Slowly we are emerging from the pandemic year(s) though we are all still mostly in digital mode. Colleagues at home and abroad are squares on a screen with various backgrounds—real and virtual bookcases and vegetations, some, as I myself, often simply snapshots at our best. Unless you need to present, it is often easier to turn off the video camera and listen and participate in a meeting without worrying about sitting up straight.
My screen shot is a reminder of times past as I’m standing by a wall above the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Finisterre, Spain, wind blowing my hair, wearing dark glasses, my pad of paper and pen at hand. Finisterre was where the ancients thought the world ended as they looked westward over the vast Atlantic Ocean.
But that is another story, one from a time when I thought the world’s connections were a given, not relegated to cyber.
For this monthly blog post, I’ve taken a core-sample of posts written in May since the blog began in 2008. If you’re interested, you can click the title and read the full post. The journey is through time and geography, ranging from Hong Kong to London to Krakow to Tunis to Tehran to Istanbul to San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City, to Bellagio and in the U.S. to Chicago and Washington, DC. With the exception of the post focused on a prisoner in Iran, I was in each city working, at conferences or researching or otherwise engaged in the places over the last 13 years. It seems a bit of a lifetime ago when the world was so easily transited.
On June 4 China will face the 19th anniversary of the killing of citizens occupying Tiananmen Square. Nineteen years ago as president of PEN USA, I remember well sorting through dozens of unfamiliar Chinese names as we sought to untangle what writers had been arrested. Today there are at least 42 writers imprisoned in China.
I wake up 22 stories in the air. Most of Hong Kong is in the air with thousands of high rises shooting into the sky. I’m in a cubicle—two small beds pressed against each wall, a tiny shelf between, a TV mounted on the wall at the foot of one bed. At the head of the bed is a large window so the room is airy and looks out on other windows in the sky.
I wake in the middle of the night because of jet lag and then again early in the morning before the sun rises. I turn on the TV whose screen flashes the financial news of Hong Kong—the major world indices, Hong Kong currency exchange rates, global gold prices, Hong Kong stock market prices, statistics on which the financial world relies, accompanied by jazz and elevator music. The only news channel on this hotel TV is the Chinese Broadcasting Company from the mainland; it broadcasts the mainland government’s view of the news…
I live in a political town, probably the most political city in the US. Debate and policy forums run all day and all night. Any day of the week you can find and attend debates on what should be done about North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, China, the economy in general—interest rates, taxes, trade and monetary policy; the economy in specific–the automobile industry, the oil industry; U.S. domestic policy in general—state vs. federal; US domestic policy in specific–abortion, health care, gay marriage, public education.
Washington likes to talk. Everyone has an opinion about almost everything, and you can hear those opinions formally at the think tanks and forums around town, on the cable news and talk shows, or in the restaurants and cafes. In the evenings at the receptions, the book parties, the embassy parties, the talking continues.
At the center of all the debate and discussion are the legislators, the executives and the President who will make the decisions after the talking is done, or more often while it is still going on…
I originally set out to write a blog about the upcoming 20th anniversary of the student protest and subsequent massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4; however, having taken this detour into Washington, I will stay there and appreciate the ability to talk and talk and talk and debate. Even though the plethora of opinions can wear one down after a while, it is possible to turn off the TV, decline the forum invitations, take a discussion of a novel to the receptions and remain watchful and grateful that there are so many opinions, so many involved citizens and officials and so many diverse policies to choose from…
PEN Faulkner: Discovering Stories That Need to Be Told
From my introduction of Isabel Allende at the Washington National Cathedral
Isabel Allende has been called “a literary legend,” a “cultural bridge builder” and one of the most influential Latin American women leaders, but she is also like a good friend with whom you take off your shoes, curl up on the sofa and figure out life together.
I first met Isabel Allende over 20 years ago in Los Angeles when she was giving a reading. I was involved with PEN, who may have been co-sponsoring the program—I no longer remember—but I remember attending a powerful evening with my colleagues. For the past months I’ve been absorbed in continuing my reading of Isabel Allende, and I can confirm that I am one of her good friends—though she may not know this. But as a reader, I have the feeling I am not alone in this club, or tribe, because if you immerse yourself in her fiction and memoirs, you not only feel you know her from her easy and confidential prose, but you think she surely knows you because of her insights into life. And even if she doesn’t, you feel she might want to know you and then let you move into the tribe of people she collects around her…
When I began this blog, I promised…who? myself mostly, a few friends, family that I would post once a month. Most of the months I’m burrowing away on fiction, on the long process of writing a novel—writing, rewriting, thinking, rethinking. It is a different discipline to pull away from that marathon of 400+ pages and sprint to the end of the block with 4-600 words that have some cohesion and at least one idea worth passing on. I tend to put off this arbitrary deadline till the very end of the month.
