Parallel Universe in a Glassed Concert Hall in Iceland

If you want to understand politics—it’s like being in a book club where everyone discusses the grammar.

So said actor/comedian Jon Gnarr, Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland when he addressed the recent 79th PEN International Congress. Gnarr was elected Mayor in 2010 from the Best Party, which he and friends with no background in politics created as a satirical party after the economic meltdown in Iceland a few years ago. They won over a third of the seats on the City Council with a platform that included free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the zoo and “all kinds of things for weaklings.” After he was elected, Gnarr declared he wouldn’t form a coalition government with anyone who hadn’t watched the TV series The Wire.

The politician with a short black tie, a sense of humor and a view of politics as a parallel universe resonated with the audience of over 200 writers at the Opening Ceremonies of the PEN Congress. Writers from 70 centers of PEN gathered to deliberate and debate literature and the situation for writers and freedom of expression around the world, a world they agreed often bordered on the absurd, but the absurd with serious consequences.

The Assembly discussed and passed resolutions on the challenges to freedom of expression in countries including Mexico, China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Eritrea, Belarus, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Tibet, and Russia. The delegates walked en masse to the Russian Embassy to present their resolution protesting the recent legislation on blasphemy and “gay propaganda.” And they applauded the announcement during the Congress of the release of Chinese poet Shi Tao 15 months before the end of his 10-year sentence.

“Shi Tao has been one of our main cases since his arrest in 2004, an honorary member of a dozen PEN centers and one of the first and most significant digital media cases,” said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “Shi Tao’s arrest and imprisonment, because of the actions of Yahoo China, signaled a decade ago the challenges to freedom of expression of internet surveillance and privacy that we are now dealing with.”

The delegates challenged the secret surveillance of citizens recently uncovered in the United States and the United Kingdom and the prosecution of those who revealed programs violating international human rights norms.

“As an organization dedicated to preserving free expression and creative freedom, PEN is particularly troubled by recent revelations concerning the nature and scope of electronic surveillance programmes in use by the United States’ National Security Agency and parallel programmes such as those being carried out by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the United Kingdom.  As leaks about the U.S. government’s PRISM programme, the U.K. governments Tempora programme, and other such programmes make clear, certain governments now possess the capacity to monitor the private telephone, internet and other digital communications of every citizen on earth—among them, the communications of PEN’s 20,000 members worldwide.”

In this parallel universe one of the new centers PEN elected at the Congress was the PEN Center of Myanmar. PEN Myanmar will be an early citizens’ organization there defending writers and civil society in a country that just a few years ago was one of the most closed societies on earth. Also sitting in the glassed waterfront Concert Hall among the Assembly of Delegates were North Korean writers who now meet as an exile center of PEN, but as voices stir and comedians and actors and politicians mingle, who knows the universe that may yet emerge?




  1. Mary Kay Zuravleff on September 16, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Love your last line/question! Who knows, indeed? In my own experience, the absurd approach is often the most truthful. Thanks, Joanne!

  2. Krishen Mehta on September 16, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Joanne, I am glad that the PEN delegates challenged the secret surveillance of citizens as recently uncovered in the US and the UK. The surveillance could include the private communications of PEN’s 20,000 members worldwide as stated in the communique.

    We need for journalists to take a stand on this issue, more so than has happened thus far. Hopefully PEN’s membership will help lead the way. Thanks for being a part of this important group. Regards.

  3. Frank A. Ocwieja on September 24, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Checks and Balances
    It is common to lump together the repression of free expression in a culture like modern China and the surveillance activities of U.S. and U.K. national security agencies. But the objectives of these alternative institutions are very different—defense of the regime’s existence vs. protection of citizen safety.
    These two types of political system really distinguish themselves from each other by the fact that in the latter, even in the absence of Snowdens and Assanges, a discipline is brought to government’s actions by a free press and the exercise of free expression. Their preservation is strengthened by organizations such as International PEN and protected by Constitution or custom, which do not exist in China and other authoritarian regimes.
    What is worrisome is that some believe that one of the checks that ought to be imposed on those regimes is foreign intervention in their domestic affairs. On the contrary, the only effective source of change in the freedom enjoyed by the citizens of those regimes is their populations themselves. Help from abroad will make a useful contribution to that end if it is in the form of information and finance; but armed or clandestine violence exercised by cross-border powers usually does not lastingly make a change and certainly does not achieve freedom

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