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.
As I write these PEN Journeys, memory differs with each one. I sit and think, pulling up whatever memories I have. Some are visual; some are of activities, some of the twists and turns in PEN itself; many are of friends, a few of incidents; others come from concurrent parts of my life such as moving to London with my family and connecting to work at International PEN headquarters (PEN Journey 5), or scaling the Berlin Wall just after Germany reunited (PEN Journey 4), or visiting Russia shortly after the coup attempt (PEN Journey 8).
I have paper documentation for most of PEN’s events, not because I was an archivist in the making but more of a packrat who was too busy to sort through papers after a congress or conference and so set the files in a drawer. I am not even accounting for all the emails and digital files that began to accumulate in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. In my recounting, I am only now entering that period when the internet and email were burgeoning. For some of the Journeys I have photographs, but my picture-taking was random in retrospect, probably reflecting my role at the time. The more work I had, the fewer pictures. There were no iPhones or Android phones during these earlier years so I had to have a camera at hand. In certain years I have no photographic record of PEN though some may yet turn up in the recesses of my basement. There are, however, always pictures in my head.
For the Writers in Prison Committee’s (WiPC) third biannual meeting in Katmandu, Nepal in the spring of 2000, I have lots of pictures. We were celebrating the 40th anniversary of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. As ex-chair, I helped with the conference, but the burden of the meeting wasn’t mine so I was also out with camera in hand. In my head I still carry the landscape of Nepal—the hills outside Katmandu with the haze over mountains in the distance, the woman in a red sari walking up the hill carrying bundles of sticks, the gentle landscape and the harsh conditions.
I arrived a few days early to visit schools and women’s education projects relating to other work I did, some as a board member of Save the Children. By the time I joined the PEN Conference, I had already fallen in a soft love with the country and its people, the old—sometimes centuries old—and the new culture: Katmandu with its rickshaws and bustling streets and vibrant colors and the hills outside where farmers still farmed with oxen plowing the fields and children high in the hills crowded into village schools and women learning to read in makeshift community libraries. And there was the nation’s complicated governing system with a privileged royal family which only a year later would be massacred by one of its own and in the hills a Maoist insurgency developing which threatened the government and population for years to come. Nepal was as dramatic a place as the landscape it occupied.
At PEN’s WiPC conference, 43 writers gathered from 25 countries representing every continent except Africa where the costs had limited attendance. Before the meeting WiPC chair Moris Farhi and I and the WiPC staff met to identify areas of work that needed review and possible restructuring. From a survey of the centers we developed discussion points which were circulated before the meeting. Since the fall of the communist states, PEN had seen a growth in membership, an increase in freedom of expression work by the centers, and an expanded use of email and the internet. The innovation in communications was having an impact on the way PEN did its work and challenged old methodologies such as letter-writing campaigns.
The agenda developed included workshops on the use of the internet, on PEN’s WiPC case list and newsletter, on PEN’s commitment to journalists in peril as compared to writers who had no other organization to protect them. We considered crisis situations and the changing nature of repression, including nongovernment and non-custodial forms of repression, WiPC relations with international organizations, the role of PEN’s Congress, the role of regional centers and networks, the value of PEN missions to other countries, and always, the discussion on how to fund the work and how to assure those finances included funds to bring delegates from every region to future meetings.
Looking back at the program, it appears exhaustive (or exhausting), though I don’t recall it as tedious or overwhelming. With each workshop, the group developed a summary of the situation and recommendations. For example, a recommendation was to post on PEN’s website, accessible to everyone, the information on the RAN special actions. The RAN (Rapid Action Network) itself was a relatively new tool which was sent out over the internet for immediate action on certain PEN cases. It was also agreed and recommended in another workshop that journalists should continue to be part of PEN’s campaigns and that PEN should collaborate more closely with journalists’ organizations.
Reading through the minutes and recommendations of the four-day meeting, I am impressed by the professionalism of the work of the WiPC staff, small as it was, just Sara Whyatt, Program Director and Cathy McCann, Asia researcher.
As well as workshops and discussions, we were entertained by local groups and also entertained ourselves with song and dance in the evening as we had at the first WiPC conference in Helsingør (PEN Journey 17).
On the last day UNESCO sponsored a panel The Culture of Peace: Censorship and the Writer which PEN Nepal President Greta Rana introduced, observing that censorship led to violence and that 47 journalists in South Asia were currently imprisoned for addressing free expression issues. Sara Whyatt in her introduction of the printed talks noted that free expression was inextricably entwined with the promotion of peace for without voices to challenge dictatorships and warmongers, peace would be an even rarer commodity than it was.
Because I don’t need copyright permission to reprint my talk, I take the liberty of sharing it below. Other panelists included Ratna Sarumpaet, an Indonesian script writer whose play about the plight of women laborers led to her imprisonment; Kunda Dixit, a Nepali journalist who spoke about the role of the free media in ensuring objectivity in times of pressure from political and corporate interests; Shahid Nadeem, a Pakistani playwright long exiled in England, who told of returning to Pakistan where critical voices were still seen as a threat; WiPC Chair Moris Farhi who noted that xenophobia and religious fanaticism were increasingly dangerous elements; Rajeev Rajbhandari, a Nepali internet expert, who argued it was not the content of the internet that was problematic but the uses of its new technology; Romesh Gumesekere, a Sri Lankan author and poet, who identified illiteracy as an encumbrance to the promotion of free expression; and myself whose talk below began with the poem of the renowned Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet:
The prisoner Halil
closed his book.
He breathed on his glasses, wiped them clean,
gazed out at the orchards,
“I don’t know if you are like me,
But coming down the Bosporus on the ferry, say
making the turn at Kandilli,
and suddenly seeing Istanbul there,
or one of those sparkling nights
of Kalamish Bay
filled with stars and the rustle of water,
or the boundless daylight
in the fields outside Topkapi
or a woman’s sweet face glimpsed on a streetcar,
or even the yellow geranium I grew in a tin can
in the Sivas prison—
I mean, whenever I meet
with natural beauty,
I know once again
human life today
must be changed . . .”
—Nâzım Hikmet, Human Landscapes
In 1938 Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63) was sent to prison, charged with “inciting the army to revolt,” convicted on the sole evidence that military cadets were reading his poems. He was sentenced to 28 years but was released 12 years later in 1950. His “novel” in verse, Human Landscapes from My Country, was written in prison, featuring Halil, a political prisoner, scholar, and poet who was going blind….
Today in Istanbul journalist Nadire Mater is charged with “insulting the army” for her book Mehmet’s Book, a collection of interviews with soldiers who have served in the conflict with the Kurds in the Southeast of Turkey. Nadire Mater and her publisher will be in court in early May to face charges, which could bring them at least six years in prison.
I’d like to read a brief passage from one of the interviews in Mehmet’s Book:
These friends coming from the West didn’t really know any Kurds, because they don’t know any they couldn’t really understand very well. What should be said about this? They are not familiar, and not being familiar, they act according to the government’s opinion…They’ve adapted to what they hear and read. I would explain to these friends that the other side is human, that the politics of the government is wrong.
We all of course adapt to what we hear and read. That is why it is so important that we have the opportunity to consider many points of view. The reality we carry in our heads and in our hearts shapes us as individuals and governs us as nations. Writers are the ones who produce what people read. The writer bears both the responsibility and the liability for his words and the realities they evoke. The writer can be a positive instrument for change as Hikmet saw the need, or as we have seen in the past decade in the Balkans, the writer can inflame animosities. The writer is not always the hero, but at his or her best, the writer can build bridges, reporting on and imagining not only himself, but those who are not him, illumining he humanity that connects us.
Peace between people relies on such bridges. The nature of a bridge is to span the space between points. The pilings of a bridge absorb the tension as one crosses over the space. However, censorship undermines, even destroys the pilings. The censor would allow only a limited view of reality, and by disallowing other views, the censor cuts away at the pilings necessary to build the bridge between him and the so-called enemy.
Censorship takes many forms. Whether it be brutal killings as in Iraq, death threats as in Peru and Colombia, long term prison sentences as in Burma and China or shorter terms as in Cuba or endless court cases as in Turkey where writers say the judicial process itself is punishment, the effect of censorship is to weaken or even tear down the bridge and to freeze up the imagination that envisions this bridge.
Fortunately, however, the imagination is a nimble and wily companion. It is also the natural enemy of the tyrant. While a man or woman can be censored, threatened, even put behind bars, his ability to think and imagine other worlds can defy and even eventually triumph over the most ruthless tyranny. I still remember reading and hearing the testimony of writers in prison in the Western Sahara in the early 1990’s when they were forced to live in subhuman conditions. They spoke about how they used their ration of soap to write poetry on their trousers, used coffee grounds to write on any scrap of paper they could find in the prison yard. They then memorized each other’s verses to stay alive and sane. The prison guards told them they might as well forget the outside world for they would die in prison. But they could imagine another world, and they lived in their imaginations, and those outside prison imagined them and worked on their behalf. Ultimately they were freed.
In the work PEN does for writers we have observed tragedies, but we have also witnessed the resiliency of writers and the power of ideas to find their way.
I have always found instructive the story of the Zimbabwean novelist Solomon M Mutswairo. Writing in the 1950’s Mutswairo knew the implication of his message and the sting of the British censor so he cast his story in the ancient kingdom of his people. The political content went unrecognized by the British, who in an expansive mood in 1956 published his novel Feso as the first novel in the Shona language. The Shona people, however, understood the story of protest against oppression. When the British finally realized what they had published, they came to arrest Mutswairo, who happened to be teaching in the U.S. at the time. He protested from afar. But how can you arrest me when you are the ones who published my book! Feso later became a rallying cry for independence.
Today with the move towards democracy around the world, fewer countries routinely throw writers in prison, but PEN still monitors cases of writers in over 80 countries, including Nepal. In many countries the struggle towards democracy has not yet yielded the full freedom of expression, including a free press, that is essential.
Freedom of expression is an engine and a safety valve in strong working democracies for that is how the population both expresses itself and gains information and different points of view in order to make decisions.
Historically democracies have not gone to war with each other. Since we are considering a “culture of peace” in this panel, we do well to pay attention to the freedom of expression on which strong democracies are built. With imagination one may envision the bridge to peace; the writer may articulate the vision but it is up to us all to walk across that bridge. Let us hope its pilings are secure.
Next installment: PEN Journey 24: Moscow—Face Off /Face Down: Blinis and Bombs—Welcome to the 21st Century
The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate, published April 1 by Potomac Books (The University of Nebraska Press) tracks the life and ideas of the scholar, poet and activist who has been called the Nelson Mandela of China. It has been my privilege to edit this volume, along with colleagues of Liu’s. Below is my editor’s note to introduce this book which I hope readers will embrace to celebrate Liu Xiaobo’s life and legacy. (Essay reprinted with permission of Potomac Books.)
“Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth.”—Liu Xiaobo, I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement
A zoo in China placed a big hairy Tibetan mastiff in a cage and tried to pass if off as an African lion. But a boy and his mother heard the animal bark, not roar. As news spread, the zoo’s visitors grew angry. “The zoo is absolutely trying to cheat us. They are trying to disguise dogs as lions!” declared the mother.1
In 2009 the Chinese government put Liu Xiaobo, celebrated poet, essayist, critic, activist, and thinker into a cage, labeled him “enemy of the state,” charged him with “inciting subversion of state power,” and sentenced him to eleven years’ imprisonment. Liu Xiaobo was not an enemy, but he was a “lion” the state feared. He challenged orthodoxy and conventional thinking in literature, which he wrote and taught, and authoritarian politics, which he protested and tried to help reshape. His insistence on individual liberty in more than a thousand essays and eighteen books, his relentless pursuit of ideas, including as a drafter and organizer of Charter 08, which set out a democratic vision for China through nonviolent change, and finally his last statement, “I have no enemies and no hatred,” threatened the Chinese Communist Party and government in a way few other citizens had.
Dr. Liu Xiaobo was the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, in 2010, but he was in prison, was not allowed to attend the ceremony, and died in custody in July 2017.
When news of Liu Xiaobo’s death reached the world and in particular the writers and democracy activists who knew him, writers began to write. Tributes and analyses poured in, many sent to the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), a gathering of writers inside and outside of Mainland China that Liu helped found and served as president. The Journey of Liu Xiaobo traces Liu’s history and the path of liberalism in China and is perhaps the largest gathering of Chinese democracy activists’ writing in one volume. Because of length restrictions, some tributes are listed only by authors’ names in the appendix.
A Chinese edition was published in 2017 as Collected Writings in Commemoration of Liu Xiaobo by Democratic China and the Institute for China’s Democratic Transition. It is hoped that this revised and expanded English edition, organized according to phases of Liu’s life and development, will find an even wider audience and offer insight into the person—his ideas, his loves, and his legacy. Some have suggested that because of Liu Xiaobo’s death and the economic and political ascendency of the current Chinese regime, Liu’s legacy has been reduced to a void. I would recommend that those who claim such consider the longer arc of history. The same was said of visionaries in Eastern Europe when earlier protests were crushed in Poland, East Germany, and elsewhere; the same was said of early martyrs in South Africa, where repression eventually led to widespread civic resistance and in other countries where civilians have challenged repressive systems. Liu Xiaobo was committed to nonviolent engagement and political change. Though he no longer walks the earth, his ideas and writings endure. History will unfold this story. In the meantime the essays in this volume recount one man’s journey and commitment to the struggle for the individual’s right to freedom.2
Societies move forward and are changed by ideas, by leaders, and ultimately by their citizens. None of these essays show Liu Xiaobo aspiring to personal power. But those in power worried about this man of ideas and this activist who set ideas into motion. He didn’t need to roar like a lion to garner the world’s attention and respect. By his life and his death he holds those in power to account.
- Michael Bristow, “China ‘Dog-Lion’: Henan Zoo Mastiff Poses as Africa Cat,” BBC News, August 15, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-23714896..
- In these collected essays, a number of writers express concern about the fate of Liu Xiaobo’s beloved wife, poet and artist Liu Xia, who spent years under house arrest. Since the writing of these articles, Liu Xia has been allowed to go to Germany for medical treatment. As of 2019 she resides in Berlin.
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.
Bombs had been falling for months on Serbia when the 66th PEN Congress convened in Warsaw June 1999. The NATO assault—one of the last major campaigns of the Balkans War—ended just a week before the Congress opened. These events stirred debate at the Congress whose theme Farewell to the 20th Century caused delegates to look back as well as forward in deliberations.
The past included Warsaw’s history as well as its proximity (and a post-Congress trip) to Kraków and to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. I didn’t join the PEN trip, but during the Congress, I went on my own one day to these memorials of World War II’s terrible past so that I could walk and think alone among the empty crowded bunks, the piles of shoes, the ovens…
The Warsaw Congress was my first trip to Poland though not my last and my first visit to a concentration camp, though not my last.
The wars of the 20th Century both past and current were a problematic platform upon which to launch into the new Millennium, yet the century also was a time of citizens coming together and speaking out in such organizations as PEN. One of the panels at the Congress included the topic: the Role of International Writers’ Organizations in the 20th Century and their Association with UNESCO. An arcane topic perhaps, but one that begged a longer look at the future of the global organization of civil society.
PEN International President Homero Aridjis addressed the Assembly of Delegates from over 70 PEN centres, noting, “Ever since the day twelve weeks ago when the NATO bombing of Serbia began and a tidal wave of refugees from Kosovo overwhelmed neighboring countries, I have been thinking about what writers can do when war breaks out, and when ethnic rivalries and deep-rooted hatreds flare up, and about whether and how what we do can help prevent conflicts from reaching the point of explosion, when people are forced to abandon their homes and flee across borders. PEN is experienced in assisting writers who suffer in these situations, whether they are victims of censorship or their personal safety is threatened. But what is the nature of our commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict? Or is the use of force legitimate to achieve aims which may seem unattainable otherwise?
“Writers around the world, but especially in the United States and Europe, reacted vehemently to the situation in the Balkans and often clashed,” he said. “Accusations flew back and forth across the Atlantic and were widely aired in the written and broadcast media. I myself was repeatedly asked to give PEN’s position on the conflict, and found myself bound by the principles expressed in PEN’s Charter, and by our commitments to protect and defend individual writers who are threatened and to uphold freedom of expression wherever it is under siege. An important part of our response is, of course, through the PEN Emergency Fund, where the thorough research always done by PEN ensures that assistance goes to truly deserving individuals. A new PEN endeavor may also soon be taking shape in the form of a writers in exile network, although that is still in a fledgling state…
“The so-called “humanitarian war” in Serbia and Kosovo provoked another war among intellectuals who were for or against NATO’s armed intervention,” he said. “After the Russian Revolution and the fascist and Nazi movements which lead to World War II and the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, and after dozens of petty or powerful dictators who tortured and murdered writers and journalists in many countries and continents throughout the twentieth century, this seems to be the first war since the fall of the Berlin Wall which has pitted writers against each other. Peter Handke, Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Levy, Andre Glucksmann, Norman Mailer, Harold Pinter, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago and Alexander Solzhenitzyn, among others, came down strongly on either side. Various writers from the Balkan region gave their views in Bled (at PEN’s Peace Committee meeting) at the end of May…
“The theme of this congress is to bid farewell to the 20th century before it is over, to say goodbye to this century which dawned upon a world ruled by a host of imperial and colonial powers such as Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. This century also witnessed the rise and fall of the Third Reich and the Soviet bloc,” he added. “The age of empires has apparently drawn to a close, giving way to dominance by individual countries, economic unions and multinational corporations, and by new alliances, including the United Nations. NATO, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. International PEN, founded in London in 1921, is probably one of the century’s oldest international alliances and will move into the 21st Century firm in its defense of freedom of expression and human rights of professional wordsmiths…
“Here in Warsaw we are only 300 kilometers from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi extermination camps. Although many writers and poets have borne witness to the Holocaust, and it has been described in countless chronicles, documentaries and books, it will never create to cause us indescribable horror, nor will we ever be able to grasp it fully…
“This year people around the world will perform the collective ritual of pondering over the last ten centuries. The media will bombard us with lists of events accompanied by examinations of conscience, and natural disasters, violations of human rights, social conflicts and environmental destruction will be weighed against advances in public health, literacy and communications, the spread of democracy, and the works of writers…
“As for PEN, what I would like to see accomplished at the start of the 21st century is the creation of more Centers in Africa, Asia, and Latin American, and the strengthening of existing Centres on those continents and on Eastern Europe so that PEN may become a truly global organization…”
This vision has been in part realized as PEN has expanded in the 21st century on all continents and an Exile Network institutionalized years later in partnership with the International Cities of Refuge Network. PEN has continued to advance its work in freedom of expression through the Writers in Prison Committee and its work with women through the Women’s Committee and with minority languages and translation through the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. As for peace, PEN is not a “peace organization” though it has a Peace Committee (see PEN Journey 14), but it doesn’t have tools to bring about peace on a global scale. However, debate and discussion among its members has had impact (see PEN Journey 6) since writers are the expounders of ideas which work for ill or good.
At the Warsaw Congress delegates visited Gazeta Wyborcza, the daily newspaper whose editor Adam Michnik was one of the intellectual authors of the Solidarity Movement that eventually led to the overthrow of the Communist hold on Poland. The paper in its rabbit-warren offices if memory recalls correctly, was the first independent newspaper published outside the communist government’s control since the late 1940’s. During the visit Adam Michnik offered to have Gazeta write an article about one of PEN’s cases in Chile of an arrested publisher and editor; however, shortly after the Congress, the publisher was released.
Through most of the years of the Cold War Polish PEN had managed to operate within the PEN family. After the Communist regime fell, Polish PEN was particularly effective in working on behalf of writers who were imprisoned under communist dictatorships such as in Vietnam.
PEN itself was reshaping into a more democratically governed organization. At the Warsaw Congress the first Executive Committee (later called the Board) was elected. After the 1998 Helsinki Congress, a call went out for nominations and a vote for PEN’s first Search Committee whose task was to facilitate the nomination of qualified candidates. Twenty-four people received at least two nominations for the Search committee, and five people were elected by postal vote: Kjell Olaf Jensen (Norwegian PEN), Lucina Kathman (San Miguel Allende PEN), Eric Lax (USA West PEN), Judith Rodriguez (Melbourne PEN) and myself. We met as a committee only once in person at the Warsaw Congress; most business was conducted via conference calls, faxes and some email, though not everyone had email at that time. We helped set out guidelines for the Search Committee and worked to assure there was a wide and diverse range of candidates for the first Executive Committee of PEN.
Fourteen candidates from every continent were nominated for the seven positions on the Executive Committee which was elected at the Warsaw Congress. PEN’s first Executive Committee included Carles Torner (Catalan Center), Vincent Magombe (African Writers Abroad Center), Gloria Guardia (Colombian Center), Niels Barfoed (Danish Center), Fawzia Assaad (Swiss Romande Center), Takashi Moriyama (Japanese Center), Marian Botsford-Fraser (Canadian Center). The four with the most votes received three-year terms and three members received two-year terms; thereafter elections occurred on a staggered basis.
PEN had decided against requiring regional representation on the board though hoped this might occur naturally. The first Executive Committee represented centers in Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America. Now the challenge was for everyone to figure out how to operate in the 21st Century…
Next Installment: PEN Journey 23: Nepal–WIPC Crossing the Bridge Between People
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.
In the old days, at least my old days, the Vice Presidents of PEN International sat in a phalanx on a stage while the Assembly of Delegates conducted business—revered writers, mostly white older men, along with the President, International Secretary and Treasurer of PEN in the center. If the Assembly business wore on, it was not unusual to see one or two of them nodding off. The role of the Vice Presidents was to provide continuity—many had been former PEN Presidents—to provide wisdom, contacts and gravitas. The designation was for life.