So…this is a rather long throat-clearing on Memorial Day, a hot, steamy day in Washington, a day with the sun full and unobstructed in a clear blue sky. I’ve finished my fiction writing and now have the remainder of the afternoon to write May’s blog post. This space often focuses on issues abroad, but today I’d like to focus on Memorial Day, a time in Washington when Rolling Thunder motorcycle bikers roar through the streets to memorialize Vietnam and all vets and where flags fly at half mast to honor those who have died in wars.
Memorial Day was perhaps first celebrated in the U.S. in 1865, right after the American Civil War by freed African slaves in South Carolina at the grave site of Union soldiers. The African Americans honored the Union soldiers who fought to help win their freedom. Originally called “Decoration Day,” the event was declared a national observance in 1868 with a date specifically set that was not the anniversary of a battle. Both North and South had lost hundreds of thousands of men in the Civil War, but by the end of the next decade the national memorial observances honored those from both the Blue and Gray states.
The honoring of veterans who have given their lives in war through the centuries is an occasion, solemn and celebratory with speeches, politics, picnics and some reflection. As the U.S. begins pulling out of war zones, it is also a time to consider what journey we have been on—where it is yet going, where it has taken us and where it has taken others outside our borders. War cannot be completely bound by borders nor by time frames for war impacts history and the future of us all…
I’m back at Sticky Fingers restaurant in London on a gray, drizzling Sunday afternoon, visiting this site of our family’s youth, sitting in a red leather booth with a dark wood table, wooden blinds over the windows, rock and roll rhythms from the sound system, and Rolling Stones memorabilia covering every inch of wall space. This spot is down the road from where we lived in London in the 1990’s and where I used to sit writing most afternoons before my children joined me on their way home from school. I return here almost every time I visit London.
Today the booths are filled with other parents and children chattering and eating hamburgers and fries and salads on this bank holiday weekend. The management has changed; they no longer know me, but they are still accommodating, letting me sit in a booth with good light, working as long as I like.
Outside Sticky Fingers, London is preparing for this summer’s Olympic Games with new construction dotting the landscape. One of my other favorite restaurants I went to visit has been demolished and is now a construction site for a new hotel, with men working frantically in the hope of opening by July. In the City of London itself a hotly contested election has just concluded for the Mayor who will preside over the Olympic Games with the incumbent conservative winning, barely.
Across the Channel today, the French are voting on who will govern France, though the Olympics have no influence there. After all France lost the Olympic bid as any Brit will remind you. The political tuning fork of Europe is vibrating this spring between the conservative and socialist paths of governance. (By Sunday evening it was clear the Socialists and anti-austerity electorate had won in France and in Greece though it wasn’t clear how the economic realities would square with the political will or how the European monetary Union might calibrate.)
In the theaters of London which tourists come to see, a third of the dramas focus on World War I or World War II as the historic reference point when the nations of Europe broke into conflict.
However, in the present, London is concentrating on the summer games as it anticipates the world’s nations and athletes gathering, independent of political and economic differences. For two weeks in late July and August London will showcase competition in its most elegant, accomplished and constructive form in the XXX Olympic Games. What happens after that…well, that will be another story…
The white horse-drawn carriages clomp on the gray stones of Old Town Krakow, circling this largest of medieval town squares in Europe. On the fringe sit restaurants with white and yellow umbrellas advertising Polish beers where residents and tourists dine on red-checked table cloths. In the center the Town Hall Tower dominates, and around the periphery old terraced houses and shops form an arcade where one can buy everything from pastries to books to clothes to shoes.
Today tourists can look out over the city from the observation deck at the top of the gothic Town Hall Tower, originally built of stone and brick at the end of the 13th century. The tower used to house the city prison with a medieval torture chamber in its cellars. Thirty miles to the west lay some of the worst torture chambers of the 20th century: the prison camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, where an estimated three million people died during World War II.
This historic city of Krakow was the scene last week of “Writing Freedom”—the biennial gathering of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committees from around the world in joint symposiums with ICORN (the International Cities of Refuge Network) and the third Czeslaw Milosz Literary Festival.
