Lights in a Dark Season

The winter holidays start with lights in the U.S. and in many countries around the world. In the U.S. the lights begin to appear in early November, shining on street corners, in department store windows. By the end of November and the U.S. Thanksgiving, holiday lights are up and twinkling in white, blue, red, green, and gold on city streets and on country roads. By early December the lights are entwined on the trees and strung around front porches and lawns, and in shop windows, challenging the onslaught of winter’s darkness and the somber journey to the shadowed side of the sun.

The tradition of lights on Christmas trees started in 17th century Germany where they were attached by wax or pins. Then along came Thomas Edison and the electric light. By the late 19th century—in 1882—Edison’s friend and partner Edward H. Johnson developed the first string of electric lights for a Christmas tree by hand-wiring 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs together and winding them around his tree.

Many holidays around the world celebrate with lights, especially in the winter months, not only Christmas, also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, St. Lucia Day, the Winter Solstice.

At a time when war is taking away the option of lighted cities, let alone festive lights for many in the Ukraine and elsewhere, I wanted to share these virtual lights with a wish for illumination in the year ahead.

Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Birds, Books, and the Sky Above…

The geese have returned, flying in from Canada as the weather turns colder up north. The honking above each morning and evening signals the changing seasons.

Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

As autumn accelerates with in-person meetings and events in Washington and New York, many for the first time in almost three years, I’ve been away from this haven on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. But I have now arrived back for a few days, and in the morning quiet before the birds awake, my eyes and thoughts are drawn to the water and sky and larger vistas.

This coming spring 2023 I have a new novel coming out and anticipate going on the road a bit. During the pandemic my two nonfiction books published were limited to zoom calls and meetings. I’ll be glad to get out to meet readers again. Burning Distance, my first novel published in many years with a second novel—The Far Side of the Desert—coming out in 2024, moves into new territory. A thriller/mystery/love story set between 1981-1996, Burning Distance’s promo copy heralds: “Jane Austen meets John le Carré in this cross-cultural love story and political thriller. A modern Romeo and Juliet set in…the dark world of arms trafficking.”

The novel took years of research and writing. Like many writers, I write even if not immediately published just as artists paint or musicians make music. I have several novels at the ready, and the gate is finally opening. I hope you’ll step through it with me and enjoy.

I’m sharing here the cover of Burning Distance and some of the generous responses from writers who have read the novel. The book officially comes out March 7 but can be preordered on links here. I hope you’ll order, read and share with friends. Friend-to-friend, reader-to-reader word of mouth is how writing finds its home. Thank you in advance for your support.

 

Burning Distance is a double helix of a book, carefully plotted and beautifully told. It’s a spy story interwoven with a love story, and the strands fit together in a way that moves the reader effortlessly from chapter to chapter. While fiction, its narrative of the CIA and the Middle East arms trade are very close to fact. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman observes the world of American spies and Arab fixers through the eyes of a young woman who keeps asking questions about her mysterious past until she gets all the revelatory answers. A subtle and satisfying novel.”—David Ignatius, New York Times best-selling author, Washington Post columnist and novelist

Burning Distance opens with a mystery, glides into a love story, and unfolds into a political thriller. Set against the backdrop of 1980s and 90s global politics, readers will be up way past their bedtimes eagerly turning pages to discover what happens to Lizzy and Adil. A story of war, family, history, politics, and passion. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s evocation of the era is pitch-perfect. A great read!”—Susan Isaacs, New York Times best-selling author of It Takes One To Know One

“Running the gamut of emotions from fear to love, this plot surges along as  unpredictable as a riptide. Romance and thriller readers will both find plenty of mischief and mayhem.”—Steve Berry, New York Times best-selling author of The Omega Factor

“I entered the world of Burning Distance—of the characters Lizzy and Jane and Sophie and their mother and the family of Winston, Pickles and Dennis and the world of Adil Hasan and his father—and I didn’t want to leave. I cared what happened to them and was pulled along without being able to stop until the book was over, and even then I didn’t want to leave. The narrative voice unfolds the story both poetically and realistically. The story it tells is also the story of a political and historical time (1981-1996) that is relevant to the times we are living through. The narrative opens for the reader some of the history that has taken us to the current events in the Middle East and Europe and America. But first and foremost the reader will want to read Burning Distance to know the characters, particularly Lizzy as she makes her way and follows her heart through the conflicts of history and culture and family to find ‘the music’ that is in her life.”—Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran

“Lizzy is ten when her father’s plane explodes over the Persian Gulf and her life is set in motion. In the background of the narrative is the Gulf War and in Lizzy’s life, her father’s death marks the beginning of a search to peel away secrets, betrayals, international intrigue, dangerous associations which bring all the characters in this book under one umbrella. Burning Distance is a mystery, a complicated, story-driven drama of lives lived amidst the high risk of life and death in international arms trading and the book is grounded by the unlikely love story between Lizzy and Adil Hasan. Her obsession is to uncover the secrets which led to her father’s death and in her quest she comes to find that everyone in this story is linked by danger, everyone is at risk. This is a real page turner which also informs, excites and moves us.”—Susan Richards Shreve, author of More News Tomorrow

“I was immediately engrossed in the lives of Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s characters and their fascinating and compelling stories. Joanne has the ability to take the big issues of contemporary life (including the clash of cultures and a remarkable grasp of the weapons trade) and render them in the contexts of love, conscience, and the consequence of choice. She reminds us as did Donne that we each are a piece of the continent, a part of the whole of humanity, and that no matter how difficult the time, that love and peace and hope can be realities rather than abstracts.”—Eric Lax, author of Faith Interrupted

Clouds Have Lifted…Leave the Balcony Open

The clouds have finally lifted after days of grey and rainy skies. The sun is rising in all its quiet splendor. I can see light hovering at the horizon on the far shore this early morning.

Photo Credit: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Since I returned from PEN International’s World Congress in Sweden earlier this week, the landscape here has been shrouded with the outer edges of Hurricane Ian. As the storm moved up the eastern coast of the United States, it delivered rain and wind and grey skies to the Washington and Maryland area. We are fortunate and probably needed the rain, but the devastation of the hurricane to the South haunts us and fills the airwaves with troubling news and pictures, as it also does regarding the war in Ukraine, the protests in Iran, and the famine in Somalia. These remind me to be grateful for my cloud-enshrouded patch of earth and at the same time to be attentive to all that lies beyond. My patch of earth at least is now filled with light.

