Hope: A Threshold of History

My wedding anniversary is June 3, but ever since the events at Tiananmen Square June 4, 1989, I merge the dates in my mind. I’m not sure why, but this year included, I made quiet dinner plans for our anniversary on June 4 by mistake. The Tiananmen memory for those who work on human rights does not recede. It isn’t visceral because I wasn’t there, but many of us watched first with hopeful attention the gathering of students and others in Beijing that spring and then in horror as the tanks rolled in.

Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) at the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square.

Though the Tiananmen Square protests and the names of participants like Liu Xiaobo have been struck from the internet in China and not recorded in history books for mainland Chinese students, the courage of the demonstrators and the repression of the government remain as historical facts and as memory.

Unfortunately, the memory is amplified today like a solemn tolling bell, repeating a mournful sound in places like Belarus, Venezuela, Iran, and Myanmar, where citizens push against authoritarian forces with nonviolent resistance. That bell, however, also echoes a higher enduring strain of freedom sought and won over the decades by citizens in Eastern Europe, South Africa, Chile and other countries, citizens who ultimately prevailed.

Those outside the direct struggles can remember and can support those in the resistance. For many of my colleagues, the support is through the work of PEN which campaigns for writers on the front lines. Often it is  writers who are early victims since they are  articulating an alternate vision to the authoritarian regime and are reporting the facts. Others open space for those who must leave their countries or lose their freedom or their lives and must work from the outside, organizations like the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) which finds alternate locations for writers and artists.

In the last few months, I’ve taken this space of a monthly blog to return to posts from years past. I’ve taken a core sample as a slice of my history during that month. I do so again here and note several posts: June 2008: Back on the River, June 2009: A Time of Hopening and June 2017: Storm Cloud on a Summer’s Day. Hope is a fragile but essential tool, one that holds history together so that it doesn’t shatter on the shoals, on the disappointments and misbehaviors of humankind.

Liu Xiaobo was China’s first citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010, but  he was in prison in China as “an enemy of the state.” Liu Xiaobo died in custody July 2017.

As I celebrate my wedding anniversary with my husband of many decades this June 3/4, I do so with the hope offered by Liu Xiaobo to his friends and fellow citizens whom he believed in when he noted in his “Final Statement:”

“I have no enemies and no hatred…Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy…

“For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme…

“Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”

 

June 2008: Back on the River

Since April I’ve been back on the Potomac River, sculling in the rushing waters after the spring rains, dodging logs and flotsam flowing downstream from Great Falls and beyond. I’ve been pressing into the middle of the river on hot, sultry days in June when barely a breeze stirs the air, though the current still hurries beneath the boat. I’ve been rowing beside much larger sculls from the universities, dodging the wake of the speed boats which cruise along beside the Viking-size crafts as coaches shout instructions. In my small white scull I’ve tried to hear what they call and emulate the grace and power of the collegiate oarsmen and women.

Facing forward, watching the landscape recede as I move backwards, I’ve been thinking about the past even as I plunge into the future. This perspective of the rower, driving headlong towards what he can’t see except for quick glimpses over his shoulder, is a useful one to master.I’m back in Los Angeles this week for readings and interviews and will be talking about my own earlier fiction—No Marble Angels and The Dark Path to the River. Many of the short stories in No Marble Angels are set during the Civil Rights era—the Nashville sit-ins, the Little Rock school integration, the aftermath of the ’68 riots in the cities. It was a time when ordinary citizens took extraordinary actions. It’s easy to romanticize the times, but the consequence of many of those actions changed our laws and our lives and opened up our society. The future grew out of the clarity of purpose of those who could glance over their shoulders and press towards the future even as they had to face the restrictions of their present day.

As the U.S. moves into its next era—whatever that may eventually be called—one hopes it will be a period of national and international Rights Realized.

 

June 2009: A Time of Hopening

As a young mother, I used to tell stories to my two sons constantly—on the way to school, standing in long lines anywhere, on car, plane or bike rides, on hikes. I would ask each to give me two things (people, ideas, places, plots) they would like in the story, and then I would weave the disparate ingredients into a tale. Their elements might include something like a dog, a butterfly, a battle of some sort, and a waterfall…the possibilities were open and endless, though usually there was some battle involved and some animal in most of the stories.