Along the Vistula River writers gathered from every continent and from regions where they are now, or were in the past, under threat, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, China, Myanmar/Burma, Pakistan, Philippines, Turkey, Russia/Chechnya, Belarus, Mexico, El Salvador, as well as from all over Europe and North America. The more than 200 guests strategized over the challenges to freedom of writing and expression. They explored new threats such as digital surveillance, new adversaries in non-state actors and new and old methods of protest and advocacy; they also heard reports of those currently on the frontlines.
While global solutions to these large questions are not easily forthcoming, answers are often found in specific acts of one writer advocating on behalf of another, of one city opening its doors to one writer at a time, of a community gathering and raising a collective voice and finding where to target that voice…
Tunisia has many advantages that set it up well for progress. But the country’s future will not be assured without international support. It must fortify a weak economy, combat crime and terrorism, and continue government reforms.
(Op-ed published in The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 2014)
In Roman times wild animals paced beneath Tunisia’s El Jem colosseum, ready to spring into mortal combat with gladiators – usually slaves fighting for their lives and sometimes freedom – as an audience looked on. Recently I paced the floor of this same amphitheater, trying to imagine its history – and future.
Today, Tunisia is engaged in its own struggle for the life of its new democracy. Though a small country – 64,000 square miles with 11 million people – Tunisia is vital to regional stability. Now this ancient North African country where the Arab Spring began is poised to become the first success in the region – but only if it can shore up a weak economy, curb the dual threats of terrorism and crime, and continue needed government reforms.
Three years after a young street vendor set himself on fire to protest the authorities’ harassment and corruption, three years after the citizens rose up and ejected their longtime autocratic leader, Tunisia has laid the groundwork for its future. In January, the citizenry adopted a new Constitution that was widely debated and passed with the votes of more than 90 percent of the Constituent Assembly. All sectors endorse and are proud of the forward-leaning Constitution, which balances the secular and religious and is looked at as a model for the region.
As a further mark of progress, the Assembly recently passed a law establishing a judicial body to determine the constitutionality of new laws. It will be replaced by a new constitutional court after the next election. This opens the way now for the Assembly to pass a law to set up elections, which are anticipated this year…
May 2015: No blog posted.
Shared below is a letter that managed to get out of Iran’s infamous Evin Prison from journalist and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi. She is detained on charges of “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security” and “spreading propaganda against the system.” According to reports she has also been charged with “insulting officers while being transferred to a hospital” because of her health. Narges Mohammadi is former vice president and spokesperson of the Defenders of Human Rights (DHRC) which represents prisoners of conscience. She is also involved in a campaign against the death penalty in Iran.
On May 17 the verdict in her case was handed down. Narges Mohammadi was sentenced to five years in prison for “meeting and conspiring against the Islamic Republic,” one year for “spreading propaganda against the system” and ten years for her work advocating against the death penalty. Under Iranian penal code, a person with several jail terms must serve the most severe so she must serve ten years, although sentenced to 16 years total.
Dear members of International PEN,
I’m writing this letter to you from the Evin Prison. I am in a section with 25 other female political prisoners, with different intellectual and political point of view. Until now 23 of us, have been sentenced to a total of 177 years in prison (2 others have not been sentenced yet). We are all charged due to our political and religious tendency and none of us are terrorists.
The reason to write these lines is, to tell you that the pain and suffering in the Evin Prison is beyond tolerance. Opposite other prisons in Iran, there is no access to telephone in Evin Prison. Except for a weekly visit, we have no contact to the outside. All visits takes place behind double glass and only connected through a phone. We are allowed to have a visit from our family members only once a month…
(Published in World Literature Today, May 10, 2017)
The new American Writers Museum, opening this May in Chicago, celebrates American literature in a lively, interactive space that honors America’s writers past and present.
Located on the second floor of a grand old building on Michigan Avenue’s “Cultural Corridor,” the American Writers Museum is the realization of a seven-year journey that began with a question: Why was there no national museum in the US honoring writers?
Malcolm O’Hagan, a dedicated reader and retired engineer and businessman, had visited the Dublin Writers Museum in his native Ireland and began to talk with friends and professionals about developing an American museum. He brought on writers, scholars, and publishers to develop the idea and curate the selection of writers. All agreed the focus should be on writers no longer living who’ve stood the test of time, but the museum should also celebrate contemporary literature with readings, book signings, and programs.