Connected as we are and as we were this past week in Uppsala, Sweden at the PEN International Congress, we were reminded of the origins of the 101-year-old organization PEN, begun in the aftermath of World War One’s devastation. A few British writers, including Catherine Amy Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, came together to form a dining club for writers of different countries in the hope that a community of fellowship and understanding would arise and diminish the nationalism and tensions that had brought on the First World War. Soon the concept spread across Europe and North America and then Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The mission also expanded to defend writers under threat. There are now 150+ centers of PEN in over 100 countries.

88th PEN Congress, 2022, Uppsala, Sweden. Photo credit: Gustav Larsson

After two years of meeting on zoom, PEN delegates from 100 centers came together, hosted by Swedish PEN, to celebrate and defend literature, translations, and freedom of expression around the world, to bring to bear a collective voice to combat threats to writers and also to see longtime colleagues and friends. Gathering around the theme “The Power of Words,” writers celebrated the multiple languages and literatures represented and also strategized to defend writers arrested, disappeared, and killed by authoritarian regimes.

“PEN has power but not power to prevent some writers getting killed,” said International PEN President Burhan Sönmez. “But we won’t leave people of art in the hands of dictators.”

Opening Ceremony at PEN International World Congress in Uppsala Sweden: Romana Cacchioli, Executive Director PEN International (left); Burhan Sönmez, President PEN International (right), Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

The bid for fellowship and a collective voice to protect writers under threat continues to inform PEN’s work a century after its founding. The 88th PEN World Congress sent its members back across the globe to work. The poem “Fairwell” by Federico García Lorca, read by PEN’s International President, went with us:

“Fairwell

If I die,
leave the balcony open.

The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)

The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From my balcony I can hear him.)

If I die,
leave the balcony open!”

The Summer Sky…

I keep taking pictures of the sky and its changing scenery. I don’t need to go anywhere to travel its corridors of beauty and drama though as the summer ends, I will be on the road more often, and the sky will more often turn gray and the drama on the ground more compelling.

But on this last week of summer, this first weekend of September, I share the sky and its vistas, the sun rising and setting, and hope the perspective inspires days ahead.








Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Looking Up…

There’s a chill in the air this morning. I don’t know if it will last, probably not since it is still August, but I turn on the fire pit and wait for the sun to rise in the sky and warm my sleeveless arms in the tee shirt I slept in. My dog sits on my lap keeping me warm as she watches and listens to each morning sound, the starlings in the bird house, the crows in the trees, the many other birds whose sounds I can’t identify. A friend has given me a book on birds so perhaps I’ll learn to identify these occupants living on this patch of earth we share.

The world outside this haven is fraught with the shattering news of attacks and deceptions. I move between what seems a fraught nexus in Washington DC and the calm of the Chesapeake. I am conscious of the dichotomy, though also conscious that if I lift my sights higher like the birds who have now started to take their morning flights, I might see a larger view and see the oneness and harmony. I sit by the fire pit looking up….

Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Lost in the Cloud

I’ve lost emails I’d saved as drafts on my phone. I have searched everywhere—in Trash, in Junk, in Sent, and in Received and have concluded they have disappeared, perhaps into the cloud. “The cloud” is a relatively new concept, at least for my generation. The miracle and mystery that all our information can be stored out there “in the cloud” still bends the mind. Who named this ephemeral space “the cloud”?

I am sitting outside on this cool summer morning staring up at a puffy ceiling of clouds above me. These clouds are shrouding the sun and keeping the temperature relatively cool. I know these are not “the cloud” the technicians mean, but I look up anyway for reference and to contemplate the vastness of the sky and beyond that, the universe.

Photo credit: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

This past week we were let into a view of that vastness with the photos from the James Webb Telescope which sent back pictures from billions of light-years* away. (Who can comprehend even one light-year?) We are told that whatever we are seeing would have already happened and is millions/billions of years old. Any life out there that might be viewing us would be seeing our lives in the 17th century if they were just 300 light-years away. If 300 million light-years away, they would be seeing earth before homo sapiens evolved or at 200 million light years they might see dinosaurs like the Allosaurus.

Webb’s First Deep Field, taken by Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), is a composite made from images at different wavelengths, totaling 12.5 hours – achieving depths at infrared wavelengths beyond the Hubble Space Telescope’s deepest fields, which took weeks. The image shows the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 as it appeared 4.6 billion years ago. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STSc

Where does that leave us? Projected images of light on a continuum of time? Ideas transporting instantly?

And where are my draft emails? In some cloud cruising the universe? The mind begins to expand as life and light expand and thought moves upward. I once read that most people (here on earth at least) see and comprehend only about two percent of what is going on around them.  Does that seem about right? Depending on one’s optimism, that may be good news if we conclude the other 98 percent might be magnificent and revelatory depending on our expanding perception above the clouds, though the idea that “dark energy and dark matter” may make up 95% of the universe sounds more ominous. We are told we can’t see dark matter but see only its effects.

In the meantime I’ll call my nephew who is trained in cyber security and see if he can tell me how to find my lost emails. Maybe he and others can even find two days’ worth of crucial lost text messages of the US Secret Service for January 5 and 6. Those too may be traveling out into space and can be recovered by someone just a fraction of a light year away.

Photo credit: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

 

*Light-year: 5.88 trillion miles light travels in a year.

Early Morning on the River: When there is nothing to say or too much to say…

I sit in the early morning—5:30am—as the sun is coming up. I listen to the birds chirping across the sky and to the watermen on the river trolling for crabs or oysters, also with lines down for perch or trout or occasional catfish.

I’ve come downstairs to let my dog out. The morning is beguiling as it awakens with mottled light spreading on the water and the river humming with early traffic, so I let my day begin and sit on the porch listening and watching.

I’m always surprised how clear sound travels on the water. I can hear a little girl on a boat talking with her father though I have to adjust my camera to zoom in ten times the distance to get a silhouette. I can’t entirely make out the words, but I am eavesdropping though I am at my home on the shore, and they are drifting by.

