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