 8th September 2020 aged 85.

He is perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning adaptation, The Pianist (2002) of Wladyslaw Szpilmann’s book about the Warsaw ghetto.

Harwood was born in Cape Town, South Africa, Ronald Horwitz to Jewish Lithuanian refugee Isaac Horwitz and his wife Isobel.

As English President during the Salman Rushdie affair he played a crucial role in consultations with the British government, defending Rushdie on the world stage and conveying the views of British writers to the other members of International PEN and to the media.

When Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses came out in 1988 its depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and other key figures from Islamic scripture caused huge offense in the Muslim world.

This led to riots and angry protests in the UK, widespread calls to ban the book and eventually to the declaration of a fatwa by Ayatollah Kohmeini, calling on all pious Muslims to kill Rushdie in order to defend the honour of the faith and the Prophet.

Rushdie’s book was controversial, even within PEN itself, but figures like Harwood were among those pushing for the organisation to defend it.

One incident in particular, from the 1990 International PEN Congress in Funchal, Madeira finds Harwood defending Salman Rushdie in front of members from across the world.

Harwood has discovered a particularly damning condemnation of Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, published in Indian PEN, the publication of the Indian PEN Centre. Harwood brings it to the attention of the Congress not, for the ‘savage criticism which the writers was perfectly entitled for make’ but the second part of the article which as Harwood explains was ‘more serious in terms of what International PEN stood for’ particularly as this piece had been published by and presumably reflected the views of Indian PEN.

Harwood’s chief condemnation was not that the writer found the book offensive but the PEN members had advocated burning it without reading it.  Harwood then quotes Heine: ‘You start by banning books. The next day you burn books. And the day after that you burn people.’

Whilst Harwood does not wish to make an evaluative case on the basis of the relative merits of Rushdie’s work, like many of his generation and particularly as himself the child of a Lithuanian refugee, he views free expression as an unassailable part of maintaining a healthy society and political discourse.

To learn more about the Rushdie affair and PEN’s involvement in it, see our Case Study and also listen to Professor Rachel Potter and Professor Anshuman Mondal discuss the scandal thirty years on…

PEN and World Literature

This blog is very kindly lent to us by Co-Investigator on the Writers Organisations and Free Expression Project Professor Peter McDonald. It originally appeared on his blog Artefacts of Writing…

Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.

1. This is the first article of the original statement of aims that PEN, the world’s largest and oldest association of writers, formally agreed in Brussels at its 5th international Congress in 1927. PEN was founded in London in 1921 and held its first official Congress there in 1923. Haunted by the horrors of the First World War, the statement is universalist in aspiration and anti-nationalist in spirit, though it presupposes the primacy of the nation at every point — not just in the sub-clause ‘national though it be in origin’ but in the phrase ‘between nations’. As this wording was preserved when the three-part statement became the four-part PEN Charter in 1948, it effectively stood as an emblem of PEN’s internationalist vision for just over seventy-five years.

1.1 The statement also reflected the ‘new idealism’ of PEN’s founding President, the British novelist John Galsworthy. ‘All works of the imagination’, Galsworthy wrote in an article on ‘International Thought’ for the London Times on 30 October 1923, ‘are the property of mankind at large’ and ‘any real work of art, however individual and racial in root and fibre, is impersonal and universal in its appeal.’  As I argue in the book, this kind of thinking, which combined the national and the universal, also underpinned the development of English as an academic subject in late-Victorian Oxford where Galsworthy studied law, graduating in 1889. Yet this was not simply a matter of literary aesthetics for Galsworthy. It concerned the writer’s special calling. At a time when governments, journalists, scientists and financiers continued to see themselves as ‘trustees for competitive sections of mankind’—again he had in mind the malign nationalism that led to the First World War—he argued writers had a ‘plain duty’ to be the heralds of a co-operative, rules-based international order and the champions of ‘a new idealism.’ At the same time, Galsworthy always insisted on PEN being an association not an amalgamation of national centres.John_Galsworthy_2