Summer’s solstice has recently passed. There is much summer left, but I am sorry the light will now recede a little each day, though perhaps I’ll get more sleep. I never close the curtains and so often rise with the sun. I don’t like dark rooms. I want to know when the day begins.

Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

The Power of One: Dissent in Russia

With the war in the Ukraine front and center in the news, I can’t help thinking back to my Russian colleague from PEN, the General Secretary of Russian PEN Alexander Tkachenko, or Sascha as we called him. I wonder how he would have responded to what is unfolding. During his tenure at Russian PEN, he stood up and argued with Vladimir Putin face to face on behalf of Russian writers and resisted when the government tried to close down PEN in Russia.

Sascha was complex—a former professional soccer player, a Tartar, son of the Crimea, a poet. Those who knew him may still hear his voice on the floor of PEN Congresses challenging his government’s imprisonment of writers, apologizing to new Afghan PEN delegates for his country’s incursion into their country, or remember Sascha swimming off the coast of Perth, Australia in spite of the signs warning of sharks or singing and reciting his poetry at the Writers in Prison Conference in Denmark, or strategizing with the Writers in Prison Committee in the hills of Nepal.

Alexander (Sascha) Tkachenko (Russian PEN), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (Chair of PEN International Writers in Prison Committee), and Niels Barfoed (Danish PEN) at the first Writers in Prison Committee Conference held in Helsingør, Denmark in 1996

Alexander (Sascha) Tkachenko (Russian PEN), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (American PEN/PEN Int’l), Mitsakazu Shiboah (Japan PEN) at the 2000 Writers in Prison Committee meeting in Kathmandu, Nepal

When Sascha suddenly turned up dead in 2007 at age 63, we were all shocked. Some speculated perhaps he drank too much vodka; he had a heart condition. We accepted that it was “heart failure” though even at the time, the skeptical voice questioned whether there could have been foul play. As I witness now the carnage in the Ukraine and have since seen the incidents of murder and recently read accounts of those who have been eliminated in Russia in books such as Bill Browder’s Red Notice and the new Freezing Order, doubts again stir about Sascha’s sudden end. I wonder how he would have reacted to the drama playing out today and the closing down of any freedom of dissent in Russia. Today there are additional PEN Centers in Russia—PEN Moscow, PEN St. Petersburg, Tartar PEN, and writers I’m told have differing views among them. But Sascha I feel certain would have defended the right to dissent, to stand up for the freedom to live.

Below is the tribute I wrote at the time. I feel I am mourning Sascha all over again as we mourn the loss of the freedoms he and others struggled for, and we mourn the loss of this vision of a nation.

 

December 7, 2007

General Secretary of Russian PEN Alexander Tkachenko –Sascha as he is known to his friends—died this week, peacefully in his sleep, we are told. It is hard to imagine Sascha passing anywhere peacefully, certainly not from this world.

As Russian PEN’s General Secretary, this hearty man with salt and pepper hair and moustache, this former professional soccer player and respected poet campaigned fearlessly for writers threatened in Russia. He often stood his ground with officials, bureaucrats, the military and with Vladimir Putin himself. When Putin once visited the Russian PEN offices, Sascha challenged him directly on the rights of writers and freedom of expression in Russia.

Sascha traveled the huge expanse of Russia from one end to the other to lobby, to argue, to advocate on behalf of writers who faced imprisonment by the Russian state, writers such as Grigory Pasko, the journalist and poet who was arrested after reporting on Russia’s dumping of nuclear waste. He championed as well those in former regions of the Soviet Union, in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan. He also spoke out and represented the voice of Russian writers on behalf of imprisoned writers around the world.

Sascha served on the Board of International PEN and attended PEN conferences and Congresses for the past decade. My personal memories are many. I particularly remember standing side by side with Sascha at Istanbul University in 1997 surrounded by riot police as we addressed a crowd of thousands with a bull horn. We were the two representatives of PEN advocating for freedom for Turkish writers in prison.

Rally at Istanbul University [Includes Soledad Santiago (San Miguel Allende PEN), James Kelman (Scottish PEN), Alexander (Sascha) Tkachenko (Russian PEN), Kalevi Haikara (Finish PEN), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, (PEN International Writers in Prison Committee Chair/American PEN), and Turkish Conference organizer Şanar Yurdatapan]

When the Russian government threatened to close Russian PEN in 2006 because of alleged tax payments suddenly demanded, PEN centers around the world rallied to help. I was International Secretary of PEN at the time and able to meet with Sascha and members of Russian PEN in Moscow as these payments were secured. That meeting was also attended by Rakhim Esenov from Turkmenistan, an elderly former general whose novel had been banned and who had been imprisoned for his book allegedly being “historically inaccurate.” Only a week before American PEN had given Esenov its Freedom to Write Award in New York. He was on his way home through Moscow, where Sascha and Russian PEN offered additional moral support as he returned to face the threats of his government.

Russian PEN members meeting in Russian PEN office, including General Secretary Alexander (Sascha) Tkachenko (center), 2006

When I think of Sascha, I first hear his laughter and then his arguments, then his particular English; I see his hands waving as he talks, see him reluctant to yield a microphone until his point is made; I see him as he must have been as a young man blocking and running down the field as a soccer player, bobbing and weaving, pushing past those who would try to stop him as he drove to the goal. In his last decades that goal was getting writers out of prison. Sascha was an advocate we all would want on our side should we find ourselves threatened or in prison. He will be mourned and sorely missed.

His funeral is in his home village of Peredelkino December 10, Human Rights Day. He would have liked that framing of time on his passing, though he will not really pass; he will simply rest in our thoughts and rise in our thoughts when courage is called for and an advocate is needed. When a government acts as though it is more powerful than the individual, Sascha’s memory will remind us of the power of one. His voice continues through his writing, and the impact he has had on the lives of writers imprisoned continues.

—Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Reflections on Spring

The geese have gone. Dozens have abandoned our lawn and veered back to Canada for the spring and summer. They will return when the temperatures again drop up North.

For now cherry blossoms are blooming, daffodils have sprouted, and green buds are exploding on all the trees. Spring in its mercurial moods has come to the Chesapeake. The last (I hope) snow and ice storm of the season passed through a few weekends ago. Bright sun and balmy temperatures warmed us last weekend; this weekend hovered somewhere in between, though Monday morning dawned below freezing again.