Over the last year and a half, partly urged by my now adult sons, I’ve committed to writing a blog post once a month. For me the process is a bit similar to the earlier exercise as I look over the month and try to wrap ideas, thoughts, events into 600 words. This month’s elements are particularly rich, probably too rich for a 600-word essay, though the literary form of the blog hasn’t been established or defined so it can, I suppose, be whatever one wants.

I began June at an International PEN Writers in Prison conference joined to the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression conference in Oslo, Norway, where the sun doesn’t set in the summer. In Oslo, activists from organizations around the globe discussed, debated, and strategized into the summer nights about the state of freedom of expression around the world and the mechanisms to protect it. Everyone understood that societies without this freedom are most often without political and civil freedoms as well so the defense of freedom of expression is the front line.

The timing of the conference coincided with the 20th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in China. This year of 2009 is also the 20th anniversary of the popular uprising against the military government in Burma/Myanmar after the election of Aung San Sui Kyi, who was re-arrested this May; it is the 20th anniversary of the fatwa in Iran against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, and it is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The year 1989 was a threshold year. So where have we come twenty years later?

After Oslo, I went briefly to Paris en route to Normandy, where the 65th anniversary of the World War II invasion was being celebrated. I was headed to Normandy for a bike trip through the countryside and the historical sites, not for the official celebrations, but I was in Paris the day President Obama and his family arrived. It was also the day of the men’s semi-finals of the French Open in tennis. (You see the elements of this blog complicating…)

Driving back to the hotel after Federer beat Del Potro and Soderling beat Gonzalez, I was talking in my broken French with the taxi driver talking in his broken English about the matches and about the arrival of Obama and about world politics in general. The driver was ebullient—an oxymoron perhaps for a French taxi driver—but he was ebullient nonetheless.

“The world…the U.S…France…Europe…it is hopening,” he said, gesturing with his arms, trying to explain what he meant about the opening he saw in the world and the hope he felt. “We have hopening between us!”…

 

June 2010: Summer Reading: Under a Tree With a Book

Summer has come with hot, steamy breath in Washington this year—already days nearing 100°. Even with the sudden flash of thunderstorms, the air clears only to steam up again. So much for my assurance to a newcomer that summer wasn’t so bad here, though maybe we will pay our dues in June and be rewarded with the summer breezes and cool evenings in July. August, we know, will be hot.

In the dog days it is a time to be indoors, or at least in the shade—biking along the Potomac or sculling on the river only early in the morning or as the sun is setting. Indoors or under the shade of a tree, it is a time to read.

Summer reading—the term brings back delicious childhood memories even of hot Texas summers where I would find a patch of shade in the back yard and lose myself in a book, or bike to a nearby pool and sit reading between laps, or curl up in a chair under the fan on the screened porch. I can still smell the mowed grass and the sweet fragrance of white gardenias on the bushes just outside.…

 

June 2011: Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry: A Tribute to Elliot Coleman

(The excerpt below is from a larger article about the poet and teacher Elliott Coleman in the recent Fortnightly Review:)

I was 20 years old, applying to Johns Hopkins graduate Writing Seminars from a small Midwestern college. I had come to campus to meet Elliott Coleman, the director and founder of the program. He had read my application and invited me to lunch at the Faculty Club. Looking back now and understanding the processes of application and the competition for a position in the Writing Seminars, I realize how remarkable his attention was, but he showed that kind of attention to students, making each feel important and valued.

I had sought out his work before I came to Baltimore. I no longer remember how I found the slim volumes of poetry in my remote college town before online ordering, but I did, and I had read his book of poems Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry. When I spoke about those poems, he was genuinely humbled and surprised that I had made the effort to read his books.

He asked, “Would you like to go see Fort McHenry?” That afternoon, the student showing me around drove us all out to Fort McHenry, and I walked around the area with Elliott Coleman as he talked about poetry and the genesis of his poems. I’m sorry I didn’t write down what he said, or if I did, I can no longer find the notes of that afternoon. But I knew then that Hopkins was where I wanted to be if I had the chance, and even though I was a fiction writer, I wanted to study with Elliott Coleman. Fortunately, I got that opportunity.

