50 Years of Defending Freedom of Expression
I’m staring straight into the sun lighting up the sky in shades of pink before it sets. I watch it slowly losing altitude behind a building near the World Bank. The yellow globe is sinking into the river, into the trees of Virginia across the Potomac. I am typing without looking at the page, my eyes fixed on the sun which I want to keep in the sky. For some reason I feel frantic to keep staring at the sun, hoping it won’t disappear. But in the time it has taken to write these few sentences, it has already lost half its sphere and is now only a diameter on the horizon. Soon it will be dark. I keep writing. I have just read Arthur Koestler’s “The Cell Door Closes” about his first moments in prison. Perhaps that is why I feel an irrational desire to keep this light in the sky, this sun from sinking…ah now it is but a sliver above the roof tops. How quick its descent once it finds the horizon, as if it wants to leave and go to the other side of the earth. And now it is gone. How long did that take? As long as it took to write this paragraph, this opening of a blog about the fiftieth anniversary of International PEN’s work for writers in prison.
Arthur Koestler was the first writer on whose behalf PEN successfully intervened. An earlier appeal on behalf of Frederico Garcia Lorca in 1937 arrived too late, and he was executed in Spain shortly after his arrest. But PEN’s advocacy for Hungarian novelist Koestler, also condemned to death in Spain, was noted when his captors released him.
In 1960 PEN founded a Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), which preceded the founding of Amnesty, to work on behalf of writers imprisoned, disappeared and killed for the expression of their ideas. Over the years PEN’s WiPC has defended writers around the world, including such well known ones as Josef Brodsky, Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Vaclav Havel, Ngui wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, Aung San Sui Kyi, Ken Saro Wiwa and currently Liu Xiaobo and thousands of others.
For four years (1993-1997) I had the privilege of chairing that Committee. And the year of the fatwa (1989) against Salman Rushdie—a seminal event for anyone involved in freedom of expression work—I was president of PEN USA, one of the two PEN Centers in the US. During 25 years of working on freedom of expression, I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with committed writers around the world who advocate on behalf of their threatened colleagues. It is a global network. If one were to map it, one would see intricate, criss-crossing corridors: writers in Poland working for writers in prison in Vietnam, writers in Ghana and Scotland taking action for the release of writers in China, PEN members in Australia and Germany and Italy working on behalf of writers in Cuba, writers in Mexico and Japan protesting the imprisonment and laws affecting writers in Turkey; members in Canada and the U.S. and Sweden speaking up for writers in Iran and Myanmar, writers in England and Norway for those in Belorussia. One can imagine hundreds of hands pushing up their bit of the sky to lift the horizon.
Failures as well as successes bind this network. In its fiftieth anniversary year, it is a tribute to the imagination which begins with imagining someone else. Imagination after all is the enemy of tyranny for it cannot be controlled.
From Arthur Koestler’s “The Cell Door Closes” from Dialogue with Death:
“It is a unique sound. A cell door has no handle, either outside or inside. It cannot be shut except by being slammed. It is made of massive steel and concrete, about four inches thick, and every time it falls to there is a resounding crash just as though a shot has been fired. But this report does away without an echo. Prison sounds are echo-less and bleak.
“When the door has been slammed behind him for the first time, the prisoner stands in the middle of the cell and looks round. I fancy that everyone must behave in more or less the same way.
“First of all he gives a fleeting look round the walls and takes a mental inventory of all the objects in what is now to be his domain:
the iron bedstead
the barred window
His next action is invariably to try to pull himself up by the iron bars of the window and look out. He fails and his suit is covered with white from the plaster on the wall against which he pressed himself…..
And this is how things are to go on—in the coming minutes, hours, days, weeks, years.
How long has he already been in the cell?
He looks at his watch: exactly three minutes.”
Found in This Prison Where I Live: The Pen Anthology of Imprisoned Writers