Even as this fraught globe balances between war and peace in Europe and drought and famine in areas of Africa, and genocide in regions of Asia, this earth of ours spins on its axis. The seasons continue to rotate. As humankind, most of us  live lives focused on the needs of  day to day as the peril from afar flickers on the screen. In the nighttime hours this flickering in the dark heightens and gives pause, intensifying as sleep eludes. But then the day dawns and the sun rises, and the earth again spins its course. Looking closely near and far, we witness (and can do) deeds of kindness, and these save us and the planet from the apathy of despair.

Here I post some photos of the season in appreciation of the beauty that I wish could unite us and that might at least find a home in imagination if not in fact.

Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Photo credit: Teresa Gadow

Ukraine: Truth, History and the Future

Just hours before the attack unleashed on the Ukraine February 23/24, the U.S. Ukrainian Ambassador spoke at a sold-out dinner at the Sulgrave Club in Washington, DC. A former turn-of-the century beaux-arts home in DuPont Circle, the Sulgrave Club had landed the featured speaker of the evening, though no one knew how fortuitous when she was originally scheduled. I was invited as a guest of a friend to the dinner.

In her talk Ambassador Oksana Markarova recounted the true history of the Ukraine, as opposed to Vladimir Putin’s version. She emphasized the determination of Ukrainian citizens to live in a free, democratic society as they had demonstrated in the Maidan protests in 2013 when the Russian-backed government had suspended the signing of the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement and instead chose closer ties to Russia. The Maidan protests led to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, known as the Revolution of Dignity. She assured similar resistance would be fierce again if necessary.

After the dinner we all returned home, including the Ambassador, to the just breaking news of the attack—the shelling, rocket fire, and tanks rolling across the border from Russia into the Ukraine.

Five years earlier in 2017 PEN International held its annual Congress in Lviv, Ukraine around the theme “Reclaiming Truth in Times of Propaganda.” Among the many historical insights from that Congress was the fact that Lviv had changed its name and governing domain eight times between 1914 and 1944, passing from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Russia, back to Austria, Ukraine, Poland, Soviet Union, Germany then back to the Soviet Union and now finally in the Ukraine. So much for the claim of father/mother Russia as parent.

At that PEN Congress another portentous talk “Fact, Fiction and Politics in a Post Truth Age” revealed the workings of Russian troll farms. Author David Patrikarakos told the story of Vitali, who became a troll for the Russian state working at a troll farm.

“When Vitali went to the troll farm, he had enlisted in the Russian Army; he just didn’t wear a uniform. He and others became their own army with a virtual information war, and it is effective,” said Patrikarakos. As an unemployed journalist, Vitali developed propaganda, rewriting reports, doctoring news accounts to enhance Russia’s position then distributed these on social media, along with fake news, fake pictures and memes to a wide audience, all relating to Russia’s assault on the Crimea.

According to Patrikarakos (Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State), the Russian state spent $250 million to sow discord in its battle for Crimea. In the troll farm where Vitali and other journalists worked, the first floor focused on distorting news reports and circulating them. On the second floor people worked through social media, posting memes and making up ads; on the third floor bloggers wrote about how life was better in Russia and bad for Russians in the Ukraine and on the fourth floor, people posted comments on other sites.

Patrikarakos noted that his sources told him there was a bag of sim cards to request new accounts, and people were encouraged to make the accounts in the names of females because women were more likely to be believed. “The first goal was to shore up and get true believers, to give a narrative and sow as much confusion on reality as possible,” Patrikarakos said.

After three months Vitali told his boss he wanted to quit. He wrote an expose of the troll farm. When it came out, he received threats such as “Don’t you know you can get punched in the face.”

“As I went through towns of Eastern Ukraine, content had seeped into walls,” said Patrikarakos. “In Eastern Ukraine, Putin’s nervous system is on display. There is belief in fake news—that Ukrainians want to kill Russian speakers. Social media is supposed to connect us but it has also shattered unity and divided people; it sets people at loggerheads. The news that young people get depends on who they follow. We all follow who we like, and so prejudice is reaffirmed. Facts are less important than narratives. The new word in 2016 from the Oxford dictionary was ‘post-truth’ which is finding linguistic footing. The goal of many is not to trust truth but to subvert truth,” he concluded.

Now more than ever is the imperative to reclaim the truth.

PEN International Congress in Lviv, Ukraine 2017: “Reclaiming Truth in Times of Propaganda”

During the past year of lockdown with no travel, I’ve used this monthly blog to aggregate posts over the last 13 years. These February posts are the last of this aggregated series. February locations range from Washington, DC to Islamabad to Mexico City to Beirut to Istanbul to Edinburgh. I began this blog in February 2008 writing about the Potomac River as I learned to scull and sit backwards as I moved forward. In the month of February I often found myself on water or writing about water with a view to spring. 

 

February 4, 2008: On the River

In the last week of August I learned to scull—to row in a boat with very long oars balanced on a tiny hull that skims along on top of the water, an aerodynamic that results in speed but uncertain equilibrium. Most days I go down to the public boat house at sunrise or sunset to exercise but mostly to experience the quiet in the middle of the river as life hums all around the edges.

For me that river is the Potomac in Washington D.C. (The Charles River in Boston, featured on the homepage of this site, has also been central in my life, but that is another story.) Every day in the skies above the Potomac helicopters hurry off from the White House to somewhere, maybe the Pentagon or from the Pentagon to the White House; airplanes sweep in and out of Reagan National Airport nearby; many are shuttle flights to and from New York and Boston; next to the river hidden by trees, cars rush into and out of Washington on the George Washington Parkway. I hear all these sounds dimly, but I am on the river with its silences and with the ducks swimming along beside me. I am gliding in a single white scull with my back to the direction I’m going, glancing over my shoulder so I don’t run into anyone, feeling the fragile fulcrum of the boat, rather like riding down the river on a pencil. With time I’ve learned to settle the scull under me and learned to guide it with the oars and to balance it also with the oars. A crucial and comforting piece of information I was given early is that if one returns the oars to starting position, lying flat on the water, the scull will regain its equilibrium, and it won’t tip over.