Elliott Coleman radiated a gentleness, a caring and a humility that shed light, illumining those around him. He didn’t seek the center of attention; he didn’t draw the spotlight to himself, rather he shined so that light fell on others.

From Mockingbirds at Fort McHenry: 

Through a window in Tunis the green searolls its light. A few square white houses dazzle the Atlas mountains, the color of lions and honey. This foothill is hardly Africa; this bay is hardly Mediterranean. They partake of each other by reflection, absorbed as they are in the depths of space.

 

June 2012: facebook or not?

I recently engaged with facebook (no, I didn’t buy stock), but I gave in. I concluded that I needed at least to understand (is that possible?) and experience the social media phenomena and at most learn from and enjoy the connection to friends and colleagues, most of whom I know, but some of whom I just read and some of whom read me.

For the last three months I’ve checked my “wall” every few days and scroll through hundreds of shared observations, photos, and comments. The process is surprisingly quick. I engage more like a magazine editor with an unexamined metric for judgment, pausing to “like” certain contributions, commenting on a few and sharing even fewer on my own personal and authors’ facebook pages.

For the present at least I’ve limited my fb world and page largely to literature and human rights in order to put some boundary on the possibilities and on that evaporating commodity of privacy–not a 21st century value and an oxymoron in a discussion of facebook. That is not to say I don’t enjoy the news and photos and commentary on a range of issues from all the friends, but in my fb space, this is my focus for now.…

 

June 2013: No blog posted

 

June 2014: No blog posted

 

June, 2015: What Are You Not Reading This Summer?

 I was recently sent a questionnaire as part of a profile asking me what I was reading:

I find myself reading several books at the same time. I just finished Phil Klay’s Redeployment today, am reading Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen, am re-reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians, re-reading Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this and can’t leave this question without noting Elliot Ackerman’s Green On Blue. Because I read both e-books and paper books, I move around among narratives easily.

The answer was a snapshot in reading time, indicative of the pleasure of dancing among narratives. I find myself enjoying on several platforms the movement between hard-edged, nuanced stories of war and its aftereffects in Klay’s Redeployment and Ackerman’s Green on Blue, the harsh and surprising world of Clement’s indigenous Mexican women in Prayers for the Stolen and the gentle, but no less desperate stories of Southern women trying to find their lives in Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this, a collection recently re-published by a new small press—Bacon Press—in paperback. Graham Greene is a master who I am always re-reading, appreciating how he integrates the international world of politics and deceit with compelling narratives set around the world.

Recently I returned from PEN International’s biennial Writers in Prison conference and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) meeting, a gathering this year in Amsterdam focused on Creative Resistance, a gathering of over 250 individuals from 60 countries around the world who work on behalf of writers threatened, imprisoned and killed for their writing. I remain conscious of these voices too. They occupy a kind of negative space—those we are NOT reading, not able to read because they are not able to write.

The list unfortunately is long, and many individuals stand out for me, but I will highlight two here. Though I couldn’t read either because of language differences, I read with attention their cases and link here to actions that can be taken on their behalf:…

  

June 2016: No blog posted.

 

June 2017: Storm Cloud on a Summer’s Day

It is an almost perfect summer day—the sun is shining in a white cloud sky; the air is warm, not yet sweltering. Light filters through white umbrellas shading diners at the outside restaurant by the park. On this almost perfect New York day I am thinking about the rulers in China who have imprisoned for the last nine years one of the country’s courageous thinkers for ideas that will outlast him and his jailers.

Today it was announced Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is in critical condition, on medical parole having been given a terminal diagnosis. As a principal author of Charter’08 which advocates for nonviolent democratic reform in China, Liu Xiaobo, writer, critic and activist has lived his life as a man of ideas.

As the sun shifts above me, skirting over skyscrapers, finding a gap between the umbrellas and spreading over my table, I consider the trajectory and the life of an idea as it dawns, unfolds, iterates, then flies off where it is embraced, where it empowers and takes on a life of its own. Ideas are connected to, but not owned or encumbered by, those who articulate them.