But times were changing. For instance, I had recently been elected a Vice President. I was a woman. I’d served PEN in several positions, including president of my center, founding board member of the International PEN Foundation and International Writers in Prison chair; I was a writer, though not of international renown, and at the time I was relatively young. I had been nominated by English PEN whose General Secretary thought it was high time more women sat on that stage. I didn’t relish sitting on a stage, but I was honored to hold the position. The Helsinki Congress in 1998 was the first when Vice President was the only role I had. I don’t recall if there was a stage at that Assembly. The fun was that I didn’t have to do anything. I could float between committee meetings, offer comments when relevant, wisdom if I had any and be called upon for whatever insight or experience or task might serve. (Traditionally the Congress organizers paid for the Vice Presidents’ registration and hotel, but from the start I chose to cover my expenses as a way of contributing to PEN. The expense of Vice Presidents attending was growing more and more difficult for the host centers; on the other hand many Vice Presidents wouldn’t be able to attend otherwise.)
At the 65th PEN Helsinki Congress held at the Marina Conference Center on the waterfront, a short walk from the city center, delegates and PEN members from 70 centers around the world gathered. The Congress’ theme was Freedom and Indifference. My memories are of meals on the water with colleagues, of eating fish and mussels and walking among old and very new buildings, visiting the architecturally stunning Contemporary Art Museum and other cultural excursions I often didn’t have time to attend when chairing the Writers in Prison Committee.
At the Congress I could even sit in on a few of the literary sessions which included abstract topics such as Where Does Indifference End and Tolerance Begin?—The Role of the Intellectual in Contemporary Society; Eurocentrism and the Global Village; The Cultural Gap Between East and West; The Ambivalence of Otherness: Identity and Difference; Crime Literature Portraying the Society; On Cultural Creolisation (mixture) and Borderlands. I confess reading those topics now stirs memories of sleepy academic afternoons, but the writers presenting included some of the engaged and engaging writers of the day, including Wole Soyinka, Caryl Phillips, Andrei Bitov and many Finnish and Scandinavian writers such as Sweden’s Agneta Pleijel.
At the Congress I still concentrated on the work of the Writers in Prison Committee which former Iranian prisoner Faraj Sarkohi attended. The year before he had been a main case for PEN, imprisoned and tortured and threatened with execution. In introducing his presence to the Assembly of Delegates, PEN President Homero Aridjis noted that PEN members could take satisfaction in having played an important role in obtaining his release. Sarkohi had managed to get a passport and was now living in Europe where he’d resumed his literary and journalistic activities.
Moris Farhi, the new WiPC Chair, introduced Sarkohi to the General Assembly of Delegates where Sarkohi said he owed his life and freedom to the international movement initiated by PEN both in the London headquarters and in the PEN centers around the world. For the first time in 20 years the Iranian government had been forced to release someone they had wanted to kill, he said. His release demonstrated to other writers in Iran that release was possible even if the government wanted to execute them. Sarkohi had briefly spoken with another PEN main case in prison who told him he was no longer worried, knowing now about the international support he was receiving.
Sarkohi explained that writers were considered by the despots in Tehran to be guilty because they worked with words, because they tried to discover and express in words different aspects of truth. It was believed writers made magic, he said. Everyone knew the magical power inherent in words so the writers were arrested. The government forced them to deny themselves, to accept false charges, and in this way they killed writers mentally. When a writer was forced by physical and mental torture to deny himself, his ideas and his work, his power of creation died, and he was killed as a writer. When Sarkohi was in solitary confinement, he remembered the way in which those suspected of magic were treated in the Middle Ages. People were arrested and burned and told “If you live, your magic powers are proved and we kill you. If you die, it is established that you do not have magic powers.’—but you were dead anyway. Writers were regarded as the new practitioners of magic in this century and that treatment by tyrants and despots was that of the Middle Ages.
Sarkohi described how he and colleagues who were still in prison had issued a new Charter, inspired by the PEN Charter, in which they protested censorship, both by the government, self-censorship and by the public such as groups which beat up a writer in the street. The Charter also demanded the right for writers to organize an association, something not permitted in Iran. He worried now about the fate of his colleagues in Iran because five years ago when writers published a Charter and sent the text abroad, the government had reacted and killed a famous translator and dumped his body in the street and murdered a famous poet in his home.
Sarkohi noted that German PEN and other PEN centers had prepared a resolution for the Congress making it clear to the Iranian government that International PEN was watching the fate of Iranian writers so they would know before they arrested or killed someone that Iranian writers were supported. He believed that support let all the world see that writers were not alone.
While the Helsinki Congress focused on the traditional work of PEN and its Committees, it was also a watershed Congress addressing the structure and governance of PEN. The Ad Hoc Committee, elected at the previous congress in Edinburgh (see PEN Journey 20), had examined the draft of revised Regulations and Rules and presented a final draft for the Assembly’s adoption. The revised Regulations and Rules were the product of two years’ work and consultations among centers. These were the first amendments to the Regulations of PEN since 1988 and the first major revision since 1979.
International PEN’s reform to provide more democratic decision-making, more communication between the International and the Centers and more transparency was not an entirely smooth transition and reflected a larger global trend at the time among the 100+ nationalities represented in PEN.
At the Congress a new International Secretary—Terry Carlbom from Swedish PEN—was elected as the only candidate, Peter Day, editor of PEN International magazine, having stepped down from consideration because of health reasons. The former International Secretary Alexandre Blokh, who had served for 16 years, didn’t attend the Congress, but was elected a Vice President and returned to subsequent Congresses.
Marian Botsford Fraser of PEN Canada, representing the Ad Hoc Committee, presented the new proposed Rules and Regulations, noting that they were “the nuts and bolts or the strings and hammers of a piano or the engine of a car or mother board of a computer. In any case their workings were unfamiliar to most writers,” she said. “It was as if we had been asked to rebuild the engine of a 1979 Audi, a vehicle renowned for the complexity of its construction. Frankly I can think of only one more difficult assignment for nine writers and that would have been to collaborate on the writing of a novel.”
She noted that the Committee of nine was a diverse collection of individuals with the wisdom that democracy sometimes magically bestowed upon its practitioners. The Edinburgh Assembly had chosen a group of people who represented the linguistic, cultural and geographic diversity of PEN and who brought to the table individually and collectively their commitment to the history and the future of PEN, their desire to remain true to the spirit of the Charter of PEN and to the identity of PEN as first and foremost an organization of writers working together to protect language, literature and the fundamental human right of freedom of expression. “We brought to the process different and strongly held views on how to make the regulations that we were charged with drafting embody those principles, how to create a structure that would become the foundation for the future of this organization,” she said.
She thanked certain Ad Hoc members, who in fact did seem to have some knowledge of the workings of a 1979 Audi and added special thanks to Administrative Director Jane Spender “who took the whole mess of scribbled bits of paper, half sentences, cryptic clauses, clearly articulated ideas and sometimes incoherent good intentions back to London, and through another process of consultation and discussion and writing and rewriting was able to turn all of this into two documents that were sent to all Centers as Draft Regulations and Rules.” Homero Aridjis, the new International PEN President, also participated in this task along with the Ad Hoc Committee.
As I read through the minutes of the Helsinki Assembly, I recalled the tensions that arose, particularly around single words such as “a-political”—after all we were an organization of writers where words and translation of words mattered—and around events that had happened off stage. Changing the way a 77-year old organization worked was perhaps more like shifting from an Audi into an SUV which could hold more people, handle more difficult terrain but also consumed more fuel and energy. But metaphors aside, after debate and discussion, agreement was ultimately achieved.
The most important change was the move to form an Executive Committee that would be the main implementing body for International PEN, a step agreed by most all Centers who chose to participate in the process. Instead of government by a small executive of the President, International Secretary and Treasurer between the Assembly of Delegates’ meetings, an Executive Committee of seven members drawn from the centers around the globe and elected for three-year terms (and up to six years) would operate along with the three executives of PEN. The election for the first Executive Committee was to take place at the 1999 Congress in Warsaw. Until then the Ad Hoc Committee would continue to function and also act as a Selection Committee to assure qualified candidates were put forward.
Details of this new structure were modified over the next twenty years. The Selection Committee evolved into an elected Search Committee to assure qualified candidates were proposed for the various offices and to gather their required papers. The Search Committee was not set up to be a guardian council or an arbiter of candidates, but a facilitator for the process. In 2005 an Executive Director was added to the equation. As with any organization, PEN keeps growing and changing, but the essential structure to broaden and democratize governance of this global organization was set in place in 1998 in Helsinki. I’m not sure what vehicle I would compare PEN to these days, probably not a finely tuned Audi, but it continues to drive.
As for Vice Presidents, that office was not changed during this watershed period of reform, but over time, PEN changed the role of Vice Presidents and designated the ex-Presidents as Presidents Emeritus instead and divided the Vice Presidents into two equal categories with twelve in each: those elected for “service to PEN” and those designated for “service to literature;” the later included internationally renowned writers and Nobel laureates such as Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Svetlana Alexievich, Orhan Pamuk, Margaret Atwood, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, J.M. Coetzee.
When I became International Secretary (2004-2007), the Executive Committee (now called the Board) and I proposed, and the Assembly agreed, that Vice Presidents’ terms should be limited, at least in the category of service to PEN—ten years or sometimes twenty—then most would move to emeritus status. It took another ten years before this change was implemented.
These are arcane details but illustrate PEN as an organization striving to keep those experienced engaged at the same time keep the organization unencumbered so it can grow and bring in new ideas and talent. It is a vehicle constantly re-tooling with the Charter as its base and a body of creative members whose greatest talents are not necessarily in rules and regulations yet who respect their necessity. Vice Presidents Emeritus, as I now am, are invited to the Congresses and show up and are still sought out for the bit of history we know and for the bits of wisdom we might offer from our experience and for continuity. We knew PEN in the days of the Audi, though even then it was perhaps not so finely tuned, I think, but it got from here to there across the globe as it still does.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 22: Warsaw
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
I begin with the memories…
—the imposing walls around Castle Rock which stands above the city of Edinburgh and dates back to the Iron Age,
—the 12th century castle/fortress inside,
—the Old Parliament building,
—the New Parliament building where we sat in high-backed theater-style seats in an arena,
—the dorm room residence inside Pollack Halls where we stayed at Edinburgh University near the city center, beside an extinct volcano,
—the receptions at Parliament House and Signet Library and the City Arts Center where there was never quite enough food for the overly hungry delegates who descended upon the platters,
—the UNESCO seminars on women and literature, including my paper The Power of Penelope,
—and elections, so many elections and speeches—three candidates for Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) Chair, seven candidates for International PEN President, nine Ad Hoc Committee members as precursors to a new governing board for International PEN.
These were the first contested elections I remembered in International PEN. A wider democracy was spreading with ballots and speeches. I also remember the tension and the occasional flares of anger, and the effort to hold us all together and ultimately the confident results and the determination to move forward in unity. International PEN President Ronald Harwood warned that while PEN badly needed to democratize “power” so it wasn’t too centralized, residing in the hands of a few, the delegates should not make the struggle personal and should go forward with a sense of humor. We were an organization of writers, not the government of the world, he admonished, warning members not to confuse bureaucracy with democracy.