In a way I am returning to starting position with this website which features books that have been reissued, books whose characters I still care about. I hope to feature my new books here too, but whether or not the new books appear soon, I hope you will enjoy those at hand and the stories in the anthologies.

As I’ve made my way down the river these past months, I’ve picked up speed, pushing off with my knees and pulling the oars with my arms all the while thinking, thinking, considering what will come next, watching the sun illumine the river and the sky as it rises or turn the sky a deep pink as it sinks behind the trees into the cars on the parkway. I am surprised every day by the river’s new face as I sweep under Key Bridge, past Georgetown University, past the three sister islands, then cross the river and head back towards the boathouse on the other side, towards the Kennedy Centre to Roosevelt Bridge, then across the river again. I land with increasing, but not yet perfect, grace at the dock.

I have been captured by this sport, I think, because I can be active and at the same time think with nature all around me in the middle of the city. Much of my writing has occupied that kind of space. I’ve been engaged with issues as a journalist, a fiction writer and an activist and yet also removed a bit so I can write about them.

You’ll find on the Advocacy page a list of organizations whose work I’ve been involved with over the years. I’m not listing all the organizations, but those on the front lines of human rights and freedom of expression worldwide. Freedom of expression is important to all writers, whether or not a writer works directly on the issues or just writes, for a writer can open the space of imagination and extend the territory of thought.

By the time this site launches, winter will be setting in, and the boat house will close, and I will have to get off the river, but I’ll be waiting for spring and in the meantime writing each day.

Please enjoy this website and the books and this new form—the blog. I’m still getting used to writing in a form that is both noun and verb, but learning something new…well, that is also what sculling on the river is about.

 

February 24, 2009: The Intensifying Battle Over Internet Freedom 

From China to Syria, repressive nations are cracking down hard on digital dissidents.

From The Christian Science Monitor

Washington – Eleanor Roosevelt never imagined the Internet.

Neither did the other framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago when they enshrined the right to freedom of expression. Yet they wisely left room for just such a development by declaring in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.

Last year became the first time that more Web journalists were jailed than those working in any other medium, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
China, Burma, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe have led the clampdown. They have arrested writers, blocked websites and Internet access, set strict rules on cyber cafes, and tracked writers’ work. In response, some writers have used proxy search engines, encryption, and other methods to try to get around censorship and detection.

“As in the cold war [when] you had an Iron Curtain, there is concern that authoritarian governments, led by China, are developing a Virtual Curtain,” says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “There will be a free Internet on one side and a controlled Internet on the other. This will impede the free flow of information worldwide….”[cont]

 

February 24, 2010: “Because Writers Speak Their Minds”

 50 Years of Defending Freedom of Expression
I’m staring straight into the sun lighting up the sky in shades of pink before it sets. I watch it slowly losing altitude behind a building near the World Bank. The yellow globe is sinking into the river, into the trees of Virginia across the Potomac. I am typing without looking at the page, my eyes fixed on the sun which I want to keep in the sky. For some reason I feel frantic to keep staring at the sun, hoping it won’t disappear. But in the time it has taken to write these few sentences, it has already lost half its sphere and is now only a diameter on the horizon. Soon it will be dark. I keep writing. I have just read Arthur Koestler’s “The Cell Door Closes” about his first moments in prison. Perhaps that is why I feel an irrational desire to keep this light in the sky, this sun from sinking…ah now it is but a sliver above the roof tops. How quick its descent once it finds the horizon, as if it wants to leave and go to the other side of the earth. And now it is gone. How long did that take? As long as it took to write this paragraph, this opening of a blog about the fiftieth anniversary of International PEN’s work for writers in prison.

Arthur Koestler was the first writer on whose behalf PEN successfully intervened. An earlier appeal on behalf of Frederico Garcia Lorca in 1937 arrived too late, and he was executed in Spain shortly after his arrest. But PEN’s advocacy for Hungarian novelist Koestler, also condemned to death in Spain, was noted when his captors released him.

In 1960 PEN founded a Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), which preceded the founding of Amnesty, to work on behalf of writers imprisoned, disappeared and killed for the expression of their ideas. Over the years PEN’s WiPC has defended writers around the world, including such well known ones as Josef Brodsky, Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Vaclav Havel, Ngui wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, Aung San Sui Kyi, Ken Saro Wiwa and currently Liu Xiaobo and thousands of others.

For four years (1993-1997) I had the privilege of chairing that Committee. And the year of the fatwa (1989) against Salman Rushdie—a seminal event for anyone involved in freedom of expression work—I was president of PEN USA, one of the two PEN Centers in the US. During 25 years of working on freedom of expression, I’ve had the privilege of knowing and working with committed writers around the world who advocate on behalf of their threatened colleagues. It is a global network. If one were to map it, one would see intricate, criss-crossing corridors: writers in Poland working for writers in prison in Vietnam, writers in Ghana and Scotland taking action for the release of writers in China, PEN members in Australia and Germany and Italy working on behalf of writers in Cuba, writers in Mexico and Japan protesting the imprisonment and laws affecting writers in Turkey; members in Canada and the U.S. and Sweden speaking up for writers in Iran and Myanmar, writers in England and Norway for those in Belorussia. One can imagine hundreds of hands pushing up their bit of the sky to lift the horizon….[cont]

 

February 24, 2011: Two Ducks, Crews on the River and the Coming of Spring

I walked down to the river this afternoon. The winter sun was bright and low on the horizon; the air was chilled, but not cold. I sat with my legs dangling off a quay and watched two ducks swimming in the water, then waddling up onto the sandy bank, poking around, then slipping back into the river.

On the shore college and high school students were all over the waterfront—exercising, checking their equipment, getting ready to drop oars. Was this the first day of the season? It looked that way as sculls were unloaded at the public boathouse and coaches shouted, “Up…up…up!” so the students would hoist their boats high and avoid hitting anyone in their wide arced turns.

For the public, the boathouse was still closed. It won’t open until the water temperature reaches 55°, probably not for another month or maybe two. The single white rental sculls were out of storage, locked up on their racks, but the black Viking-sized sculls of the university and high school crews with names like Black Pearl will hit the water first.