The fallacy—the fundamental fallacy—of the rulers in China and elsewhere lies here. No one can imprison ideas. No one can manage or own the imagination of another. Government leaders can physically restrain with the hope that the idea will die, but in the case of Liu Xiaobo, the ideas behind Charter ’08, which was signed by more than 2000 Chinese citizens from all walks of life, endure. These ideas calling for a freer society continue to grow wings, often quietly, but sometimes even more quickly as the physical confines grow harsh.

“Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose,” declared Nelson Mandela. It is an injunction worth noting.

 

June 2018: No blog posted.

 

June 2019: [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 June 2019 there are two posts in the PEN Journeys and in June 2020 there are four.]

 

June 2019: PEN Journey 3: Walls About to Fall 

Our delegation of two from PEN USA West—myself and Digby Diehl, the former president of the Center and former book editor of the Los Angeles Times—arrived in Maastricht, The Netherlands in May 1989 for the 53rd PEN International Congress. We joined delegates from 52 other centers of PEN around the world, including PEN America with its new President, fellow Texan Larry McMurtry and Meredith Tax, founder of what would soon be PEN America’s Women’s Committee and later PEN International’s Women’s Committee. Meredith and I had met at the New York Congress in 1986 where the only picture of the Congress on the front page of The New York Times showed Meredith and me in the background at a table taking down the women’s statement in answer to Norman Mailer’s assertion that there were not more women on the panels because they wanted “writers and intellectuals.” Betty Friedan argued in the foreground.

Front page of the New York Times, 1986. Foreground: left – Karen Kennerly, Executive Director of American PEN Center, right – Betty Friedan, Background: (L to R) Starry Krueger, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Meredith Tax.

Over the previous months the two American centers of PEN had operated in concert, mounting protests against the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and bringing to this Congress joint resolutions supporting writers in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam.

The theme of the Maastricht Congress—The End of Ideologies—in large part focused on the stirrings in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as the region poised for change no one yet entirely understood. A few weeks earlier, the Hungarian government had ordered the electricity in the barbed-wire fence along the Hungary-Austrian border be turned off. A week before the Congress, border guards began removing sections of the barrier, allowing Hungarian citizens to travel more easily into Austria. In the next months Hungarian citizens would rush through this opening to the West.

At PEN’s Congress delegates from Austria and Hungary sat a few rows apart, separated only by the alphabet among delegates from nine other Eastern bloc countries which had PEN Centers, including East Germany. This was my third Congress, and I was quickly understanding that PEN mirrored global politics where writers were on the front lines of ideas and frequently the first attacked or restricted. Writers also articulated ideas that could bring societies together.…

 

June 2019: PEN Journey 4: Freedom on the Move: East to West

I have attended 32 International PEN Congresses as president of a PEN Center, often as a delegate, as Chair of the International Writers in Prison Committee, as International Secretary and now as Vice President. The number surprises me when I count. The Congresses have been held on every continent except Antarctica. Many were grand affairs where heads of State such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Angela Merkel in Germany, Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal greeted PEN members. Some were modest as the improvised Congress in London in 2001 when PEN had to postpone the Congress planned in Macedonia because of war in the Balkans. PEN held its Congress in Ohrid, Macedonia the following year. At these Congresses writers from PEN centers all over the globe attended. Today PEN International has centers in over 100 countries.

Among the more memorable and grand was the 54th PEN Congress in Canada, held in September 1989 when PEN still held two Congresses a year. The Canadian Congress, staged in both Toronto and Montreal by the two Canadian PEN centers, moved delegates and participants between cities on a train. The theme—The Writer: Freedom and Power—signaled hope at a time when freedom was expanding in the world with writers wielding the megaphone.…

54th PEN Congress in Canada, 1989. Front row: WiPC chair Thomas von Vegesack, Joanne Leedom-Ackerman and PEN USA West Executive Director Richard Bray. Back row: Digby Diehl (right) and other delegates.