—I remember the trip to Glasgow where a few of us had a stimulating visit and tea at the home of James Kelman (Booker Prize winner How Late It Was, How Late) who had been with us in the protests in Turkey a few months before (see PEN Journey 19) and the old Mercedes tucked in the garage in the working class neighborhood.
—And the Edinburgh International Festival, including the Edinburgh Book Festival, happening simultaneously all around us.
—And finally the exquisite August light in Scotland.
I begin with memory then plunge into the minutes and documents of the 64th PEN Congress August, 1997 when delegates from 77 PEN centers around the world gathered. The Congress theme Identity and Diversity posed the questions:
In the contemporary world there are intense pressures, political or commercial, deliberate or unconscious, towards an imposed uniformity. One example is the effect on language. Indigenous languages, which embody particular traditions and experience, are in many countries under threat of displacement and extinction. These tendencies are inimical to literature which depends on its local personality for its color and effectiveness even when it achieves universal significance.
On the other hand, we live in an inter-dependent world where peace, prosperity and ultimately even survival, require co-operation. This international co-operation may be assisted by the use of a few languages which are widely understood. International exchange of the appropriate kind can also bring cultural enrichment.
How can these apparently contradictory objectives of diversity and co-operation be reconciled? Does literature have a role in this respect?
As with most abstract themes and questions, there is no simple answer, but the theme was a pivot, in this case both in the literary sessions and inadvertently in the business of PEN as the organization sought to restructure itself. Because this was my last congress as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, the work of that Committee absorbed my focus. My two reports—one the official printed International PEN Writers in Prison Committee report and the other an address to the Congress—observed, and in a fashion related, to this theme:
Tension between the individual and the state underlies the work of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. In some countries constitutions and governing principles are set out to protect the individual from the state, but in the majority of countries which PEN monitors where writers are imprisoned, threatened or killed, the state is organized to protect itself from the individual. Whether those countries be totalitarian regimes like China, Myanmar/Burma, Syria, Vietnam, Cuba or democracies like Turkey and South Korea, when the state holds itself superior to the rights of its individual citizens, freedom of expression is seen as a threat to stability rather than a sign of stability.
In 1997 the Writers in Prison Committee has defended individual writers in at least as many of the new and older democracies around the world as in totalitarian states. Since 1990 dozens of nations in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia have restored or initiated multi-party democratic elections. The turn to the democratic process initially freed up restrictions on writers and journalists in many countries. However, after the first flush of these freedoms, after dozens of independent publications sprang up in Argentina, Belarus, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Russia, Sierra Leone, Zambia, etc., tensions mounted between the individual voice and the state. Restrictions and press laws followed, and writers once again found themselves facing prison terms on such charges as “insulting the President”, “writing derogatory statements against the government and government officials”, and “seditious libel.”
In some states like Sierra Leone harsh restrictions on the media preceded coups and the loss of democracy. Reporting restrictions and brief detentions of journalists enforced by the crumbling Mobutu government in Zaire (now Congo), did not serve to protect it from its eventual collapse. Earlier this year the political crackdown in Belarus was preceded by severe censorship and curtailment of publications. The collapse of the government in Albania was followed by severe restrictions on publications and attacks and death threats on journalists and writers.
When a coup occurs and democracy fails, the consequences for free expression are usually disastrous as has been seen in Nigeria where journalists continue to serve lengthy prison terms and are arbitrarily detained, sometimes for months without charge. Another instance of a threat to freedom of expression in Nigeria is that of PEN member and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka who is among 12 dissidents charged in Nigeria this year with the capital offense of treason. Soyinka remains free outside the country but is certain to be imprisoned if he returns.
Pressure on writers and the media continued or increased in many new and old democracies, including Algeria, Argentina, Bosnia, Cameroon, Croatia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Indonesia, Kyrgystan, Mexico, the Palestinian authority, Turkey, Uganda and Zambia. Pressures took the form of legislation which required publications to obtain government licenses and approval and/or required journalists to have state-approved credentials. Pressure also took the form of arrest, arbitrary detention and death threats…
When democracy fails, there are hosts of reasons embedded in history and politics. Curtailment of free expression is not necessarily the precipitating cause, and curtailment of free expression does not always lead to failure of democracy. However, repression of the written word and of the writer remains at the very least a symptom and often a warning light that political failure lies ahead…
The report goes on to outline situations of individuals under threat. Reading these reports is reading a political history of the time, told through the circumstances of individual writers. One of the highlighted cases at the Congress in 1997 was that of Iranian writer Faraj Sarkohi who’d signed a petition calling for freedom of expression, along with 134 other Iranian writers. Sarkohi had been kidnapped by the Iranian secret service while on his way to visit family in Germany; he was tortured and threatened with execution. Because of the worldwide protests by PEN and others, he was eventually released the following year and sent into exile.
Visiting the WiPC meeting in Edinburgh, Egyptian professor Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid, a leading liberal theologian on Islam, told his story of being declared an apostate for his research and forced to divorce his wife, also an academic. They had fled Egypt where apostates could be killed. Şanar Yurdatapan, the Turkish activist who’d organized the Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression which many of us attended earlier that spring, had just been released from prison and also spoke to the meeting. The cases of Sarkohi and Abu-Zeid and Şanar were among 700 on the WiPC records.
[Address to Assembly of Delegates:]
After four years chairing International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of the Committee’s mandate and the complexity of its execution. To defend the individual’s right to free expression is to defend not only the essence of literature but also a cornerstone of free society. Our defense begins with the individual writer, but inevitably we are caught in the movements of politics and history where individuals struggle to shape, divert or oppose the tides. One of the most significant developments in the past few years has been the expansion of multi-party democracies across the globe, a development that at first glance would signal progress for free expression. However, from our work we have seen that democracy takes more than a polling booth and a list of candidates on a ballot to come to fulfillment. Freedom of the written word is essential for a democracy to work over the long term, and attacks on this freedom usually foreshadow larger repression and even the failure of the democracy itself.
This year PEN has seen repressive laws enacted and/or writers arrested and killed in the new and old democracies of Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Belarus, Bosnia, Cambodia, Cameroon, Croatia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Russia, Palestinian territory, Peru, Sierra Leone, South Korea, Turkey, Zambia. Many governments have passed or tried to pass laws to bring publications under their control through licensing and government-approved credentials. These laws have been followed by the arrest of writers.
Repression remains the most severe in totalitarian states such as China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Syria, Vietnam. China continues to imprison more writers for longer periods of time—over 70 individuals, many serving 10-20 years—than any other country. Many of the writers who were imprisoned during Tiananmen Square have been released in the past two years, but others have taken their place. The Writers in Prison Committee is watching with great concern legislation which could lead to restrictions on writers in Hong Kong as China takes over. The Committee is also following closely the continued repression in Myanmar (Burma) where prison conditions remain harsh and at least 25 writers remain behind bars, many with sentences exceeding ten years…
Many of the cases in Africa this year came from new democracies struggling with issues of free expression, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zambia. The military dictatorship of Sani Abacha in Nigeria continued to occupy the focus of many PEN centres who worked on behalf of writers still in prison. Protests from a number of PEN centres assisted in the release of two Nigerian writers…Our Committee heard a statement from PEN main case Koigi wa Wamwere from Kenya, where riots have broken out after calls for democratic reform. Centres around the world have lobbied for his release, and he is now out on medical bail, and the Writers in Prison Committee has assisted his return to Norway where he is living. He sent a message thanking PEN for its work on his behalf. He writes, “When dictators arrest writers, they guard them with more guns and soldiers than they guard enemy armies in captivity. Dictators fear ideas and writers more than they fear guerrilla armies. Afterall they know that without ideas even guerrilla armies would wither away and die…”
In Latin America PEN continued to protest this year the imprisonment and detention of writers in Cuba. This spring the Writers in Prison Committee issued its report on its Cuba trip last fall, focusing on dissident writers who often had to choose between prison and exile…In Peru, though legislative and judicial reforms have occurred in the last years, at least 11 writers there have reported threats and/or attacks from both governmental and non-governmental sources, and sixty writers and journalists have reported death threats or attacks in Argentina…
The Writers in Prison Committee continues to work closely with freedom of expression organizations around the world, sharing our research and disseminating via the internet so that when a writer is arrested as far away as Tonga, the King of Tonga suddenly found himself receiving faxes from all over the world.
Over the years the political tides have shifted, but members’ work on behalf of individuals and the friendship of writer to writer remain even after the writers are released. This year we saw releases in Cameroon, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Maldives, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Peru, and Russia. On occasions we have gotten to meet and know the individuals personally. This year when the Nigerian government picked up Ladi Olorunyomi, the Writers in Prison Committee was quickly alerted. A number of us had had the opportunity to meet with her husband Dapo, a prominent editor and dissident now living in exile in the United States. Isabelle Stockton, our Africa researcher and I spoke in the morning, and she called him to gather more details. When I phoned him later in the day, he said, “I was going to call you, but before I could, PEN was already calling me.” As soon as we determined that Ladi Olorunyomi had not been charged with a crime, had no access to lawyers and was not allowed to see her family, we put out a Rapid Action to our centres and shared the information with other freedom of expression organizations all around the globe. During her almost two months in captivity we were able to monitor the case, share information, and hear with great relief when this writer and mother was finally released.
Dapo, who had secretly fled Nigeria a year earlier lest he be imprisoned, wrote PEN, “Thank you for everything! I am very grateful, but I lack the words, appropriate enough to convey my gratitude…to our good friends at PEN International.”
The business of PEN throughout the year and at the annual Congress also included the work of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, Women’s Committee, Peace Committee, the growing activity of the Exile Network and the literary sessions. The UNESCO seminars on Women’s Cultural Identity linked to the seminars on Literature and Democracy at the Guadalajara Congress the year before. In many parts of the world women still did not have full democratic rights. Significantly, in Latin America only 10% of books published were by women, and in Africa it was as few as 2%. But I must leave others to elaborate these activities.
At the 64th Congress results of the many elections yielded the next group of leaders who would take the organization into the last years of the 20th Century and into the transformation of governance. At the Congress Ronald Harwood was elected a Vice President as I had been at the previous Congress and as such we stayed connected and in the wings for the changes ahead.
Election results of the 64th PEN Congress:
Seven candidates stood for the presidency from Europe, Africa and the Americas though one dropped out. Homero Aridjis of Mexico, well-known poet, journalist and diplomat, was elected the next President of International PEN.
Novelist Moris Farhi, former chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, was elected chair of the WiPC. The two runner-ups Louise Gareau-Des Bois (Quebec PEN) and Marian Botsford Fraser (PEN Canada) agreed to serve for a year as Vice Chairs. In 2009 Marian Botsford Fraser was elected chair of WiPC and served till 2015.