I fantasized for a moment if I were 18 whether I would row crew. That possibility didn’t exist when I was in high school in Texas and college in the Midwest. I don’t know how many women did row then. Today the fit young women–knees to their chests, legs crossed, doing their scrunches on the lawn–rise in unison and lift their giant scull above their heads and carry it to the water. In unison they step into the boat, position themselves and drop their oars into the cold Potomac.

I carry a different history in my head than these women, but I take this scene, along with the criminal case I’ve been mulling over during a month-long jury duty, and the novel I’m in the midst of writing, and I continue walking along the river. I try to knit thoughts together, to pull the universe inwards, to look for and listen to its beauty and harmony and through words to celebrate these, along with the coming of spring.

Being a writer is like having an itch you can never quite scratch. You may compose an elegant sentence, then a paragraph, perhaps a whole story, bring together what you see and think and feel. If you succeed, the story moves as it should; it arches, bends, then returns on itself with a sweet insight, a glimpse of beauty, a glimmering moment of understanding.

But the next day, sometimes the next hour, a whole new set of thoughts, feelings and perceptions awaken, and you start all over again.

As I leave the river, I note that the ducks have not returned; they have swum to another shore. The sun has slipped behind Roosevelt Island, and as the sky grows pink, the crews turn back towards the boathouse.

The next day clouds cover the sun, and the possibility of snow is rumored. Perhaps spring hasn’t arrived after all, but I have seen its signs. I know it is coming.

 

February 2012: No blog posted

 

February 25, 2013: Rising Voices in Pakistan 

I miss the sunrise in Islamabad. I have jet lag and sleep through it, but I am up by noon. A colleague, a respected researcher in the region, takes me to lunch in one of the remaining villages in the middle of the city, a city that was made from villages when it was constructed in the 1960’s. Islamabad is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Pakistan, according to the guidebooks. We lunch in the hills under an awning on sofas looking out on other hills and restaurants attracting locals and tourists. We drink fresh squeezed orange juice—I drink the sweet, delicious orange juice at almost every meal—and eat a local chicken dish with naan piled high. In the evening I also dine outside by a fire with a journalist friend of a friend at an Italian restaurant in a residential neighborhood.

I am here for a conference of Pakistani and American journalists hosted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) on whose board I serve. But this first day is my own and the only day I will not be inside the security corridor of the hotel or on a bus with an armed guard. Pakistan is reputed to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and one in which Americans are urged to be cautious.

Pakistan stands at a pivotal point in its history right now with elections coming up in the next month for a democratic turnover of power. The expectation is that the civilian government will hand over to another civilian government peacefully for the first time in Pakistan’s history. Everyone I meet no matter their political affiliation is hopeful this election will occur.

“Even if imperfect, it is an important step in evolving democracy in the country,” says a leading human rights lawyer.

Central to the democracy the citizens aspire to is a free press. According to journalists at the conference:
— “What we do now in the media will make a difference 50 to 100 years from now.”
— “People are saying to the media: it is your job to protect us.”
— “Good journalists feel responsible and accountable to tell the story.”

The International Center for Journalists has sponsored and continues to sponsor over 150 Pakistani journalists to work in U.S. newsrooms around the country from California to Arizona to Texas to Minnesota to Rhode Island to Pennsylvania to Florida. It also sponsors 30 U.S. journalists to visit the Pakistani newsrooms. For most of the participants the visit is the first to each other’s country. The exchange has opened up perceptions and extended skill sets on all sides.

“Unless you touch the grass in each other’s yards, you won’t know each other,” said a journalist from Karachi who spent time working in Tucson….[cont]

 

February 2014: No blog posted

 

February 23, 2015: PEN Pregunta: Corruption, Violence, Impunity: What Can Writers Do?

PEN International and its Latin American and North American PEN Centers gathered this past week in Central America and in Mexico City for the third PEN Americas Summit to address the challenges to freedom of expression and the crimes against writers. The region, in particular Mexico, is one of the most dangerous in the world for writers and journalists who are killed, disappeared, attacked and threatened with virtual impunity.

In Mexico over 100 journalists have been murdered since 2000; 25 have been forcibly disappeared and hundreds are attacked and threatened each year while their attackers remain free.

During the Summit PEN identified the structural issues impeding freedom of expression, including the weakness within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, the use of criminal defamation laws, the barriers to entry and lack of diversification within the Mexican news media, the close relationship between much of the media and the Mexican government and the manipulation of advertising payments from the government to media as a reward for positive coverage.

Developing recommendations, PEN officials followed up by meeting with government ministers. Most important the writers in the region will follow up with each other advancing the narrative in their countries which included Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Canada, and the U.S

The Summit ended in Mexico City with a public Pregunta,—a brief statement and question from each of the participants to generate discussion….[cont]

 

February 16, 2016: Overheard in Washington: Presidents and the Movies

I’m sitting in one of my writing haunts in the morning when a man sits down nearby. He’s joined by a woman. They are waiting for others. Slowly the team begins to gather who have managed to get into DC in spite of the snow and ice storm yesterday. One has come all the way from Scotland. Several are in from New York.

As usual I’m working by the window, barely listening to the conversation ten feet away, except as it grows more interesting. Two more join, now four, now six, now seven people have congregated, one with a bag of inexpensive thank you gifts (“under $25”) for those who’ve helped arrange a visit to the White House. One begins to show the others the views of the White House where filming can take place. The Hay Adams Hotel overlooks Lafayette Park and the White House. The W Hotel overlooks Treasury and is also near the White House. The team hovers around the computer and plans where “our motorcade” will drive and where shots of the White House and other Washington landmarks can be taken.

Last year around this time, I was sitting in this same spot and overheard the beginnings of a campaign for the far-off presidential primaries. (see April, 2015 post) It was discouraging then to realize we were only at the beginning of a year-and-a-half campaign for the White House. Now here we are—the primaries have begun and the campaign I overheard is in full, if precarious swing.

Today I listen to a movie being planned. I wonder which movie. In a way I envy having a whole team on a story as I sit alone writing. The team has their scripts in hand and folds them as they prepare to brave the rain outside which is washing away the snow. Scripts tucked in pockets, backpacks hoisted on backs, bags gathered, the crew sets out.