 

June 2020: PEN Journey 30: Barcelona: A Surprise

I was having lunch with my husband at a Georgetown restaurant in Washington, DC on a Saturday in May, 2004. I was due to fly out the next day for Barcelona to attend International PEN Writers in Prison Committee’s 5th biennial conference, part of a larger Cultural Forum Barcelona 2004. My husband and I were talking about our sons—the oldest was getting a PhD in mathematics and was also training for the 2004 Olympics as a wrestler, hoping to make the British team. (He had dual citizenship.) The younger, recently graduated with an advanced degree in International Relations, had just deployed to Iraq as a Marine 2nd Lieutenant and was heading into a region where the war was over but the insurgency had begun. It was an intense time for our family, yet as parents there was not much we could do except to be there, cheering for our oldest at his competitions and writing letters and sending packages and prayers for our youngest. It was a time when as parents we realized our children had grown beyond us and were taking the world on their own terms.

I was planning to be away for the week in Barcelona where PEN members from around the world were gathering for the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) and Exile Network meetings. Carles Torner, PEN International board member, chair of PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee and former President of Catalan PEN, had helped arrange International PEN’s participation and funding as part of the Universal Forum of Cultures—Barcelona 2004. This would be the largest WiPC conference to date with delegates from every continent and multiple speakers and side events.

Carles, a poet, fluent in PEN’s three official languages English, French and Spanish, was one of the highly respected, organized and talented PEN members. He’d also been involved in the years’ long reformation of PEN International. As members looked to who could be a strong replacement for the current International Secretary when Terry Carlbom’s term ended in a few months, there was widespread enthusiasm for Carles to stand for the office. I was among the enthusiasts.

My phone rang at that Saturday lunch. International PEN Board member Eric Lax, already in Barcelona for meetings, said he had news and a question; he told me he was calling on behalf of others as well. The news: the Catalan government had also recognized Carles’ talents and had offered him a position as Director of Literature and Humanities Division at Institut Ramon Llull to promote Catalan literature abroad. A father of three, Carles had accepted this paid position which meant he couldn’t stand for PEN International Secretary, an unpaid position. He wouldn’t have the time for both, and there would be conflicts of interest.

Eric asked if I would allow myself to be nominated. A number of members and centers, including the two American centers, were asking, he said. PEN’s Congress where the election would take place was only a few months away in September and nominations were due soon. I was flattered but said no for a number of reasons. Eric asked that I not answer yet, just come to Barcelona, talk with people and let them talk with me.…

 

June 2020: PEN Journey 31: Tromsø, Norway: Northern Lights

The week before PEN’s 70th World Congress in Tromsø, Norway in the Arctic Circle, my oldest son competed in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the only wrestler to qualify for TeamGB (Great Britain). He had dual citizenship and was the first British champion to qualify for the Olympics in wrestling in eight years. In his sport, there was no seeding of competitors; instead, after making weight, each wrestler reached into the equivalence of a hat and drew their first round competitions. True to his history, my son drew the best opponents. As one news commentator noted: “Coming to the mat is Nate Ackerman, born in the US, wrestling for Great Britain, getting his PhD in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…but that won’t help him now as he faces the three-time World Champion from Armenia.” My son lost to the Armenian wrestler. His other opponent was the world bronze medalist from Kazakhstan who went on to win the silver medal at the Olympics. Though my son didn’t win either match, he also didn’t get pinned, and he wrestled nobly. The Olympic Games in Athens was a magical time.

Olympic circles projected in light on the Acropolis at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens 

I was heading to Tromsø with a smile inside, though behind my smile was also a quiet attention that never left me for my youngest son, a Marine, was in Anbar Province, Iraq that summer, patrolling in 120° and alert for IED’s and snipers along the roadside. He had missed his brother in the Olympics and his brother missed being able to talk with him.

As I changed planes in northern Europe, I realized I was going to need a coat in the Arctic Circle and bought a light foldable one at an airport shop which I took to a decade worth of PEN Congresses after. On the plane I reviewed the stack of PEN papers and resolutions.

I was arriving at the Congress having agreed to stand for International Secretary. (See PEN Journey 30). The other PEN member standing was Giorgio Silfer, a poet and playwright and president of Esperanto PEN.