“I see the museum as a literary jewel box where a visitor can enjoy old friends—the books, words, characters of writers they know and also get to meet new ones,” O’Hagan says. Chicago was selected because of its central location, the support of the city, and its rich literary heritage, which includes writers like Carl Sandburg, Saul Bellow, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
One of the governing principles was not to create a museum for static artifacts—though there will be some artifacts—but a place where readers, writers, and visitors can learn…
(Below is my talk for the Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression, a conference held every two years, but this year it is being held via video May 26-27. For the first time in 21 years the organizers judged that a gathering in person was too problematic given the arrests and crackdowns on the media. Turkish presidential elections are scheduled for June 24 alongside parliamentary elections.)
I first visited Turkey for the inaugural “Gathering in Istanbul” in March 1997. At the time I was Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee and joined 21 other writers from around the world. Along with over a thousand Turkish artists and writers, most of us had signed on to be “publishers” for Freedom of Thought, a book that re-issued writings which had violated Turkey’s laws against “insulting the State.” The book included work by noted authors, including celebrated novelist Yasar Kemal. None of us aspired to go to Turkish prison, but we understood the importance of showing up and showing solidarity with our Turkish colleagues. During that Gathering we visited prisons where writers and publishers were incarcerated and visited court rooms where they were charged.In the subsequent decade, conditions for writers in Turkey improved. An amnesty released writers from prison; oppressive legislation was rescinded though new laws replaced old articles in the penal code. But the climate opened. We all took hope that Turkey might signal an opening of consciousness and an easing of political and legal constraints globally.
Unfortunately, that opening has closed, and we are here today on video because the biennial ‘Gathering in Istanbul’ for the first time in 21 years is too problematic to hold in Istanbul. The situation for freedom of expression is worse than ever in Turkey with more writers in prison than anywhere else in the world. Depending on the statistics of the day, there are more than 250 journalists and media workers in or facing prison terms, 200 media outlets closed, and thousands of academics and civil servants let go or facing charges…
May 2019: [Beginning in May, 2019 I began writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In May 2019 there are two posts in the PEN Journeys and in May 2020 there are four.]
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey will be of interest.
February 13, 1989: I was President of PEN Center USA West and on an airplane when I read that Salman Rushdie’s novel Satanic Verses was being burned in Birmingham. The next day a fatwa was issued on Rushdie. What was a fatwa, we all asked at the time, as we, along with PEN Centers around the world, mobilized to protest that a head of state was ordering the murder of a writer wherever he was in the world.
November 10, 1995: As Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, I was standing vigil with others outside the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C. when word spread that novelist and activist Ken Saro Wiwa had been hanged that morning in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
October 7, 2006: My phone rang at 7:30 on Saturday morning. I was International Secretary of PEN International, and the International Writers in Prison Program Director was calling to tell me that Anna Politkovskaya had just been shot and killed in Moscow. We all knew Anna—I’d last had coffee with her at an airport in Macedonia. We worked with her on the situation of writers in Russia and Chechnya and had enormous respect for her knowledge and courage.
January 19, 2007: We were about to begin a PEN International board meeting in Vienna when a call came from Istanbul. Hrant Dink had just been shot and killed outside his newspaper office in Istanbul. Dink was an editor of an Armenian paper and a writer whom members of PEN knew well and worked with on freedom of expression issues in Turkey.
Most writers long active in PEN’s freedom-to-write work can tell you where they were when the news broke on each of these cases. They can tell you because the lives of these writers and many others have been critical in the struggle for freedom of expression around the world…
It was President’s weekend in the US—between Lincoln and Washington’s birthday, coinciding with Valentine’s Day, 1989. I was President of PEN Center USA West and had just hired the Center’s first executive director ten days before. I’d been working hard with PEN and was also finishing a new novel, teaching and shepherding my 8 and 10-year old sons. For the first time in a year and a half my husband and I were going away for a long weekend without our children. He had also been working nonstop and had managed to clear his schedule.
On the plane to Colorado where we planned to ski, I read that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses had been burned in Birmingham, England. The next day Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie. What was a fatwa? The Supreme Leader of Iran was calling for the murder of Rushdie wherever he was in the world, and he was offering a $6 million reward. As information about the fatwa developed, it also included a call for the death of whoever published The Satanic Verses.
I began making phone calls. This was a time before omnipresent cell phones so I had to find phones and numbers where people could reach me. (Usually our vacation dynamic was that my husband was on the phone.)…
Over the years I’ve used various metaphors to describe PEN International—a giant wheel with 140+ spokes that reach out into the corners of the globe. A vast orchestra with the string, woodwind, brass and percussion sections scattered across the map, directed by local conductors and the Secretariat in London.