The new Ad Hoc Committee elected at the Congress included Marian Botsford Fraser (Canada), Takashi Moriyama (Japan), Boris Novak (Slovenia), Carles Torner (Catalonia), Jacob Gammelgaard (Denmark), Vincent Magombe (Africa Writers Abroad), Gloria Guardia (Colombia), Gordon McLauchlan (New Zealand) and Monika van Paemel (Belgium). This committee was charged with considering all the restructuring proposals and preparing a draft for discussion and adoption by the Assembly of /Delegates at the 1998 Helsinki Congress. The Ad Hoc Committee was also tasked as a Nominating Committee to search for a new International Secretary. Alexander Blokh, re-elected for another year as International Secretary, planned to step down at the 1998 Helsinki Congress. Little did I know nor aspire to take on that role six years later.
New PEN Centers voted in at the Edinburgh Congress included Cuban Writers in Exile, Somali-speaking Center, Sardinian PEN Center, and a reconstituted Mexican PEN Center.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 21: Helsinki–PEN Reshapes Itself
We sat on the ferry drinking strong Turkish coffee then handing over the emptied cups to a woman who read fortunes from the pattern of the leftover coffee grounds. As we huddled in the wind off the Sea of Marmara en route to the prison in Bursa, we speculated who among the passengers was following us. We were assured we were being followed.
I came to Turkey in March 1997 as the returning Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WIPC) (PEN Journey 18). I was heading a delegation of 20 PEN members from 12 countries. We’d arrived to support Turkish PEN, the Turkish Writers’ Syndicate, the Literary Writers Association and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression in the first Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression. We had signed on as “publishers” to an abridged version of the book Freedom of Expression. The original book included essays by those who were in prison or facing charges for their writing, particularly former president of Turkish PEN, the prominent novelist Yaşar Kemal. He was tried for an article he’d published in the German magazine Der Spiegel. (PEN Journey 17). Headlined “Campaign of lies,” the article called out the government for its human rights abuses, particularly its treatment of the Kurds.
Bearing a letter from Arthur Miller, who knew Kemal and had himself come to Turkey with Harold Pinter in solidarity a dozen years before, I was among the 141 “foreign publishers” of the booklet Mini Freedom of Expression. This book contained a paragraph from each article published in the larger book. We joined the 1080 Turkish “editors” of the larger volume who included writers, theater actors, politicians, painters, cinema actors and directors, cartoonists, musicians, trade unionists, academics, lawyers, architects and others. The Turkish Penal Code made it a crime to re-publish an article that had been defined as a “crime” so that the publisher as well as the writer was charged.
The “publishers” had presented themselves before the State Security Court and faced charges of “seditious criminal activity.” After questioning the first 99 people, the prosecutor demanded the accused be tried under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law and Article 312 on “disseminating separatist propaganda.” After six months only 185 of these individuals had been questioned and brought to trial. If these individuals were given the usual 20-month jail sentence, that would mean ten popular television programs would have to be canceled because their stars or directors would be in prison; five series would have to find new stars and change their story lines. The media would lose over 30 well-known journalists; 15 popular columns would be left blank. Eight professorial chairs would be left vacant, and universities would require new teaching staff. Theater stages and film sets would require many other artists, directors, musicians, etc., and 20 new books about prison life would be added to literature if every author wrote.
Turkey already had over 200 writers either in prison or entangled in legal processes, more than any other country. This protest initiative was unique and creative. The challenge to the court was to bring charges against so many. The State Prosecutor had dropped charges against the foreign participants on the grounds that he wasn’t able to bring us to Istanbul for questioning though the Turkish citizens who had prepared and distributed the booklet could be tried. The organizer of the initiative Şanar Yurdatapan suggested we come to Istanbul and challenge the prosecutor. Though PEN members were willing to come to support their Turkish colleagues, no one wanted to end up in a Turkish prison.
“No one will go to prison,” Şanar assured. The prosecutor had to act within six months, and even in the unlikely event charges were brought, we’d go home before a trial, and there was no extradition from the US, UK and many other countries because no such “offense” existed under their laws. Unlike organizations such as Greenpeace, PEN was not a direct action organization. PEN dealt in words, protest letters, diplomacy, meetings, on occasion candlelight vigils outside embassies and stories in the media. But Şanar, who was a song writer, civic activist, not a PEN member, instinctively understood the dynamics of nonviolent direct action and understood how to get attention and make the point that the Turkish laws were unjust and unfairly administered.
On our first day, which was Women’s Day, we joined the Saturday Mothers’ rally of relatives of the disappeared who gathered every Saturday seeking information on their family members. The gathering had been held every Saturday for a year and a half at Galatasaray Square, ten minutes from our small hotel in Taksim. The crowd of mothers and children held pictures and signs of their loved ones, mostly Kurds, who had been taken away, assumedly by the government and likely killed. On the edges of the crowd police in riot gear gathered but didn’t interfere. Meeting at Galatasaray Square is now banned for Saturday Mothers by the Ministry of Interior since August 25, 2018. They still keep the rally at Human Rights Association branch in one of the back streets.
From there a number of us went to a women’s rally where hundreds of Kurdish women in traditional dress marched with banners shouting, “We are mothers; we are for peace! Mafia is in Parliament; students are in prison.” Along the route men cheered and dozens of police lined the road frisking and checking bags. This was the last weekend of a 40-day protest all over Turkey. At 9pm every night people around the country turned out their lights or blinked their lights and shouted out their windows and in the street, “Go Away!” in protest over the government. The idea was that people would have one minute of darkness to get years of light. At dinner that Saturday evening we watched as the streets filled with shouting and the lights in restaurant blinked on and off.
The trip to Istanbul was my first of what would turn out to be dozens of visits to Turkey over the years for PEN, for other organizations, and for family. In 1997 the times were tense; soldiers with their weapons and machine guns were stationed at the airport; armed police were on the streets; we were followed; the phones at the hotel were likely tapped. It was difficult to imagine then that it would get much better in the following decade as it did and then much worse in recent years. I’m not sure today we could hold such a gathering with confidence.
Throughout our visit we were covered by the press, including two visits to the State Security Court. In 1997 the legal way to meet publicly was to hold a press conference so we spent our days in press conferences, including one at the Journalists Association. Because I was Chair of the WiPC, I was often the one explaining why we were there. I emphasized that we had come out of respect for Turkish literature and writers. We had not come to break Turkish laws; we did not consider editing a book a crime. We were there to uphold the international covenants that Turkey had signed, approved and became a party to: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), Article 19 of the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights and Article 90 in the European Convention on Human Rights. We noted that Article 90 in Turkey’s own Constitution declared that no law should supersede these international covenants.
Our PEN delegation included representatives from Canada (Quebec), Finland, Germany, Holland, Israel, Mexico, Palestine, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and Turkey. The delegates included James Kelman, Booker Prize winner from Scotland and Turkish writers including Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Pamuk and others.
On Monday we started the day at the State Security Court where Şanar petitioned the prosecutor for an appointment to question one delegate who had to leave early. Because the prosecutor didn’t want to bring charges against “international editors”, an act that would bring international attention, the “Turkish editors” could use this failure as further evidence of the unfair nature and application of the law when they took the case to the World Court. We approached the State Security Court again on Wednesday, when the prosecutor actually locked the gates and wouldn’t see any representative of our group. In the end nine of us—from USA, England, Scotland, Finland, Holland, Sweden, Canada (Quebec), Mexico and Russia—signed a form which said, “I accepted to be one of the collective publishers of this book willingly and I am aware of the legal responsibility. I have nothing else to say.” These forms were then sent registered mail to the prosecutor.
Two small groups visited prisons and the prisoners of conscience, including Dr. İsmail Beşikçi and his publisher Ünsal Öztürk in Bursa and journalist Işık Yurtçu in Adapazarı prison. Louise Gareau-Des Bois from Quebec PEN went to the Adapazari prison and was able to visit with Işık Yurtçu.
Kalevi Haikara from Finland and I went with Şanar on the ferry to the prison in Bursa where we met Ünsal Öztürk’s wife Süreyya. We waited and waited and talked together in the bleak courtyard with grey concrete walls rising around us topped with barbed wire, with guard towers looming over us. We went to the pink concrete building of Bursa Prison with a shield on the door “Ministry of Justice Bursa Special Prison” and waited there too. But we were not allowed to see İsmail Beşikçi, the noted Turkish sociologist and philosopher who wrote about the Kurds history and living conditions. He was one of the few non-Kurdish writers in Turkey speaking out about the treatment of the Kurds. At the time he was also one of the longest serving prisoners. He’d been sentenced to over 100 years though he was released from jail two years after our visit. Of his 36 books, 32 were banned in Turkey.
We were also not allowed to see Ünsal Öztürk, Beşikçi’s publisher, who had completed more than a three-year sentence. We met with the press which had gathered. We paid the outstanding fine against Öztürk with funds raised from Turkish writers, artists and many of the visiting PEN members. Öztürk was released the following day though there remained 30 outstanding cases against him, 62 charges waiting to be brought to court, all relating to Beşikçi. Every time he published a book, a charge was brought, but he kept publishing. Öztürk and his wife joined the conference.
The following day we attended the Justice House hearing of the “Kafka Trial.” When one editor of the Freedom of Expression book—actor Mahir Günşiray—faced the judges, he’d read a paragraph from Kafka’s The Trial. The paragraph offended the judges, and they brought a civil suit against him. Sixty-five other writers and artists signed on and said they also endorsed the reading of Kafka and should thus be guilty too. We all piled into the small room where the defendant Mahir Günşiray and his lawyer and the judge met. The hearing was the second or third for him, but with the room full of observers, the judge again postponed the proceedings.
Many of us went next to Istanbul University to participate in a Forum on Freedom of Expression. However when we arrived, hundreds of students were protesting in the plaza, surrounded by riot police with shields. The situation was tense. In Ankara students had recently been arrested after they’d unfurled a banner in Parliament challenging the 300% tuition increase at state universities. The student protesters there were tried with the demand of 18-year prison sentences. The students at Istanbul University asked if we would speak at the rally. None of us were prepared for this potentially explosive scene. The writers who’d come to speak on freedom of expression asked me to talk for the group, all except Sascha from Russian PEN who also wanted to speak. Sascha, Şanar and I addressed the crowd. I emphasized that we were there to uphold the right for free expression, not to take a side with any particular party of government or to take sides on how education was financed in Turkey, but to insist that individuals should have the right to discuss, debate and write about these issues without facing prison terms. We urged that the protest stay nonviolent. We were then ushered out through the police corridor.
In the evening the Istanbul Bar Association hosted us. The head of the Bar noted that the Turkish Constitution protects the state against the individual rather than the other way around as in the US. Everyone agreed there was free expression in many quarters of Turkey, but that the danger arose when one addressed Kurdish issues and Kurdish separatism and referred to the PKK.
Attending the meeting was the former PEN main case Eşber Yağmurdereli, a blind poet/dramatist, who’d served 14 years in prison. Released August 1991, he’d spoken in September 1991 at a meeting on behalf of Kurdish prisoners and had new charges brought against him. After five years he was still awaiting the resolution of that case. His passport had been taken from him. He could be sent back to prison for more than 20 years. He said he was unable to write, and if he wrote, he had to hide the writing and not publish. He earned his living now as a lawyer.