2. Such at least was the vision. Not everyone agreed, even in the 1920s. Some doubted PEN could ever stand above, or even outside, politics and others worried that Galsworthy made it look too much like a literary rival to the League of Nations. And then reality got in the way. Since some languages do not have a localized territory or the backing of a state, alternative, culture-based centres were formed almost immediately, beginning in 1922 with the Catalans in Barcelona, followed a year later by the Spanish in Madrid. Scottish PEN was founded in 1927. Then there was the question of exiles (Russian and German in the first instance) and the tensions between the Flemish and the French in Belgium. The greatest challenge in the interwar years, however, came from Yiddish writers who found themselves adrift after the Polish centre in Warsaw turned down their request for co-membership. After much debate, the solution, formally accepted in 1927, was to establish a Yiddish centre in the contested city of Vilna (now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania) with further branches in New York and Warsaw. Two years later, at the 1929 Congress in Vienna, it was then agreed that ‘the method of dividing the P.E.N into sections and the right of voting at congresses should be based on literary and cultural’, rather than national grounds. Despite this, the first article of the Charter remained unchanged until 2003.

3. At the 67th international Congress, held in London in November 2001, the Canadian and German PEN centres initiated a discussion to revise the original wording. Reflecting some of the interwar concerns, the President of PEN Canada, the exiled Iranian writer Reza Baraheni, was among the leading proponents for change. They set out four main reasons for doing so.

a. [The original wording] had never been historically correct, and intrinsically excludes all literature written before the development of nation states.

b. erroneously accepts without question the late 18th-century proposition that literatures are “national”, a concept promoted by developing nation states in order to foster the citizens’ identification with the nation, and opposed even then by Goethe and others who believed in “world literature” and held that in an age of unlimited intellectual exchange literature belongs to the whole world.

c. totally neglects the post-colonial development in Africa and the Arab states, where literature is predominantly seen in a pan-African or pan-Arab context, and in the case of Africa is written in a wide variety of cross-border indigenous and colonial languages.

d. culturally marginalizes literature written by exiled, emigrated or migrant writers.

4. Following their interventions, the Canadian and German centres proposed a new formulation at the next Congress, held in Ohrid, Macedonia in September 2002:

Literature of whatever provenance or language is a world cultural heritage and must be protected and upheld at all times as the free and common currency of all people, particularly in periods of political or international upheaval.

This effectively removed the contentious phrasing about the ‘national’, though the sentence read like something composed by committee via email over some months, which is, in fact, how it emerged. Again, not everyone was happy. Writers from the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc spoke against the change, describing what the almost talismanic 1948 Charter, which champions free expression, meant to them throughout the dark years of the Cold War. They also worried about the loss of the word ‘national’, which had acquired a new significance for them since 1989 and for everyone in the era of globalization. By contrast, African writers spoke for the proposal because they liked the word ‘protected’, which addressed concerns they had about marginalized languages and literatures.

5. For the English writer Victoria Glendenning and literary agent Susanna Nicklin, the problems were stylistic. Feeling that the new version was not ‘in keeping with the spare, clear wording of the Charter,’ they proposed an alternative, which involved subtracting rather than re-writing. This broke with protocol — according to PEN’s rules, you cannot amend an amendment in the course of discussion — but, characteristically, an unfussy solution was found: the English and Canadian delegates were sent away to re-draft the amendment, a task that took four hours. Why so long? Again characteristically, the debates reflected everything for which PEN stands—‘communication, tolerance, impassioned discussion, literary quotation, story-telling, poetic digressions, tales of wrongful imprisonment, life-stories’ and more, as Glendenning and Nicklin reported.

6. What resulted was a small but significant reformulation, which re-founded PEN as a truly supranational, non-statist world association, equal to the broader vision of ‘language communities’ articulated in the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights(1996), a document PEN did much to shape (see the ‘Linguistic Rights’ post):

Literature knows no frontiers, and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.

The amendment was formally incorporated into the Charter when it was ratified a year later at the 69th Congress in Mexico City, a meeting otherwise dominated by reports on the growing number of attacks on writers and journalists around the world—775 in 2003 alone.

2003 Charter change


For more details on the 2002 PEN Congress in Macedonia, see Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s blog post ‘PEN Journey 26: Macedonia—Old and New Millennium‘, 24 April 2020.