We still have another nine long campaigning months before the U.S. Presidential elections. This film will take at least as long. Already wearied by the incessant arguing and calumny of the campaign season, I find I anticipate with more enthusiasm Hollywood’s fiction. I don’t know how the President will fare in the film. No doubt there will be intrigue, a discernible villain and let us hope a worthy protagonist.

 

February 3, 2017: In Turkey, a show of solidarity with writers behind bars

Commentary: For the first time in two decades, Turkey is again the largest jailor of writers and publishers in the world. A PEN International delegation tried to visit a prison where most are incarcerated. 

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in The Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 2017

Snow was falling outside Silivri prison as we drove up the road bordered by high wire fences.  A senior delegation of PEN International from Europe, North America, and the Middle East had come to Turkey in solidarity with the more than 150 Turkish writers and publishers now in prison. The majority of these were incarcerated behind the walls of Silivri.

For the first time in two decades, Turkey is again the largest jailor of writers and publishers in the world. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who came to power in 2002, civil institutions have been increasingly circumscribed. In the past six months more than 170 news outlets have been closed by the government. A third of Turkey’s judiciary – judges and prosecutors – have lost their jobs and/or been put in prison. University presidents have been fired; thousands of academics have been forced to resign, and more than 140,000 civil servants and military personnel have been purged; a third of these are now in detention. Ever since a coup attempt last July, Turkey has existed in a declared “state of emergency.” Those who oppose the government have been labeled and charged as “terrorists” or “supporters of terrorist organizations.” The crackdown that was already under way before the coup attempt has escalated.

At Silivri, our delegation was restricted to a remote parking lot. The prison officials had been notified the delegation would be arriving, but the gendarmes who encountered us appeared unprepared. Eventually they returned us to our minivans and encircled these and blocked us with police vehicles as they collected our passports. A young gendarme with an assault rifle boarded our bus, impeding our exit for almost an hour, though he appeared unsure of what he was supposed to do with us except keep us from taking pictures. Finally the delegation, which included three current and former International PEN presidents, including the current chair of the Nobel Prize for Literature, were escorted away from the prison. There was no interchange with prison officials or meetings with the writers behind bars. The cars were stopped again outside the grounds by the police, and our passports were once more collected. After approximately two hours, our two white minivans turned back to Istanbul.

Earlier, in the Turkish capital of Ankara, a smaller delegation of PEN met with the minister of Culture and other government officials to protest and express deep concern over the restriction of free expression and the imprisonment of writers and publishers in Turkey. PEN questioned the legitimacy of the constitutional referendum President Erdoğan is putting on the ballot this spring. The referendum will expand the powers of the presidency, giving Erdoğan the ability to suspend parliament as well as rights and due process, “extorting individual rights and freedom” by statutory decree. It could allow him to stay in office until 2029. While PEN, which promotes literature and defends freedom of expression worldwide, does not take political positions, it challenged the legitimacy of a referendum held during a state of emergency, when opposition voices are silenced.

After our delegation returned from the prison to Istanbul, we met with recently released writer Asil Erdoğan (no relation to the president), linguist Necmiye Alpay, and others, including the spouses of writers still in prison or killed. “It is not our husbands in prison, but journalism,” said the wife of one. “Journalism is a prerequisite for a country to have a free press. If we don’t have a free press, we can’t be considered anything. Don’t use the word “journalist” and “terrorist” together. It is very sad to see.”

Several of the writers noted that often no indictment is made when individuals are detained. They are held without charge because the prosecutors can’t find anything to charge them with. See #Journalismisnotacrime….[cont]

 

February 27, 2017: For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a drive to build community amid pressing challenges

Communities spring up in the buildings and spaces where families manage to find a spot. Many refugees say their hope is in giving their children a better future.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, published in The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2017

Beirut, Lebanon—I remember Syrian children living by a garbage dump near a cement factory where their parents did menial labor when I visited Lebanon three years ago. I remember those living in an unfinished shopping mall with open storefronts, several families camped in a space supposed to be a shop, except that the developer had run out of money and never finished the building. Now he could collect rent from the refugees.

Syrian refugees were pouring into Lebanon in 2014, fleeing the civil war. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations were scrambling to register and provide services for these families, most of whom hoped to return to Syria when the war was over. Because Lebanon has a history dating back to the Palestinian diaspora of not providing camps for refugees, the displaced were finding shelter wherever they could. The effort to get children into schools was beginning. One aid worker described the situation as trying to give cups of water to people from a blasting firehose.

I recently returned to Lebanon to visit the Syrian refugees. I was in Beirut when President Trump’s edict on immigration and his ban on all Syrian refugees to the United States was announced. The ban included Syrian families in Lebanon who had been going through the long vetting process to resettle in the US. Lebanon has the largest percentage of refugees given its population – more than 1 million registered in a country of 4.5 million citizens.

The situation in Lebanon remains deeply challenging, with pressing needs. But it has stabilized. The flow of people across the border is now a trickle, not a flood, and the systems to assist are more firmly in place. When the refugee population hit the 1 million mark, Lebanon changed its open border policy. But the Syrian refugees remain more than 20 percent of Lebanon’s population, the equivalent of 64 million in the US. Last year the United States accepted 10,000 Syrian refugees out of an estimated 4.8 million worldwide….[cont]

 

February 28, 2018: Women’s Voices Rising

One hundred and nine years ago on February 28, 1909 the first National Woman’s Day was observed in New York where women protested against working conditions in the garment industry. The following year a conference of women from 17 countries met in Copenhagen and established Women’s Day, called for March 8 to promote equal rights, including suffrage for women. The next year on March 8, 1911 International Women’s Day brought over a million people to the streets in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, France and elsewhere to advocate for equal employment and wages and for the right to vote. In 1917 women in St Petersburg went on strike for “Bread and Peace,” demanding the end of World War I and the end to food shortages and the Czar. Four days later the Czar abdicated. Leon Trotsky wrote, “We did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the [Russian] revolution.” The gathering of women around the globe has continued over the last century with an abiding message that envisions each woman and girl being able to exercise her choices and participate without discrimination and fear in her society on an equal basis as men. 

