PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I have been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions, including as Vice President, International Secretary and Chair of International PEN’S Writers in Prison Committee. With memories stirring and file drawers bulging with documents, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. In digestible portions I will recount moments, though I’m not certain I can contain all these, but I hope this personal PEN journey may be of some interest.]
It was President’s weekend in the US—between Lincoln and Washington’s birthday, coinciding with Valentine’s Day, 1989. I was President of PEN Center USA West and had just hired the Center’s first executive director ten days before. I’d been working hard with PEN and was also finishing a new novel, teaching and shepherding my 8 and 10-year old sons. For the first time in a year and a half my husband and I were going away for a long weekend without our children. He had also been working nonstop and had managed to clear his schedule.
On the plane to Colorado where we planned to ski, I read that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses had been burned in Birmingham, England. The next day Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie. What was a fatwa? The Supreme Leader of Iran was calling for the murder of Rushdie wherever he was in the world, and he was offering a $6 million reward. As information about the fatwa developed, it also included a call for the death of whoever published The Satanic Verses.
I began making phone calls. This was a time before omnipresent cell phones so I had to find phones and numbers where people could reach me. (Usually our vacation dynamic was that my husband was on the phone.)
That first day I skied and wrote press releases on the ski lift and stopped at lodges on the mountain to use the pay phones to communicate with our new executive director. I’d ski another run then call the office again to answer questions from the press. What exactly was a fatwa, we were still asking? What did this mean for a writer? By the end of the day, I told my husband I had to return to LA.
“Can’t this wait?” he asked.
“No, it can’t,” I said.
Though a fatwa was a new concept, I understood, as did PEN members around the world, that a threshold had been crossed when a head of state issued a death warrant on a writer wherever he was in the world. Our two sons came out to be with my husband, and I returned to LA. Our board went into action as did PEN Centers around the globe to protest the fatwa. We organized a public event at the Los Angeles Times with writers and experts, an event which included readings from Rushdie’s book. Some were frightened by the threat, but most in PEN gathered. We contacted US government officials and began coordinating with global PEN centers, including American PEN in New York to confirm the support of writers for Rushdie and to protest Khomeini’s action.
Whatever the controversy over The Satanic Verses and its “insult” to Muslims, PEN was clear that the right of the writer to write without fear of death was primary.
The mobilization included discussions with bookstores to encourage them to keep the book on the shelves for many were quietly removing it. The fuller scope of our PEN’s actions at the time is described in the column below in the PEN Center USA West’s newsletter and in a story in the Los Angeles Times.
Next installment: PEN 1989 at the junction as Eastern Europe opens, Soviet Union begins to crumble and Chinese students and citizens challenge the government in Tiananmen Square.
In the woods outside Minsk, Belarus an Olympic training center sprawls among the snow-capped pine trees. Here athletes, including wrestlers from all over Europe, particularly the former Soviet Union, come to train. These young men—mostly they are men though occasionally women wrestlers train there—exercise, practice and then “go live” several times a day. From this center Olympic medalists emerge. Politics can seem as remote as the camp itself.
This past weekend in Minsk, approximately 20 miles away, as many as 10,000 people protested the outcome of Belarus’ presidential elections. Incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, won the election in a process widely criticized by both official outside observers (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe OSCE) and opposition parties. More than 600 people, including journalists, human rights activists and most of the opposition presidential candidates, were attacked and arrested. Among those arrested was Vladimir Neklyaev, writer and former president of Belarusian PEN, who was severely beaten, hospitalized and then taken away from the hospital to an unknown location, since identified as the Belarus State Security Agency (KGB).
Belarus, which is bounded by Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Russia, is itself wrestling between the ideologies and political systems of open democracy and authoritarian rule. Belarus has been called Europe’s last dictatorship.
As a new decade arrives and the twentieth anniversary of the breakup of the Soviet Union is observed, Belarus may be one of the telltales to judge the direction history leans. One hopes it will arrive at fair and open competition. In the Olympics it would certainly be grounds for disqualification if an athlete at any point before or after the competition attacked his or her fellow athletes.
In August, 1993 in Myanmar, (Burma), Ma Thida, a 27-year old medical doctor and short story writer was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison, charged with “endangering public tranquility, of having contact with unlawful associations, and distributing unlawful literature.” She had been an assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi and traveled with Suu Kyi during her political campaign.
In September that same year at the International PEN Congress in Spain, I stepped into the Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. One of the early main cases that came across my desk was that of Ma Thida.
Last week in Providence, Rhode Island Ma Thida and I shared a stage with others at Brown University in a program: There Will Still Be Light: a Freedom to Write Literary Festival focused on the situation in Burma today as well as the situation for the freedom of writers around the world. For the past year Thida has been at Brown as a fellow of the International Writers Project (a joint appointment of the Writing Program and the Watson Institute for International Studies) which gives a writer under stress a year to work and to share their work and cultural heritage.
Thida and I had met before in London soon after she was released from prison– five years, six months and six days, mostly in solitary confinement–after writers around the world had protested and written letters on her behalf as had those in other human rights organizations. No one knows for certain what levers prompt a government to release an individual so no organization can ever claim the success, but it is clear that pressure from many sources, voices from around the globe, individuals in countries on every continent caring and imagining the fate of their colleagues and acting on that does contribute.
It is a thrill and one feels deep humility when actually meeting the person who has endured, and who, up until that point, has only been represented by words on paper. In Thida’s case as I searched old files, I found fading words on fading fax paper, verses of her poems and parts of stories clandestinely translated and smuggled out by a British official, who was also at the literary festival last week.
Earlier this week another writer Liu Xiaobo, who is under house arrest in China, was honored by PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Award. Liu Xiaobo is one of the drafters of the Charter 08 manifesto which urges democratic reform in China. He is a well-respected literary critic and writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. A worldwide campaign for his release is ongoing. One hopes for the day when we might also meet Liu in person. Right now he can be seen and read and heard–no longer on fading fax paper–but on the internet and on You Tube.
The technology of the globe has changed considerably since Ma Thida was imprisoned, but thought has not progressed as rapidly. Recently I was in a meeting in Washington on Capitol Hill relating to human rights and an individual said, “I can’t be worried about a few poets in prison.” The statement wasn’t meant to be callous; the speaker was aware of the complexity of problems in places like Burma and China and of the competing policy needs. The view, which was perhaps intended to sound practical and experienced, is at best short-sighted and at worst dangerous.
As policy is being crafted to try to assist in opening up Burma and China, to increase the space for freedom, to end the abuses of torture and long term imprisonments, as questions of sanctions versus trade, engagement vs. isolation, questions of real politic are debated, let us not forget the poets–and the short story writers, the novelists, the critics, and the journalists–who are on the front line of ideas and therefore often imprisoned. They are among the citizens who will do the opening up in these countries; they are the citizens who live there.
Supporting voices of citizens around the world can help, but it is “the few poets in prison” who will be among those who prepare the lamp and light it and carry it on.
* if the moon does not shine
and the twinkles of the stars are faint
the lamp will be prepared
at the entrance to the house
there will still be light
— from “The Road is Not Lost” by Burmese poet U Tin Moe (1933-2007), imprisoned in Burma from 1991-1995