I also met the young brother of Bülent Balta, an investigation case. Balta, a chemistry honors graduate, a Turk, not a Kurd, had agreed to edit Özgür Gündem, the Kurdish newspaper, because of his sympathies for the difficulty of the Kurds. He had no particular experience as an editor, and after only 11 days was arrested and was serving a four-year prison sentence.
That evening the protest at Istanbul University was all over the news, including pictures of me with a bull horn speaking, but my words had been translated into Turkish so I had no clear idea what it was reported I was saying.
Early the next morning I slipped out of our hotel and walked to a large international hotel nearby where I called home. I asked my husband to confirm my return flight the following day. He asked what the flight was, but I told him to check with the travel agent and confirm. Over the phone I didn’t want to give flight details. I told him what was happening, including the widespread coverage of the protest with my participation, and he told me a colleague in Washington said that the American Embassy knew I was there and warned me not to leave the hotel. I had to leave the hotel, I explained. I was leading the delegation and events were planned, including a farewell dinner on the Bosphorus.
At the final panel/press conference, I noted that I had two sons, and as I observed the young people here, especially the young police officers and the young students, I felt sorrow that these youth were set across battle lines from each other. There was so much talent and promise we had seen. For the first time in the three days of speeches and press conferences, emotion stirred in my voice and I paused for a moment. One of the headlines the following day read something to the effect: “She Cries for Turkey!”
The following morning I was to be driven to the airport, but the driver didn’t show up, and I was left to find my own transportation in a taxi. The atmosphere around the conference had slowly made each of us cautious, even slightly paranoid. As I climbed into the taxi, driven by a stranger, I remembered the fortune teller on the ferry a few days before. Proceed with caution…was that her warning? You will make friends…was that the prediction? The road ahead is fortuitous but also fraught? In fact, I no longer remembered what her fortunes were, and I didn’t believe in fortunes or scattered coffee grounds, but I left Istanbul with a strong belief in the people and a commitment to the country and to the writers and publishers and lawyers and journalists and to the young people I had met and to the promise they represented.
In years following I returned to Turkey on numerous missions for PEN and for meetings with Human Rights Watch, with the International Crisis Group, on a trip with UNHCR looking at the Syrian refugee crisis, and several trips with my oldest son who wrestled in the World Championships and European Championships in Ankara and in the World Championships again in Istanbul and also lectured in mathematics at Koc University and other universities and with my youngest son who lived in Istanbul for two years with his two young children and wrote as a journalist on the Turkish/Syrian border and has set two of his four published novels in Turkey.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 20: Edinburgh—PEN on the Move, Changes Ahead
PEN perches on a three-legged stool. One leg is literature—the work of writers around the world. The other leg is freedom of expression—the defense of writers, particularly those in authoritarian regimes. The third leg is community—the fellowship among writers from over 100 countries sharing, appreciating, translating. PEN began as a loose network of clubs after World War I and grew quickly. The governance of the organization has evolved and at times set the three legs of the stool at odd angles to each other. One such occasion was at the Guadalajara Congress in 1996 as PEN celebrated its 75th anniversary.
My file for that Congress, whose theme was “Literature and Democracy,” bulges with documents and papers and programs in duplicates and triplicates. I don’t know why it is so much larger than the other files. In retrospect, the 1996 Congress was an inflection point, a turn in the road. Maybe I was collecting evidence.
At the Congress I was handing over the reins of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), having finished my term, at least that was my intent. Ronald Harwood was doing the same as President of PEN International, at least that was his intent. Elizabeth Paterson was retiring after 28 years as Administrative Secretary of PEN, and WiPC researcher Mandy Garner was also moving on. PEN was navigating transitions, some planned, but others with a momentum of their own.
For the global context of that time, I reported as Chair of WiPC to the Congress:
“….two political phenomena have emerged, both perhaps linked to the end of the Cold War. First, we have seen conflicts erupting not so much between nations as within nations. This phenomenon, though not new, has offered particular challenges for the writer. Dozens of writers have been killed in conflicts in Algeria, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya. In a number of counties with internal conflicts, including Peru, India, and Turkey, governments have used Anti-Terror Laws to arrest writers who write about the opposing parties.
“Another phenomenon is the increasing number of countries turning to the democratic process for government. The end of the Cold War saw the fall of many totalitarian regimes. Since 1990 over 50 countries have, at least on paper, turned to democracy to select their governments. However, democracy has not always settled so easily into place. One of the indispensable elements of a working democracy is freedom of expression, and this freedom has often been curtailed. Because PEN’s mandate is to protect the free flow of ideas and the freedom of writers to write, to criticize and to protest, PEN’s mission is as compelling today with newly emerging democracies as it was during the Cold War era. In country after country—from Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Romania, Tajikistan, Zambia—writers can be and have been arrested on such charges as “disseminating false propaganda,” “insulting the President,” and “publishing false news.” The Writers in Prison Committee’s protests and work for these writers is fundamental in a larger political process that is unfolding….
“…Whenever one might feel despair for the way human beings can treat one another, the despair can be lifted by noting the caring of the writers who work for each other. The members of the new Ghana PEN have adopted a writer in Peru; Mexican members and Swedish members work for Turkish writers; Polish, Slovak, Nepalese, French and many other members work on behalf of imprisoned Vietnamese writers. Canadian writers are working on behalf of their Nigerian colleagues, an American writer writes in Portuguese to an Indonesian imprisoned writer; English and German writers have been in long-term correspondence with an imprisoned writer in South Korea. Danish writers are working for an imprisoned writer in Yemen; Norwegian, Finish, Austrian and Czech writers are protesting on behalf of Chinese writers; Australian and Catalan writers work for imprisoned colleagues in Myanmar/Burma….”
These corridors of concern linked men and women around the world in defense of each other and of freedom of expression. The Writers in Prison Committee was a place everyone came together to focus on PEN’s mission. Discussion on resolutions and actions began there and were taken to the full Assembly of Delegates.
That year resolutions passed and action was taken on cases in: Algeria where seven writers had been killed and many more threatened and arrested; the Dominican Republic where intolerance was growing and a writer had disappeared; Turkey where 50 writers were imprisoned and 100 others sentenced to prison; Indonesia where writers had been arrested and imprisoned and the famed writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer was under town-arrest and where in East Timor writers had been killed and leader and poet Alexandre (Xanana Gusmao) was in prison and sentenced to death; Iran where writers were disappeared, tortured and imprisoned; Central Asian Republics, particularly Tajikistan, where at least 29 journalists had been murdered in the last four years; China where dozens of writers were serving long prison sentences or were sentenced to re-education camps; Cuba where journalists were imprisoned and harassed; Mexico where journalists were killed, disappeared and threatened; Vietnam where writers were serving lengthy prison terms; and Nigeria where Ken Saro Wiwa had been hanged the year before and other writers were in prison.
At the WiPC meeting there was a report on PEN’s quiet mission to Cuba where writers were hoping the system would open up after the global changes in 1989. Writers there said they were in a goldfish bowl but never sure how big the bowl was from day to day, and those arrested often faced a choice between long prison sentences and exile. The WiPC meeting also heard from the sister of Myrna Mack, a Guatemalan anthropologist who had been killed and was one of the significant leaders of the worldwide movement against impunity. We also launched the anthology This Prison Where I Live of writings from PEN cases over the years.
In addition to the Writers in Prison Committee, the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, the Peace Committee and the Women’s Committee met in the early days of the Guadalajara Congress. Literary sessions focused on the Congress theme with programs on Literature of Old and New Democracies and Post-Communist Democracies.
Also during those first days of the Congress, a group of members were meeting off site to launch a process to reshape the governance of PEN. For as long as anyone could remember, the International Secretary and President had been the sole decision-makers between Congresses where the Assembly of Delegates voted on issues. Many felt this system no longer allowed sufficient democratic expression for a worldwide organization.
I was friends with many of those meeting, but the WiPC staff and I kept out of the off-site gatherings. We felt we needed to keep the WiPC a neutral place where everyone came together. One morning the men in that group entered the Assembly of Delegates all wearing the same Picasso print necktie, “a figure twisted like a pretzel,” one member described later, ties bought at the Picasso restaurant where they had met. The group had felt shut out of discussions, and now were coming forward together. It was like a declaration of revolution. “For heaven sakes, take off the ties!” I recall someone saying, and the ties gradually were folded into pockets, but a revolution had begun.
Two Spontaneous Resolutions were introduced to the Assembly:
Spontaneous Resolution 1 On PEN’s Structure Submitted by the Swedish Centre, seconded by the Canadian Centre, and supported by the American, Bangladeshi, Catalan, Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Kenyan, Melbourne, Nepalese, Norwegian, San Miguel de Allende, Slovakian, Swiss German and USA West Centers.
Resolutions II on P.E.N’s Structure, submitted by the same centres.
“Taking into consideration the debate on P.E.N.’s composition, development and structure, held in Guadalajara on Sunday, November 10th, 1996, on the occasion of P.E.N.’s 75th anniversary;
Convinced of the need to enhance its democratic structure and facilitate wider international participation;
Resolves to request one P.E.N. Centre to elaborate the draft of a revised version of the current regulations, in cooperation and consultation with all the other Centres, as well as the International President and Secretary….”
After discussion and debate, it was agreed that PEN centers should send their suggestions for reform of the Constitution to the Japanese Centre, and Japanese PEN would coordinate and forward them to the International Headquarters and to all Centres so that the Centres could consider and vote on them at the 1997 Edinburgh Congress. One of these proposals, which was presented in Guadalajara by the Spanish-speaking Centres, was that Spanish should be made the third official language of PEN if financing could be raised.
PEN had its own democratic elections on the Congress agenda with a vote for the new International President. There was only one candidate put forward by the International Secretary and his PEN Center, a respected poet from Romania, a woman, who would have been the first woman President of PEN. She herself had lived under a repressive regime, but she had not been very involved in the international organization, and she had not been part of the discussion to reform PEN’s governance. When she spoke to the issue, questioning the need and the process, there was in the lunch conversations and in the corridors afterwards, pushback and a questioning of her suitability as President.
The next morning she withdrew her candidature. She said that it had become clear that the organization was undergoing a transformation and she felt she was the wrong person to be president at such a time of change. It seemed to her that PEN was in process of being transformed from an organization of writers into something less. She had been motivated by her dream of PEN, not as an organization with bureaucratic structures and competing pressure groups, but as a place where the writers of the world came together. She was a writer from Eastern Europe who had had great problems under successive dictatorships. From this perspective she had had an image of PEN as something extraordinary. It was true that she had confused PEN with the Writers in Prison Committee, she said. It was PEN which had spoken out when she was forbidden to publish. The work of the Writers in Prison Committee remained very important to her. What troubled her was the discovery of pressure groups who appeared to be fighting for a power which in her eyes had no existence. The only power which writers possessed was the power of their books and the fear of those in power that the truth told in those books would outlive their tyrannies.