International Women’s Day demonstration in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1917. (Credit: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

In Lviv, Ukraine in mid-September, 2017, before #MeToo gained momentum in the U.S. and elsewhere, over 200 writers from 69 countries endorsed PEN International’s Women’s Manifesto (link and text below), a document that sets out principles, values and a vision for the times and for times ahead.

Delegates at PEN’s annual Congress, representing countries from every continent—men and women, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhists, Hindi, atheist, multi-racial, multi lingual and politically diverse—voted for the document. PEN members do not always agree but are committed to freedom of expression and to the ideal of respect for human dignity and diversity. These are big words and big ideals and their interpretation is at times disputed among writers, who are often skeptical of words like “Manifesto.” But in the historic city of Lviv in the center of Europe’s own divide, they came together to affirm:

THE PEN INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S MANIFESTO 

The first and founding principle of the PEN Charter asserts that ‘literature knows no frontiers’. These frontiers were traditionally thought of as borders between countries and peoples. For many women in the world – and for almost all women until relatively recently – the first, and the last and perhaps the most powerful frontier was the door of the house she lived in: her parents’ or her husband’s home. For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself. 

PEN believes that violence against women, in all its many forms, both within the walls of a home or in the public sphere, creates dangerous forms of censorship. Across the globe, culture, religion and tradition are repeatedly valued above human rights and are used as arguments to encourage or defend harm against women and girls. 

PEN believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It is a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge. 

PEN ENDORSES THE FOLLOWING INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED PRINCIPLES: 

  1. NON-VIOLENCE: End violence against women and girls in all of its forms, including legal, physical, sexual, psychological, verbal and digital; promote an environment in which women and girls can express themselves freely, and ensure that all gender-based violence is comprehensively investigated and punished, and compensation provided for victims. 
  2. SAFETY: Protect women writers and journalists and combat impunity for violent acts and harassment committed against women writers and journalists in the world and online. 
  3. EDUCATION: Eliminate gender disparity at all levels of education by promoting full access to quality education for all women and girls, and ensuring that women can fully exercise their education rights to read and write. 
  4. EQUALITY: Ensure that women are accorded equality with men before the law; condemn discrimination against women in all its forms and take all necessary steps to eliminate discrimination and ensure the full equality of all people through the development and advancement of women writers. 
  5. ACCESS: Ensure that women are given the same access to the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to enable the full and free participation and public recognition of women in all media and across the spectrum of literary forms. Additionally, ensure equal access for women and girls to all forms of media as a means of freedom of expression. 
  6. PARITY: Promote the equal economic participation of women writers, and ensure that women writers and journalists are employed and paid on equal terms to men without any discrimination. 

 

February 25, 2019: One More Voice

I thought about ending this blog. The final post: December, 2018—just over ten years, over 100 posts. Informal reflections on a decade. Since February, 2008 when I first attempted this new form and posted, the volume of blogs around the globe has proliferated to an immeasurable dimension. Today with blogs, podcasts, Facebook posts, LinkedIn, Twitter, photos on Instagram and other platforms and apps I don’t even know or use, everyone is talking about everything. My email box is filled with messages and information and notifications I never asked for, with political points of view I can barely consider, polls and surveys I never fill out…except one where I answer NO whenever it appears: “Should Hillary Clinton run for President?” NO. This answer doesn’t represent a political point of view so much as a measuring of time and tides…and consequences. It is time for others.

And yet rather than ending this blog, I write again. Perhaps a politician can’t help running for office.

What is one more blog post launched into the universe? The freedom to express is one I don’t take for granted when that freedom is shrinking around the globe and can have dire consequences in countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Mexico, Venezuela. What is one more blog post launched into the universe? Just that, one more voice, a point of view no else exactly has.

Some writers I know have turned to photography. I understand the turn. Below are photos from a few days south, away from snow and ice storms, a brief visit to sun and the promise of spring. Comment, post yourself, confirm someone is receiving. Happy winter’s end or summer’s end, depending in which hemisphere you live.






(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)

 

February 2020: [Beginning in May 2019 I started writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In February 2020 there were three posts in the PEN Journeys. The PEN Journeys series completed in October 2020 and was published as a book—PEN Journeys: Memoir of Literature on the Line in February 2022 by Shearsman Books.]

 

February 4, 2020: PEN Journey 18: Picasso Club and Other Transitions in Guadalajara

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.

 

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.

Program from PEN International 63rd Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico

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…[cont]

 

February 12, 2020: PEN Journey 19: Prison, Police and Courts in Turkey: Initiative For Freedom of Expression

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.

Program for Initiative for Freedom of Expression Gathering, March 1997

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.

Arthur Miller letter to Yaşar Kemal, March 1997

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….[cont]

 

February 27, 2020: PEN Journey 20: Edinburgh—PEN on the Move, Changes Ahead 

I begin with the memories…

Castle Rock and Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland

Program for 1997 PEN International Congress

—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….[cont]

 

February 17, 2021: The Sun Rising…

I can’t stop taking pictures of the dawn. I wake up before sunrise when I see the first red strip of light on the horizon. I slip on a sweatshirt, jeans, socks, grab my vest with a hood, turn on the coffee pot, gather a blanket, call the dogs, hit the full cup button on the coffee maker, pour the milk, wait for the coffee, flip on the fire pit, then hurry outside to watch the day dawning as light begins to color the sky from red to orange to yellow to pink…

Sometimes the light is gentle as the sun rises. Other times it is vibrant as this morning. I woke up a bit late—the sky was already a pale pink/yellow by the time I got outside. But then, but then…the hovering cloud bank filled with light reflected from the sun that was still hidden by the horizon and the trees across the river. As the sun blasted its light upward, the clouds turned pink and then the whole sky grew awash in rose light, and the clouds broke up into plumes scattered across the heavens.

On the river a family of ducks swam by, a dozen with their mother and/or father in the lead, swimming single file south to north. As the sun rose, a yellow globe into the sky, another family of ducks passed, also in a straight line. I wonder where they go each morning…to duck school, undisturbed by the challenges of us on the shore.

The dawning of the days continues to inspire me and leave me in a quiet state of awe as I begin my day. I try to keep that awe even as the complications and troubles of our world unfold around the globe where I am certain the same stunning sunrises are also unfolding.

(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)