#100PENMembers No. 19: Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag was not only an awarding-winning poet, novelist and critic, she also served as President of PEN American during the turbulent period from 1987 to 1989, when Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published, violently condemned and burnt.  

Susan Sontag
Photo: Lynn Gilbert 1979

Always a bold advocate for free expression, prior to taking the reins at American PEN, she had been a prominent figure at PEN events, including the famous 48thInternational PEN Congress in New York in 1986. Here, she chaired a high profile panel discussion on ‘Alienation and the State’, with contributions from Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, Salman Rushdie, Herberto Padilla, Jiri Grusa and Georgy Konrad. Sontag was forthright in her own argument that writers should be seen as critical of, rather than alienated from, the state. She criticised the ‘cult of self-expression’ and subjectivity which she saw as part of the idea of authorial alienation. She had come to realise, she stated interestingly, that literary modernism might not be ‘amenable to the descriptive historical tasks of literature’. 

A year later, she took up the position of PEN American President, and used her position at PEN to criticise and pressurise governments, both in the US and elsewhere. 

One of her first tasks was to steer proceedings at the 1988 International PEN Congress in Seoul. The Congress was a controversial one because at the same moment that delegates sat in congress halls discussing free expression, five South Korean literary figures were in prison precisely because of their words. To ‘be at this gathering  while our colleagues sit in prison’, she declared, ‘some of them ill, all of them, ironically, deprived of pen and paper, is a profound disappointment and morally troubling to many of us.’ 

A year after that, she played a key role in defending Rushdie, addressing the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee on the issue on 8thMarch 1989. She attacked the US government’s ‘disappointing’ stance on Rushdie’s plight, asking why it had failed to issue a clear public statement defending him. As with her defence of the South Korean writers, she defended Rushdie by appealing to an idea of literary solidarity. American writers should ‘spread the danger by treating the call to murder one writer as an attack on all.’

She used the idea of literary solidarity across frontiers to confront the US Senate Committee, insisting that the violent censorship of Rushdie was a form of terror whose effects would spread across national boundaries, affecting US citizens and institutions. The ‘attempt at censorship by terror and the fear that it has engendered,’ as she put it, ‘strikes not only at the writers, publishers and booksellers, but finally at libraries, schools, and the entire basis of the United States as a literate, free country.’ While writers have often highlighted the dire consequences of self-censorship, Sontag here identified clearly that the self-censorship ushered in by the Rushdie affair would affect writers around the world. 

She concluded that, in global terms, Rushdie’s case was not exceptional and that many other writers faced persecution: ‘PEN works year-round to bring attention to the plight of these writers, and assisting them should be an imperative of U.S. foreign policy.’

While Sontag continued her involvement with PEN America after stepping down as President, her tenure was notable for her mobilisation of the organisation’s cultural power to influence and pressurise governments. 

PEN America have recently digitized their archive, saving countless invaluable records of writer’s speeches and conversations over the years, many of which feature Sontag. Here she is holding a discussion with another one of our #100PENMembers Chinua Achebe.