Many members applauded her withdrawal speech. It articulated the pressure and tension in the 75-year-old organization which lived on ideals but also had to increasingly function in the competitive world of nongovernmental organizations with budgets and boards and democratic processes, an organization that needed to calibrate, modernize and keep all its members engaged.
Ronald Harwood agreed to serve another year as President. The International Secretary was reelected. Some members noted quietly that regulations required he face election every year now because of his age.
My replacement as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee was unanimously elected. The former President of Danish PEN, Niels Barfoed was a respected writer and longtime PEN member, who as a young boy had circumvented the Nazis as a courier with banned literature from his older brother who was in the Resistance. The WiPC had chosen a nominating committee to assure qualified candidate(s) were nominated. I left Guadalajara satisfied that the new WiPC process had come up with such a well-qualified Chair. I commiserated with Ronnie, thanking him for taking on another term though it meant his own writing would be curtailed. I was elected as a Vice President of PEN International and left Guadalajara happy to be returning to my own work. However, a few months later Niels fell ill and resigned, and I too was back as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. Ronnie and I served a fourth year together.
At the end of the Congress, I went to the airport with Alexandre Blokh, the longtime International Secretary. It had been a difficult Congress for him. He questioned whether he had stayed on too long. At the Edinburgh Congress in 1997 new governance and regulations were proposed, and at the 1998 Congress in Helsinki Alex stepped down after 16 years. PEN International was on its way to having an international board and more democratic governance which presented its own challenges as the organization proceeded towards the 21st Century.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 19: Prison, Police and Courts in Turkey—Freedom of Expression Initiative
What I remember most about the gathering of colleagues from 28 countries—31 PEN centers—51 of us in all at the first Writers in Prison Committee conference in 1996 was the seriousness of purpose and intellect during the day and the fun and talent in the evenings.
Hosted by Danish PEN, writers from every continent gathered at a university in Helsingør—known in English as Elsinore, the home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—where we met in workshops and ensemble during the day to shape and refine our work on behalf of writers and freedom of expression around the world. But in the evening we were at a small university in a small city without transportation or distraction so we entertained ourselves. Each delegate displayed talents—from poetry reading to song to dance to musical performances.
As Chair of the WiPC gathering, I’d brought none of my own writing to read and was left to exhibit meager other talent which consisted of playing a few opening bars of Für Elise on the piano and whistling tunes with my far more talented Danish and Russian colleagues. Archana Singh Karki from Nepal in flowing red dress entertained with her graceful dance; Siobhan Dowd, our Irish former WiPC director and Freedom of Expression director at American PEN, silenced us with her soulful Irish folk songs, sung acapella; Sascha, Russian PEN’s General Secretary, not only whistled robustly but recited his poetry, which I was told I should be glad I didn’t understand with its bawdy content; Sam Mbure from Kenya and Turkish/English novelist Moris Farhi also read and recited work. PEN International President Ronald Harwood joined the discussions in the day and was audience in the evening. I don’t recall if Ronnie offered his own work, but we all bonded in our mission and in our support for the talent in the room.
During the three days, we fine-tuned our methods of working on and campaigning for our main cases, those writers who were imprisoned, attacked or threatened because of their writing, often their nonviolent voice of protest against authoritarian regimes. We considered PEN’s decision-making on borderline cases such as those which included drug charges, advocacy of violence, pornography, hate speech, terrorism. These were not categories we normally took on as cases. We discussed when we might take up such a case or assign them to investigation or judicial concern. We laid the groundwork for more joint actions among centers and other organizations such as the U.N., OSCE and IFEX, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange.
With PEN’s WiPC staff Sara Whyatt and Mandy Garner, we set out a campaign calendar for the year, beginning with Turkey in May; China in June; Myanmar in July; Guatemala in September; Vietnam in October; Nigeria in November; Human Rights Day focus in December; Cuba in January; Rushdie and Fatwa and Iran in February; United Nations Commission on Human Rights lobbying in February/March and a return to China during the Chinese New Year in February/March; International Women’s Day in March and World Press Freedom Day in May. This campaign calendar meant that the London office would send information each month related to these foci, and PEN centers would plan programs if the campaign fit their work and the cases they had taken on.
We discussed the elements of successful missions to troubled areas and what future missions should be considered. In 1997 PEN International and Danish PEN sent representatives on a quiet mission to Cuba. We also strategized on the effect of writers observing trials in certain countries, particularly in Turkey.
During the conference a request came for members of PEN to sign on individually and en mass as publishers of a book in Turkey which republished an article by the famed Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal, along with articles by other Turkish writers who were in prison because of their writing. Kemal had recently been charged because of an article he’d published in the German magazine Der Spiegel about the Kurds. The organizer in Turkey had gathered hundreds of Turkish writers, publishers, artists, and actors to sign on as publishers. They wanted to present the book and the list of hundreds of publishers to challenge the courts to bring charges against everyone. Many of us agreed to participate. This act launched a campaign in Turkey and a mission later in 1997. (Blog to come.) The independent Turkish Freedom of Expression Initiative has since gathered biennially for the last 23 years. For this kind of joint action PEN was primed to cooperate.
Finally in Helsingør the Writers in Prison Committee took a step towards opening up the election process for the WiPC Chair. My term was due to expire at the fall 1996 Congress in Guadalajara. We decided to select a nominating committee from members to find candidate(s) for the next chair rather than have the post appointed by the Secretariat in London. That process was later replicated in other elections in PEN and is standard procedure today.
Helsingør was a fitting venue for the first WiPC Conference, not only because of its literary credentials with the Kronborg Castle where most of Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place, but also because of its historic legacy in World War II. Helsingør was one of the most important transport points for the rescue of Denmark’s Jews. A few days before Hitler had ordered that the Danish Jews were to be arrested and deported to concentration camps October 2, 1943, one of the Nazi diplomatic attaches who’d received word in advance shared the information with the Jewish community leaders. Using the name Elsinore Sewing Club, the Jewish leaders communicated with the population, and the Danes moved the Jews away from Copenhagen to Helsingør, just two miles across the straights to neutral Sweden. The Danish citizens hid their fellow Jewish citizens until they could get onto fishing boats, pleasure boats and ferry boats and escape over a period of three nights. The Danes managed to smuggle the majority of its Jewish citizens–over 7200 Jews and 680 non-Jews–across the water to safety.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 18: Picasso Club and Other Transitions in Guadalajara
Fremantle, Australia is far away, at least if you live in the Americas or Europe or West Africa. So is Tokyo, Manila, Nepal, Hong Kong,—all destinations of PEN Congresses and conferences. As a global organization with centers in over 100 countries, PEN tries to cover the world with its meetings and at least once or twice a decade organize a Congress in Asia or Australia with its centers there.
In 1995 for PEN International’s 62nd Congress Perth PEN hosted delegates from around the world in Fremantle, a port city on Australia’s western coast in the Perth metropolitan area, a picturesque city with Victorian architecture and, as I recall at the time, a town out of the 1960’s where time hadn’t quite caught up. The city’s reputation was partially derived from its history as a penal colony from the 1850’s to 1991. The traditional Aboriginal people who lived there called the area Walyalup “the crying place.”
The 65th Congress was one of the smaller for PEN, less formal with many delegates staying in the homes of local writers rather than in a hotel. Instead of formal receptions in houses of state, at least one evening’s entertainment was a game of literary trivia and bingo. Because the venue was on the harbor, the swimmers among the delegates, particularly Sascha (Alexander Tkachenko) General Secretary of Russian PEN, tried to swim each day despite the warnings that waters were shark-infested. Sascha defied the sharks which he considered a milder threat than what he was dealing with back home in Russia.
The Congress theme Freedom of Expression and Cultural Context translated into an endorsement of the universality of human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Held in the 50th anniversary year of the United Nations’ founding, PEN insisted human rights were not a relative notion. “While the concept of a universal right may not have penetrated the mechanisms of all states, the invocation of the universal right to free expression remains one of the essential tools that PEN and other organizations use to apply pressure and insert a wedge into the conscience of nations,” the Writers in Prison Chair’s report noted that year.
While certain human rights were absolute, governance was relative, and PEN itself was beginning to struggle with its structure. The relaxed atmosphere of Fremantle allowed informal discussions among delegates who were urging a more democratic structure for PEN. As PEN International headed towards its 75th anniversary the following year, Boris Novak, Slovene PEN President and Chair of the Peace Committee noted that the inner structure of PEN was no longer adequate for the needs of such a large global organization. This sentiment was echoed by the American PEN delegate and delegates from Scandinavian centers. The International Secretary agreed to hold a special meeting in Perth on this question, and the discussion and the dissent began.
As chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, I shared the concerns, but the WiPC staff and I determined that the Writers in Prison Committee should remain a place where everyone came together and focused on the mission of getting writers out of prison and securing freedom of expression so we stayed on the edge of the debate. The internal politics of PEN were stirring and erupted a year later at the 1996 Congress in Guadalajara. In Perth, however, the breezes were balmy and the water warm enough to dip in if not to cross the distance between the old and the new. That process would evolve over the next several years and Congresses to come.
Brief summary of work follows in this excerpt from my 1995 Writers in Prison Committee Chair report:
“Since [he] was arrested, my relatives and close friends have not dared to speak to me or telephone me for fear of being arrested. They have steered clear of me. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends and relatives who have stood by me. Since our problems began, I have had to rely on my family and our friends from abroad…I am very grateful to them…In short, your support will not only help my family, but also the families of others who are in distress. We will never forget your help.”
—Letter to PEN WiPC from the wife of an imprisoned writer who for reasons of security must remain anonymous.
“The work of the Writers in Prison Committee this year has included appeals on writers’ behalf to 59 countries, around 150 appeals from the London office and hundreds more from centers around the world who responded to PEN’s Rapid Action calls and to the specific cases of the prisoners they have adopted….
“The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II saw celebrations in Europe but also saw a resurgence in racist and hate literature and speech. Anti-fascists writers found themselves threatened, especially in Austria where one writer was almost murdered. Turkey continued to be the most difficult country in the region with over 200 arrests, brief detentions, killings and disappearances, almost all relating to writings on the Kurdish situation.…
“The other issues to watch—the rise of militant fundamentalism, terrorism, separatist movements—but these are generally issues over which PEN has little control even though they affect the fates of individual writers.…
“Progress this year can best be measured in the releases of prisoners and also by the changes in certain countries’ laws. The Writers in Prison Committee lobbied governments and international bodies on general issues such as the death penalty, long term imprisonment and anti-terror laws and has seen some effect. PEN, along with other human rights organizations, urged the Indian government to reform or abandon its anti-terrorist law under which writers were detained, and recently the government has voted not to renew the law. The WiPC has also spent a large effort speaking with representatives of the Turkish government at embassies and at the United Nations to urge the amendment or abolishment of Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. Just last week the Goverment finally announced its plan to amend the law. We are hopeful this will soon take place in such a way that hundreds of writers detained because of Article 8 will no longer face prison terms, though we are cautious in our optimism.