Norwegian PEN hosted over 300 writers, editors, and translators from at least 60 countries for the 70thWorld Congress whose theme was Writers in Exile—Writers in Minority Languages. The Rica Arctic Hotel where we stayed and met was an easy walk to the small downtown of Tromsø, capital of northern Norway, well above the Arctic Circle and called “the Paris of the North.”…

 

June 2020: PEN Journey 32: London Headquarters: Coming to Grips

PEN is a work in progress. It has always been a work in progress during its 100 years. Governing an organization with centers and members spread across the globe in over 100 countries can be like changing clothes, writing a novel and balancing a complex checkbook all while hang gliding. Perhaps an exaggeration, but not by much.

In 2004 the leadership of President and International Secretary were at the center of the governing structure along with the Treasurer and a relatively new Board. The President represented PEN in international forums. The International Secretary was tasked with overseeing the office and the centers of PEN and with any tasks the President handed over like running board meetings and setting up the agenda for work. The concept was that PEN should be able to elect as President a writer of international stature to represent PEN in global forums but not have the obligation to run the organization. That could be the role of the International Secretary, along with the Board and staff.

When I assumed the role of International Secretary, PEN did not yet have an executive director, though the consensus had built from the strategic planning process that we needed one. Both the President and International Secretary were volunteer, unpaid positions, which meant they were not full time. At the post-Congress board meeting after Tromsø, we agreed to begin a search for an executive director.

International PEN President Jiří Gruša

I suggested monthly board meetings, which had not been the practice. We could do these by phone, which meant there were only a few hours a day when everyone would be awake. If Judith Rodriguez in Melbourne, Australia could stay up past 11pm and Eric Lax in Los Angeles didn’t mind waking up at 7am, the rest of us—Takeaki Hori in Japan, Sibila Petlevski in Croatia, Eugene Schoulgin in Norway, Elisabeth Nordgren in Finland, Cecilia Balcazar in Colombia as well as President Jiří Gruša when he joined from Vienna or Prague and me in Washington, DC or London—could find our time zone and call in. The technology was not as sophisticated as today, and we didn’t yet use skype so the calls were not cheap, but we began to manage each month.…

 

June 2020: PEN Journey 33: Senegal and Jamaica: PEN’s Reach to Old and New Centers 

A few days before I flew out to Dakar, Senegal for a PEN conference in November 2004, my youngest son, a Marine in Iraq, called and told my husband and me that we would not hear from him for a while. We knew, without being told, that the U.S. and British troops were likely about to return to Fallujah, the center of the insurgency. Civilians there had been advised to get out of the city, and they were leaving.

On the opening day of the PEN conference in Dakar, November 7, 2004, the battle for Fallujah began. The headlines in the newspapers in Dakar were about the civil war raging in neighboring Ivory Coast so I was not reading about Iraq during the five-day PEN Africa meeting. In 2004 there were no iPhones or phone news feeds and rare coverage of the Middle East was on the evening news. I was quietly attentive each day and prayerful and focused on PEN’s work.

I have modest notes from the first PAN Africa conference, but I have some of my most vivid memories, most particularly of the people I met and of my first trip to Gorée Island just off the Senegalese coast opposite Dakar, a place of its own historic upheaval. Gorée Island was the site of the largest slave-trading center on the African coast from the 15th to the 19th century, ruled successively by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. The dungeons and portals to the sea where men and women and children were sent out in chains still stood along with the stucco houses of former slave traders.

Gorée Island, site of slave trading in 15-19th centuries, off coast of Dakar, Senegal

A tall Gambian doctoral student assisting Senegalese PEN guided a few of us around Gorée. Fluent in French, English and Spanish, he was writing a doctoral thesis on the secrets of history and myth in the epic of Kaabu according to Mandingo oral traditions—clearly a future PEN member. Thoughtful, knowledgeable, he spent the day sharing history. During and after the Dakar meetings, our paths crossed in subsequent PEN conferences and congresses, and we know each other still. Dr. Mamadou Tangara earned his doctorate at the University of Limoges in France shortly after and eventually became the Gambian Permanent Representative to the United Nations. During Gambia’s constitutional crisis in 2016-17, he and other diplomats called for the president to step down peacefully; he was dismissed, but when power changed hands a few months later, he was reappointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Gambia. The friendship with Mamadou Tangara remains and is one of my many valued friendships from PEN.