Article 19 Tackles Misinformation Around COVID-19

social_media_032720Free expression organisations have a number of issues to concern themselves with in a global pandemic – the wellbeing of writers in prison, the infringements of government legislation on personal freedoms and human rights, the ways in which discourse of infection might manifest themselves in hate speech or acts.

However, alongside the current global pandemic, runs another contagion which concerns writers organisations, governments and citizens-alike: the spread of disinformation.

In the current circumstances disinformation is not only harmful to planned containment measures and public-uptake of government of World Health Organisation advice, it is also a threat to life.

In fact, the WHO has already referred to an ‘infodemic’ around the virus with theories abounding on social media and beyond espousing bleach or garlic as cures for the virus and speculating on potential causes for the outbreak.

As part of their work around COVID-19, Article 19 are seeking to tackle disinformation.

Acting Executive Director Quinn McKew said: ‘The spread of COVID-19 across the globe has been matched by the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus.

‘We have also seen some states attempt to stifle media reporting on the spread of the virus and use repressive legislation to arrest people who are sharing information about it.’

She went on that responsibility lay with governments, the media and media companies to ensure that they was full transparency in the reporting and management of the crisis.

She said that: ‘Independent media, ethical journalism, citizen reporting, open public discourse and the free flow of information are indispensable in the global effort to counter COVID-19.’

The WHO has already launched the WHO Information Network for Epidemics, which is working with platforms such as Facebook, Tiktok, Google, Baidu, Weibo and Pintrest to try to foreground ‘accurate information from trusted sources’.

Article 19 views the combatting of this fake news as an essential part of its campaigning around free expression and accurate reporting.

In early March it released clear warnings to governments, the media and social media about their handling of information around the outbreak.

However, Article 19 wanted to call on governments to ensure that accurate reporting of the crisis was not impeded, that transparent and trustworthy information was available widely.

It also called on journalists and the media to ensure that reporting was fair and impartial and included a right to reply and on social media companies to continue to work with the WHO and to ensure that processes to tackle disinformation or hate speech remained clear and easily understood.

Read Article 19’s full report on misinformation and coronavirus.




Free Expression and Covid-19

Due to current circumstances, we have been forced to delay the conferences in India and South Africa that we were planning for 2020 and early 2021.

The team are already looking at when and in what form these might be rescheduled.

In the meantime, we are hoping to bring you a series of reports looking at free expression through a series of dialogues between our researchers and key writers or campaigners, and the impact that current world events from COVID-19 to climate change are having on writers and writing worldwide.



Elif Şhafak under investigation in Turkey

By Rachel Potter

It is ironic that Elif Şhafak’s fiction has been targeted by the Turkish authorities twice, but for entirely different reasons. In 2006, she was taken to court by a Turkish lawyer for insulting Turkishness in her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul because it refers to the First World War Armenian massacre as a genocide.

This is a criminal act under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which prohibits the ‘public denigration’ of Turkishness, the Turkish Republic, the Grand National Assembly, the government, judiciary, military and security services’. The terms of the law are extremely broad, and hundreds of writers and journalists have been targeted under its terms.

Elif Shafak

Elif Şhafak

Last week, she was investigated by a prosecutor for a very different crime; the fictional representation of sexual violence and child abuse in her novels The Gaze (1999) and Three Daughters of Eve (2016). It is not just the legal authorities who are after Şhafak. She has been attacked on social media for her latest novel, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds (2019) which depicts the final moments in the life of a murdered sex worker.

As she put it, she is ‘dealing with thousands of bots and trolls’. The criticisms of her fictional representations of sexual violence are part of a much broader recent clamp-down on Turkish writers. Ayşe Kulin has been subject to widespread online abuse for her fictional depiction of sexual scenes. Novelist Abdullah Şevki has been arrested because his first-person representation of sexual assault on a child has been deemed to be, in itself, a form of ‘child abuse’. As Şhafak said to The Guardian of the Turkish authorities ‘This is a very new focus for them.’