“The main substance of the Writers in Prison Committee work, however, is not shown in the statistics nor through the reformed government policy, but can best be measured in the lives of individual writers. This year over 90 writers have been released from prison and some individuals facing severe penalties, including death, have instead received clemency. Unfortunately in many countries as one writer walks out of prison, another is being brought in….
“Turkish writer Esber Yagmurdereli, who is blind, recently had his 20-month prison sentence ratified. He was arrested for a speech about the Kurdish situation at a human rights meeting just weeks after his release from 13 years in prison. [I’d like to end with] an excerpt from one of his plays, “Crossing Boundaries” which deals with the experience of a political prisoner:
The moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
You were leaving…the anguish would lift from your heart
…Your unconquered eyes would be mine from now on.
…You went and waking to your absence was to be condemned to a harsh fate
And I felt the damnation again when I heard my forehead crack against these silent walls
…Suddenly I was without a country like so many Palestinians
I even forgot my language: I forgot I was a scream in the river of your voice
(Didn’t we force these walls to memorize our voices
Didn’t we breastfeed these rotten cells our best folk songs?)
We set alight wet stones as we rested our backs against them…
…I kept biting my lips, but never forgot the memory…
And as the moon fell into the night, I saw your smile in its eternal beauty
The rainbow shone on your forehead and its greeting was a declaration
…then that moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
The silenced suddenly arose and spirits soared like rain-birds.”
Next Installment: PEN Journey 17: Gathering in Helsingør
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 might be of interest.
As I wrote holiday cards for the prisoners on PEN’s list this year, I recalled the many cases of writers PEN has worked for over the decades—the successes when writers were released early from prison and the sorrow when they did not survive. The path back for a writer imprisoned for his work is rarely easy, at times has led to exile, but often is accompanied by a mailbag full of cards and letters from fellow writers around the world.
I also sat with PEN’s Centre to Centre newsletters spread around me from 1994-1997, the years I chaired PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). During that period if a country was mentioned, I knew whether writers were imprisoned there and often knew the main cases as did PEN’s researchers. At the time we published twice a year PEN’s list with brief descriptions of the cases. Proofing paragraph after paragraph of hundreds of situations, I would know without looking when I had moved from one country to another by the punishments given. Lengthy prison terms up to 20 years to life meant I was reading cases from China, but if the writers were suddenly killed either by government or others, I’d moved on to Columbia. In Turkey were pages and pages of arbitrary detentions and investigations and writers rotating in and out of prison.
Names from this period are a kind of ghost family for me, evoking people and a time and place: Taslima Nasrin, Fikret Başkaya, Mohamed Nasheed, Gao Yu, Bao Tong, Hwang Dae-Kwon, Myrna Mack, Ma Thida, Yndamiro Restano, Mansur Rajih, Luis Grave de Peralta, Brigadier General José Gallardo Rodríguez, Koigi wa Wamwere, Eskinder Nega, Tefera Asmare, Liao Yiwu, Ferhat Tepe, Dr. Haluk Gerger, Ayşe Nur Zarakolu, Ünsal Öztürk, İsmail Beşikçi, Eşber Yağmurdereli, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Đoàn Viết Hoạt, Nguyễn Văn Thuận, Balqis Hafez Fadhil, Tong Yi, Christine Anyanwu, Tahar Djaout, Aung San Suu Kyi, Yaşar Kemal, Alexander Nikitin, Faraj Sarkohi, Ali Sa’idi Sirjani, Wei Jingsheng, Chen Ziming, Slavamir Adamovich, Bülent Balta, and many more. Many are now released, a few are even working with PEN, a number have deceased and two of the most celebrated and tragic—Liu Xiaobo and Ken Saro-Wiwa—were executed, one left to die in prison, the other hung.
In their cases, no amount of mail or faxes or later emails or personal meetings with ambassadors and diplomats changed the course for these writers. A year before Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death, noted Iranian novelist Ali Sa’idi Sirjani died in prison. And years later the murder of Anna Politkovskaya in Russia and the murder of Hrant Dink in Turkey and in 2017 the death in prison of Chinese poet and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo all stand out as main cases where PEN and others organized globally but were unable to change the course. I’ll address the case of Liu Xiaobo in a subsequent blog. He was also in prison during the 1990’s but was not yet the global name and force he became.
One of the most noted of PEN’s cases in the mid 1990s was Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged November 10, 1995. Ken understood they would hang him, but PEN members did not accept this. Ken was an award-winning playwright, television producer and environmental activist who took on the government of Nigerian President Sani Abacha and Shell Oil on behalf of the Ogoni people whose land was rich in oil and also in pollution and whose people received little of the profits.
I was living in London when Ken Saro-Wiwa, who had been arrested before for his writing and activism, visited PEN and other organizations in support of the Ogoni cause. PEN took no position on political causes but campaigned for his freedom to write and speak without threat. He met at length with PEN’s researcher Mandy Garner, providing her books and documentation of how he was being harassed in case he was arrested again. When he returned to Nigeria, he was arrested again and imprisoned in May 1994, along with eight others, and charged with masterminding the murder of Ogoni chiefs who were killed in a crowd at a pro-government meeting. The charge carried the death penalty.
PEN mobilized quickly and stayed in close contact with his family. Mandy worked tirelessly on the case, gathering and coordinating information and actions. Ken Saro-Wiwa was an honorary member of PEN centers in the US, England, Canada, Kenya, South Africa, Netherlands, and Sweden so these centers were particularly active, contacting their diplomats and government officials. At PEN International we met with members of the Nigeria High Commission; novelist William Boyd joined the delegation. “I remember sitting opposite all these guys in sunglasses wearing Rolex watches, spouting the government line,” Mandy recalls. We also talked with ambassadors, including from England, the US and Norway to encourage their petitioning of the Abacha government. We met with Shell Oil officials to ask that they intervene to save Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life. PEN USA West also had lengthy meetings and negotiations with Shell Oil. PEN International and English PEN set up meetings in the British Parliament where celebrated writers spoke. English PEN mounted candlelight vigils outside the Nigerian High Commission which writers including Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri, Harold Pinter, Margaret Drabble and International PEN President Ronald Harwood attended. A theater event in London featured Nigerian actors acting out extracts from Ken’s plays and also reading poems from other writers in prison. Taslima Nasreen spoke as well. Ken’s writing was made available to the press which covered the story widely.
The activity in London mirrored activity at PEN’s more than 100 centers around the globe, from New Zealand to Norway, from Malawi to Mexico. From every continent signed petitions were faxed to the Nigerian government of General Sani Abacha and to the writers’ own governments, to members of Commonwealth nations, to the European Union, the United Nations and to the press calling for clemency for Ken Saro-Wiwa. Through the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) of which PEN International was a founding member, the word spread to freedom of expression organizations worldwide. Other human rights organizations including Amnesty and Greenpeace also protested. No one wanted to believe in the face of such an international outcry that the generals in Nigeria, particularly Nigeria’s President Sani Abacha, would kill Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Ken managed to get word out that he was tortured and held in leg irons for long periods of time. He wrote to Mandy, “A year is gone since I was rudely roused from my bed and clamped into detention. Sixty-five days in chains, many weeks of starvation, months of mental torture and, recently, the rides in steaming, airless Black Maria to appear before a Kangaroo court, dubbed a Special Military Tribunal where the proceedings leave no doubt at all that the judgement has been written in advance. And a sentence of death against which there is no appeal is a certainty.”
I moved from London to Washington, DC in late August 1995. When the death sentence was handed down at the end of October, PEN International launched a petition signed by hundreds of writers from around the globe seeking Saro-Wiwa’s and others’ release. For days I tried to get an appointment with the Nigerian Ambassador in Washington. Finally one morning I received a call that I had been given an appointment; however, I was in New York City that morning. Quickly I got a flight back to Washington. En route I called the former PEN WiPC director Siobhan Dowd, who was then heading the Freedom to Write program at American PEN. I asked her to arrange for a second writer to meet me at the Nigerian Embassy. The person didn’t have to say anything, but I wanted a larger delegation.
When I arrived, I was informed the Ambassador had suddenly been called to the U.N. in New York so I met with the number two and three ministers. As I began setting out PEN’s case on behalf of Saro-Wiwa, another woman slipped into the room and sat without speaking but lending ballast to the meeting. Afterwards she and I had coffee, and I briefed her on the case. For the next 25 years Susan Shreve, one of the founders of the PEN Faulkner Foundation, and I have been friends, a friendship that grew out of this tragic event. A few days later I was standing outside the Nigerian Embassy in a vigil, along with representatives from Amnesty and other organizations, when word was sent out to us that Ken Saro-Wiwa had been hanged that morning in Port Harcourt.
The effect of his execution raced through the PEN network and through the human rights and political communities worldwide. The grief was communal. Those who worked on Ken’s case can relate to this day where they were when they heard the news of the execution. The shock was also political. Boycotts were launched against Nigeria. Archbishop Desmond Tutu appeared at a benefit in London for Ken Saro-Wiwa and reported outrage in South Africa over the executions of Saro-Wiwa and the others. He said South African President Nelson Mandela was heading up a campaign to urge the world, especially the US and Western governments to take action. Nigeria was suspended from the British Commonwealth for three years.
Ken’s brother quickly left Nigeria and went to London for a period, sheltering temporarily with British novelist Doris Lessing then relocated in Canada for a time. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., a journalist, also settled in Canada, then in London, then returned and worked for a period in the Nigerian government of Goodluck Jonathan as a special assistant on civil society and international media. He died suddenly in London at age 47 in 2016.
The killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa was the beginning of the end for General Sani Abacha, who maneuvered to be the sole presidential candidate in Nigeria’s next election, but died in June, 1998 when he suddenly got ill early one morning and died within two hours, at age 54, the same age as Ken Saro-Wiwa when he was hanged. There were persistent rumors that Abacha had been poisoned, but there was no autopsy and these rumors were never proven.
According to news reports in Lagos, it took five attempts to hang Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was buried by security forces, denying his family the right to bury him. His last words were reported to be: “Lord, take my soul, but the struggle continues.”
Releases of writers PEN worked for that year included Cuban poet Yndamiro Restano freed after serving three years of a ten-year sentence, Cuban journalist Pablo Reyes Martinez freed after three years on an eight-year sentence, Turkish writer Fikret Baskaya freed early and also Unsal Ozturk, freed eight years early, Chinese writer Yang Zhou freed after serving one year of a three-year sentence and Wang Juntao freed after serving five years of a 13-year sentence, Burmese Zargana freed a year early and many others.
“I wish to thank International PEN and the WiPC for all their endeavors on my behalf during the period of my detention. There is no doubt in my mind at all that the powerful insistence and impartial voice of PEN did a lot to win me my freedom from the tyrannical arms of the military dictatorship in Nigeria…”—Ken Saro-Wiwa in fall, 1993 after his earlier detention.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 16: The Universal, the Relative and the Changing PEN