Margie Orford: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t’

In Part One of our interview, Peter McDonald talks to Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa, talks about why she is sensitive about the topic of banned books, why she joined PEN and why freedom of expression is a global concern…

Inspired in her politics and in her writing by her experiences growing up in South Africa in the 1980s, Orford first came to PEN as an activist:

‘I was educated in South Africa in the eighties and all the books were banned.’

‘I did economic history, half the books were banned – my shaping of the world was having restricted access to books.’

‘Most of the African writers and the criticism I wanted to read, were banned.’

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Margie Orford, President of PEN South Africa

As a result, she has a real resistance to the censorship of books and the curtailment of freedom of expression for writers more generally: ‘I have a sensitive spot about what you can read, and what you can’t.’

She describes how, later, with the new South African constitution in 1994 it seemed that ‘the right to free expression is constitutionally protected’.

‘There was such a sense of liberation and opening that sort of space that had been closed off so completely under Apartheid – no light, no oxygen – it really opened and expanded and into that came so much publishing and writing.’

She describes how, despite its difficult history in terms of free expression she has always found South Africa ‘an extremely outspoken country even under the worst of Apartheid people might be banned or detained but there was a determination that the truth would be told.’

It was later, under the Zuma government, that she realised she needed to join PEN: ‘My interest with PEN was very specifically around the Secrecy Bill, this was legislation that could put people I know and know well into prison.’

Since then she’s never looked back: ‘I like international work, I think that freedom of expression issues are global.’

Echoing the words of the PEN Charter itself, she adds: ‘If you’ve grown up as a reader, national borders are irrelevant.’

Listen to the first part of Margie’s interview with Peter McDonald, to hear her discuss Danish cartoonists, absolutes in free expression and why speech is always political.