Since its inception in 1923 the Turkish Republic has strongly policed its writers. Its penal code, taken from Mussolini’s Italy, put serious curbs on freedom of expression. Turkish writers have often refused to be silenced, and many of them have struggled against censorship. The modernist poet Nâzim Hikmet spent much of his adult life in prison and died in exile. Novelist Yaşhar Kemal, Turkey’s most famous writer in the 1950s and 1960s, was harassed and prosecuted. Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, was sued by Kemal Keriçsiz in 2005 for insulting Turkishness by mentioning the Armenian genocide.

In the early 2000s, Turkey was in talks with the European Union about its possible entry into the EU, and the long conflict with Kurdish separatists seemed to be finished. A new generation of Turkish writers, including Latife Tekin, Asli Erdoğan, Perihan Mağden and Elif Şhafak, mined Turkey’s cultural history by mixing Turkish and Ottoman traditions with European forms. With the declaration of the state of emergency after the attempted coup in July 2016 and the rule by executive decree that followed the position of writers and journalists in Turkey has become even more perilous. Over 150 journalists and writers are in prison and more than 180 media outlets and publishing houses have been closed down.

When I spoke to Şhafak in 2017 about her experiences of censorship she talked about Turkey’s cosmopolitan history, and the modern-day battle between nationalist and cosmopolitan visions of Turkish identity. She described the role of literary censorship in Turkey’s governmental imposition of a one-dimensional form of national identity on its people.

The recent targeting of the fictional depiction of sexual violence has moved the goal posts; from the prohibition of references to events in Turkey’s modern history, to a ban on depictions of sexual violence and paedophilia. While the objects of attack are different, both involve the representation of Turkish identity, whether national, familial or sexual. The view of fiction is also similar. Fiction is seen as that which enacts or brings into being the thing or activity it represents. Literature, on this view, has the power to undermine Turkish identity, and the representation of sexual assault is itself a form of ‘child abuse’. Şhafak sees it from the opposite way round; that the attack on fictional representations of sexual violence diverts attention from the rising incidents of sexual violence against children in Turkey.

International PEN has long defended writers’ rights in Turkey, attacking anti-terrorism legislation, criminal defamation and the law prohibiting insulting Turkishness. It monitors ongoing criminal trials, including against novelist Ahmet Altan and his brother Mehmet Altan, as well as the group Academics for Peace. Responding to the recent attacks on Turkish writers who depict sexual violence, English PEN director Antonia Byatt said that ‘Freedom of expression in Turkey is increasingly under serious threat’.

Many writers who have spoken out against Government censorship have talked of the fragility or ‘paranoia’, as J. M. Coetzee put it in an important essay, of heavily prohibitive nation States. The paranoid state, as Coetzee also insightfully pointed out, induces watchfulness and mutual suspicion, encouraging the breakdown of ‘human sympathy and trust between people’.

The attack on Turkish writers is being undertaken both by legal authorities within Turkey, and, in the cases of Kulin and of Şhafak who lives in London, by hate mail via social media. Both have the power to have a chilling effect on expression. At the moment online censorious hate speech has an enormous power to violate the private sphere.

It seems unlikely that Şhafak, who, along with PEN, has long campaigned for writers’ rights to free expression as well as minority rights and rights for women, will allow such attacks to change her own forthright views and expressions on the subject of violence against women and children. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge the power of this violation, in limiting, distorting or forcefully politicising expression.

The fact that Şhafak has been targeted twice and for different reasons is a revealing one. It invites us to look beyond the particular reasons given for censorship and see the wider pattern. The targeting also has paradoxical effects. While it seeks to silence the literary depiction of sexual violence, it serves to highlight the fact of sexual violence. And while it aims to suppress writers it also effectively gives to literature a forceful power to insult and undermine the Turkish State.





‘It’s not enough to rely on the principle, we have to think harder’: PEN, Rushdie and free expression thirty years on…

In our latest free expression podcast, Professor Anshuman Mondal of the University of East Anglia talks to Professor Rachel Potter about Salman Rushdie, thirty years after the Satanic Verses affair.

