#100PENMembers No.2: Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International

Current P.E.N. International President Jennifer Clement

While we began with PEN’s founder, we now turn to its current International President.

It is fitting that in PEN’s centenary year the organisation has its first ever female International President. Jennifer Clement took over in 2015, after having already run Mexican PEN from 2009-2012. A prize-winning novelist and poet, Jennifer has been extremely active in pushing forwards PEN’s feminist agenda, and is responsible for spearheading the writing and endorsement of PEN’s 2017 Women’s Manifesto and The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, issued in 2019. 

Jennifer’s literary interests have fuelled her activism. Many of her novels and poems are steeped in the Mexican landscape, and relate the stories of deprived, threatened or silenced women. Her first novel, A True Story Based on Lies tells the story of a young Mexican peasant girl who works as a domestic servant.Discussing her 2014 novel, Prayers for the Stolen she describes its origins in the reality of Mexico’s stolen, hidden and missing women. As she put it, ‘I have spent more than ten years listening to women affected by Mexico’s violence’. The novel’s fictional story of one such woman, Ladydi Garcia Martínez was ‘inspired’ by the ‘truth’ of these voices, as Jennifer says, and this truth seems to have, in turn, energised the creation of the PEN Women’s Manifesto, which advocates for women’s rights to non-violence, safety, education, equality, access and parity. The Manifesto not only insists that women and girls should be able to ‘express themselves freely’; it also details the material, legal, economic and educational conditions needed for expression.  

Last year, meanwhile, she launched The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, which is a striking declaration of the rights of the literary imagination to wander freely across physical, emotional and psychological frontiers. Calling for the rights of the ‘empathetic imagination’, the Manifesto is a timely defence of the free play of the literary imagination against the prohibitions of censorship and self-censorship. 

In honour of PEN’s 100thbirthday Jennifer has helped organise a celebratory Congress in September at which, for the first time in the organisation’s history, representatives from all global PEN centres will gather together to talk and debate. 

We interviewed Jennifer about her Presidency and about the role of women in PEN in 2017. 

#100PENMembers No.1: Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, Founder of PEN

Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, 1865-1934

Poet Catharine Amy Dawson Scott set up the PEN Club in London 5thOctober, 1921. She recruited a number of feminist and women founding members, including Rebecca West, May Sinclair, Radclyffe Hall, Vera Brittain, and Violet Hunt, but also John Galsworthy, who agreed to become President, and Bertrand Russell, W. B. Yeats, Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells. It saw itself as unique because it was a London centre where well-known writers of ‘both sexes’ could meet – no such centre existed at the time.[1]

From the start, Dawson Scott wanted the PEN club to be an international organisation in which writers from around the world could meet and discuss, and she encouraged the creation of PEN Centres. By 1923, PEN centres had been established in most Western and Eastern European capitals, as well as New York and Mexico City. By 1925, there were centres in Santiago, Milan and Toronto. By 1934 there were centres in Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Baghdad, Bombay and Cairo. 

Dawson Scott always defended women’s centrality to the PEN organisation. At the 1928 Oslo PEN Congress, she spoke out strongly to protest that some PEN centres were refusing to admit women. She ‘emphasized the importance of women in the international work for development and peace’ work that meant that in a ‘league of nations like the PEN’, as she put it, ‘the participation of women ought to be assured. She presented a motion, under the title ‘Women in PEN’: 

It had come to her notice that one of the PEN centres did not admit women to membership. As this was contrary to the spirit – and indeed to the rules – of the PEN she wished the principle to be expressed at this congress that membership was open to writers of standing, irrespective of her sex.’ She thereby moved, ‘that women shall be considered eligible for membership of the PEN, if writers’. It was carried unanimously.’ 

Dawson Scott also continued to argue for the internationalism of PEN. On the Tenth Anniversary of PEN’s founding, she delivered a speech where she spoke of ‘scattering’ seeds of friendliness. She said there was more to do. ‘We must have PEN’s’, she declared, from Palestine East to Nagasaki; from Peru and Ecuador to New York; in Australasia from Perth Even to Napier’ [PEN News, November 1931, p. 3] 

When she died in 1934, her expansionist ambitions had born fruit. Tokyo PEN was created 2 years later, and there were centres in many areas of the world, with clusters of activity in Europe, Northern America, the middle East, South America, South East Asia and Australasia.

[1]‘P.E.N. Club’, Vertical Files, Box 628. 

Welcome to 100 Years of PEN!

PEN turns 100 this year. That’s 100 years of writers collaborating, dining, debating, disputing, walking-out, campaigning, agitating, petitioning and declaring. During 2021 we will be using this website to reflect upon PEN’s history and to think about its current challenges. 

English PEN’s Centenary Celebrations ‘Common Currency‘: A series of events and schemes to celebrate that values central to PEN

What began as the first London literary club open to women quickly became an international organisation that campaigned for writers’ rights. PEN was shaped by the major political events of the last 100 years: the rise of Fascism and Nazism, the refugee crises of the late 1930s and 1940s, anti-colonial fights for national independence, the cold war, and global disputes over the limits to blasphemous expression. Its activities continue to be moulded by events. Writers have confronted the recent politicised conflicts over the meaning of free speech, and the implications of the spread of false news and hate speech when amplified by the internet. 

But PEN has not simply been fashioned by history; it has also been a significant forum for the creation of new ideas. It allowed space for international literary collaboration and the engagement with human rights from the 1930s, particularly rights to free expression of imprisoned and exiled writers. It liaised with UNESCO after the second world war on educational and translation initiatives. From the 1930s onwards, it devoted significant time to helping refugee writers, legally and financially. It developed a set of principles on literary linguistic rights in 1996 and women’s rights in 2017. 

PEN is the sum total of its members. It is a literary network, a forum for literary debate and a campaigning NGO. Its history is a history of the activities and views of individual members and includes many of the most significant global writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In 2021 we will focus in on some of PEN’s most significant members. We’ll be tweeting #PEN100 #100PENMembers to tell you about some of the inspirational writers who have been part of the organisation over its first one hundred years. We’ll also be working with PEN International and English PEN on some exciting events and publications to celebrate their rich history. Follow us on @writefreeexpress to meet those fascinating characters from all over the world who made PEN what it is today.

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.