PEN’s core is an idea, codified in its Charter, acted upon by writers around the world organized into PEN centers. These writers and centers gather intensity as they work together.
Writers in a country or region or language are empowered to work as a center of PEN by the whole body of centers—the Assembly of Delegates—which vote on a center’s membership at PEN’s annual Congresses. During the months in between, PEN centers act both individually and collectively—celebrating and presenting literature in the many cultures and languages, mobilizing on issues of freedom of expression, acting to preserve and celebrate languages and translation, in particular minority languages, discussing and debating issues of peace, addressing the situation of women writers, and assisting and protecting writers who find themselves in exile. All of this activity between the annual Congresses occurs in the PEN centers and in the work of PEN International’s standing committees and at regional conferences which convene during the year…
In discovering Lake Como in Northern Italy on a walking tour in 1790 poet William Wordsworth called it “a treasure, which the Earth keeps to itself.” Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley declared it “exceeds anything I ever beheld in beauty with the exception of the arbutus islands of Killarney.” He extolled the chestnut, laurel, bay, myrtle, fig and olive trees that “over-hang the caverns and shadow the deep glens which are filled with the flashing light of the waterfalls.” These descriptions from the English romantic poets are matched no doubt by Italian and other poets encountering Lake Como, one of Italy’s largest and one of Europe’s deepest lakes.
Lake Como is one of my favorite places so meeting for an International PEN strategic planning conference above the shimmering Y-shaped lake set among the Alpine foothills was an ideal working vacation the summer of 2003. I participated as a PEN vice president and a trustee of the International PEN Foundation and former Writers in Prison Committee chair, along with International PEN’s President Homero Aridjis, International Secretary Terry Carlbom, Treasurer Britta Junge Pedersen, current and past board members, other trustees of the International PEN Foundation, several vice presidents and the standing committee chairs.
Twenty-six of us from 14 countries gathered to discuss the changed global context for PEN, which had grown from 95 to 134 centers in the last 14 years, and to consider the demands on this organization dedicated to the role of writers in promoting intellectual co-operation, tolerance and pluralism in the world…
A PEN International World Congress is a hybrid—a mini-UN General Assembly with delegates sitting at tables behind their center’s (and often country’s) name plates discussing world affairs that relate to writers; an academic conference with panelists addressing abstract philosophical themes; a literary festival with writers reading their poetry and stories and sharing books, and finally a civic engagement with resolutions passed on global issues which are then delivered, sometimes by a march or candlelight vigil to a country’s embassy that is oppressing writers.
Heads of state and UN officials frequently visit and/or speak at PEN Congresses depending on the openness of the host country; esteemed writers, including Nobel laureates, and former PEN main cases are often guests. The Congress’ size varies depending on the resources available, but the financial commitment is out of reach for many PEN Centers.
The 2003 International PEN Congress in Mexico City was celebrated as the First Congress of the Americas. Hosted by Mexican PEN, it was also supported by Canadian PEN, Quebecois PEN, American PEN, and the Latin American PEN Foundation. It was the final Congress under the presidency of Mexican poet and novelist Homero Aridjis. Organized around the theme of “Cultural Diversity and Freedom of Expression,” the 69th Congress welcomed delegates from 72 PEN Centers from every continent except Antarctica…
…As well as reporting on the welcoming of new centers, Part 1 of PEN Journey 29 recounted an historic Charter amendment, major rules and regulation changes and a strategic plan—the nuts and bolts and essential frame for any organization, especially one as complex as International PEN as it sought to modernize its governance and structure. In Part II the focus turns to the substance of PEN’s work and of the 2003 Congress.
The final gathering under the presidency of Mexican poet and novelist Homero Aridjis, PEN’s 69th World Congress hosted more than 250 participants, speakers and guests, including Nobel laureate and PEN International Vice President Nadine Gordimer and also listed on the literary programs Nobel laureate and former PEN International President Mario Vargas Llosa and many writers from the Americas—Michael Ondaatje, John Ralston Saul, Francine Prose, Andrés Henestrosa and writers from at least 12 indigenous regions and languages in Mexico—Huichol, Maya, Mazahua, Mazatec, Mixtec, Náhuatl, Tenec, Tojolab’al, Tzotzil, Wuirárica, Yoleme, Zapoteca.
Homero Aridjis noted: ‘The Congress programs explore the literature of the Americas, of Canada, the United States and Latin America, shining a particular light on the indigenous literatures which are so essential to understanding the cultural map of our continent from Chile to Canada.’…