Mondal, who has written extensively on Rushdie and particularly on free expression and Islam, explores the implications of the West-versus-East narrative at the centre of the Rushdie scandal and discusses how anti-censorship discourses work within global politics often to the detriment of non-Western cultures and belief systems.

‘Whereas I have no problem with writers mobilising on behalf of another writer I think that writers just like any other constituency have the political right and the duty to do so, what I would try to do is to just problematize this notion that writing and that writing and especially imaginative writing of a certain kind, it is on a special pedestal.

‘It is something special, something really truly remarkable that is so exceptional that it needs a special provision and special exceptions and so forth and I’m not entirely sure that that’s the case and I think that that’s one of the strands of the discourse established at that time that I am still working on and trying to address.’

He also responded to some of the documents we found in the PEN Archives which relate to the Rushdie case, including letters from PEN Centres lending their support to Rushdie’s cause and an essay written by postcolonial scholar Edward Said and published by the PEN America Center.

‘Edward Said quotes Rushdie’s essay ‘Outside the Whale’ and I think that that is a great reminder to both Rushdie himself and to the rest of us about the way in which writers are invested in these situations, they aren’t neutral players and they can’t be observers.

‘However, I’m constantly struggling always to remind everyone of the complexity of the situation, so I’m going to complicate that position.

‘It emerges most importantly in the trope that Rushdie himself uses in his essays ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ and ‘A Thousand Days in a Balloon’, those essays that were published and were brilliant responses under considerable duress, but he uses this trope of the imagination in a sort of quasi-romantic way and one of the things that I’m really interested in is that this trope of the imagination is quarantined from everything else.

‘It’s a sort of performative contradiction in the essay in that he talks about the imagination or the writer’s imagination being responsible for being able to think differently, for enacting changes in the world and so on and so forth and yet at the same time this faculty of the imagination is free-floating and is quarantined from the messiness of the real world.’

He also traces some of the current narratives around Islam to the Rushdie case: ‘In terms of the Rushdie case, what was problematic was this framing of free speech as part of a civilizational struggle and Rushdie himself does it actually in the novel and in the para-textual interventions that he makes during the controversy.

‘But that discourse set the scene for that civilizational battle that free speech is part of the west and is a civilizational value and I don’t think that’s helpful at all.’

Discussing the changes of recent years, Mondal describes how arguments against censorship must be nuanced and complicated – they are never black and white, right or wrong: ‘Principles are a good starting point but if you are going to end there then you’ve got a problem.

‘I value free expression but I want it to be adequate to the predicament of the world today as a very globalised multiracial, multicultural, multi-religious global society with all of these factors that need to be negotiated. It’s not enough to rely on the principle, we have to think harder.’

For more information on the Rushdie affair, read our case study on PEN’s response.

Free Expression at PEN’s Pune Congress

Pune Our Indian Research Associate Chinmay Sharma attended International PEN’s Congress in Pune and reports back on his experience here, reflecting on the importance of such an event at a time of increased danger not only for Indian writers, but for writers and journalists all over the world…

Travelling from permanently-humid Mumbai to balmy Pune to attend the first PEN Congress to be held in India held between 25th and 29th September, 2018, I couldn’t help but think about the apposite timing as free speech issues had come to occupy front page headlines in India in the preceding months. The main organiser of the conference, Prof. Ganesh Devy, had been on the forefront in the battle of free speech in India in recent years. Following the assassinations of three rationalists— Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare— by suspected associates of Hindu right groups, Devy joined a host of writers like Nayantara Sahgal and Ashok Vajpeyi in returning their Sahitya Akademi awards protesting the central government’s silence and complicity in the murders. To further underline the urgent threats to free speech, a month before the Congress, five civil rights activists— Varavara Rao, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Pereira, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha— were arrested by the Pune police on trumped up charges, while three more— Kranti, Stan Swami, and Anand Teltumbde— had their homes raided.

Holding the Congress in Pune in this context was significant because Pune is seen as a stronghold of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent body of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Congress theme—Experiments with Truth— alluded not just to Mahatma Gandhi, who had spent some time in Pune under house arrest at the Aga Khan Palace, but also, perhaps obliquely, to the rise of ‘fake news’.

Also, hot on the heels of PEN International releasing their Women’s Manifesto in March, 2018, the Congress would focus on four themes— Gandhi, women writers and free speech, the rise of fake news, and the threats to free speech in India—with a fifth, underlying theme— the global rise of the far right and its consequences.

The first day of the Congress was dominated by welcome events. Post-lunch, Jennifer Clement, PEN International President, and Carles Tormer, PEN International Secretary delivered their welcome address. Jennifer spoke about violence against women as a way of silencing women, while Carles invoked the myth of the Hindu god Ganesha, the reputed scribe for the Mahabharata, light-heartedly remarking that Ganesha was the first member of PEN. Following this we were taken to visit the Aga Khan Palace to pay our respects at the memorial built to commemorate Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, and his private secretary, Mahadev Desai. From the Palace we were transported to Symbiosis University where Devy made a speech explaining his rationale behind choosing Pune as the host city. He argued that Pune had been a crucial city in pre-historic and historic migratory routes, and that people travelling those routes came up with stories that became both the Mahabharata and the waritradition (a devotional procession in honour of the local deity Vithoba). Devy ended by talking about the multilingualism of Pune, and stressed the need to keep the multiplicity of culture, by preserving Truth, and thus preserving Democracy.

The first two mornings of the Congress were assigned to committee meetings of the PEN International—Women Writers (WW), Writers for Peace (WfP), Writers in Prison (WiP), and Translation & Linguistic Rights (TLR)—which hosted panel discussions and where delegates would debate committee resolutions before bringing it on to the floor of the General Assembly. The panels on women in literature, and on free speech particularly stood out.

Sara Iacovelli from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, gave a presentation on the VIDA count to the WW committee and later to the General Assembly. The count analyzes gender parity in the literary field in the US using different metrics like literary review mentions, literary magazine appearances etc. Over the past few years they have expanded their analysis to include race and sexuality. The hope was that national PEN delegates could use the VIDA methodology or partner with VIDA to carry out similar analyses in their respective countries as a crucial first step towards addressing gender inequality in their respective literary spheres.

The WiP committee session, hosted a panel on Freedom of Expression in India with the journalist Raksha Kumar, academic Apoorvanand Jha, and the famous Telugu author ‘Volga’. Raksha, who had co-authored the PEN report on Freedom of Expression in India, mainly spoke about the threats facing journalists in India today— both legal threats, and threats, often fatal, to their life. Apoorvanand spoke about the increasing curbs on academic freedom of expression through funding decisions, personnel hiring decisions, and fomenting trouble in the university campuses a la JNU. Volga took a different route and spoke about the restrictions on free speech for women, at once individual and systemic, who have to contend with censorship efforts of their family before that of government or ‘activist’ groups.

The General Assembly finally met in the afternoon of the 26th. The main business of the day was outlining the key challenges faced by PEN International and national PEN centres, PEN International’s launch of their Women’s manifesto, and an address to the delegates by Ganesh Devy stressing again the diversity of India. The third and fifth day were devoted to matters of the General Assembly, with the delegates focusing on PEN committee resolutions. Most notably, the new PEN International Vice Presidents were announced— the renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and the Indian authors Nayantara Sehgal and Perumal Murugan. PEN’s report on the dire condition of freedom of speech in Venezuela, Hungary and India were discussed, with PEN Hungary dominating the topic of discussion. The general assembly also hosted panels on defamation laws and how they are used to target free speech; the dilemma of hate speech; and the rise of xenophobia.

Holding the Congress in Pune, with the Gandhian imagery (but Nehruvian ethos of unity in diversity), sent a subtle message of solidarity with Indian writers and resistance against attacks on free speech, as made clear on the last day of the Congress when the senior officials called a press conference to launch their report on the dire condition of Free Speech in India. Writers and journalists from across the world were apprised of the situation directly, which could be helpful in creating an international consensus and solidarity around conserving freedom of speech in the future, not just in India, but in other countries as well. There was an overarching consensus on the urgent need for continuing the work PEN International was doing. Warts and all, it was still a crucial voice that spoke up on behalf of writers in prisons, refugees, and writers under threat.