Mamadou Tangara (Gambia) and Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (PEN International Secretary) on Gorée Island at PEN’s 2004 Dakar conference

Mamadou’s mentor at the time was an older Gambian journalist and editor Deyda Hydara, who joined PEN members from more than a dozen African centers in this conference to prepare for PEN’s first PAN African World Congress in Senegal in 2007. The Congress would be PEN’s first in Africa since the 1967 Congress in the Ivory Coast when American playwright Arthur Miller was International PEN President. Though the Gambia didn’t yet have a PEN Center, Deyda was planning on starting one. At the time Deyda Hydara was co-founder and primary editor of The Point, a major independent Gambian newspaper. He was also correspondent for AFP News Agency and Reporters Without Borders and was an advocate for press freedom and a critic of his government’s hostility to the media.

A month after PEN’s Dakar conference, the Gambian government passed a bill allowing prison terms for defamation and another bill requiring newspaper owners to purchase expensive operating licenses and register their homes as security. Deyda Hydara announced his intent to challenge these laws. Two days later on December 16, 2004 Deyda Hydara was assassinated on his way home from work. To this day his murder remains unsolved. The following year Deyda Hydara won PEN America’s Freedom to Write Award posthumously and later the Hero of African Journalism Award of the African Editors Forum.…

PEN Journey 14: Speaking Out: PEN’s Peace Committee and Exile Network

PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey might be of interest.

 

With a blue glacial lake surrounded by the Alps, a small island in the center with an ancient church with a Wishing Bell that rang out and promised fulfillment for the wishers, with a castle perched atop a hillside—with beauty and history intertwined through the landscape, Bled, Slovenia offered a stunning venue for PEN International’s Peace Committee meetings.

                                                                                Bled, Slovenia

In the heart of Europe, the Peace Committee sat in the heart of a contradiction, for there were few places less peaceful than the Balkans. Yet Slovene PEN members played an important role as did other PEN members in bridging divides among writers in conflict zones.

At the Peace Committee’s inception in 1984, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, one of a handful of Communist countries after World War II whose writers were able to sign PEN’s Charter which endorsed freedom of expression. The other countries included Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. In 1962 a well-known Slovene writer, who was a member of English PEN but returned each year to Slovenia, championed the idea of resurrecting the Slovene PEN center which had existed before the war as well as the other two Balkan PEN Centers—Croatia and Serbia.

In 1965 writers from these Yugoslav centers took on the task of staging an International PEN Congress in Bled. At the congress Arthur Miller presided as the first and only American President of International PEN. At the ’65 Bled Congress PEN also hosted for the first time Soviet writers as observers. “Almost despite myself I began feeling certain enthusiasm for the idea of international solidarity among writers, feeble as its present expression seemed,” Miller wrote in his autobiography Timebends. “…I knew that PEN could be far more than a mere gesture of goodwill.”

It took almost 25 years before a Soviet, and later Russian, PEN Center emerged. [see PEN Journey 3, 6, 8] During the Cold War it was difficult for writers from the East and West to communicate, but at PEN congresses and meetings and at the Peace Committee, writers debated, exchanged ideas and shared literature. The Peace Committee became a haven during the Balkans War and also a meeting ground for writers from other conflict areas.

Unlike the Writers in Prison Committee which worked to protect and liberate individual writers, it was difficult at times to define the concrete actions the Peace Committee could take, but at least three stand out in my memory—one direct action, one initiative and one rigorous debate on a pressing issue.

As noted in an earlier post [PEN Journey 7] the head of Slovene PEN, Boris Novak ran the barricades during the Balkans War with aid for writers in the besieged Sarajevo as did Slovene poet and future Peace Committee Chair Veno Taufer and others. At the Peace Committee meeting in 1994 Boris reported 100,000 DEM ($60,000) had been contributed from PEN centers around the world and delivered to almost 100 Bosnian writers in order to save lives. When a new Bosnian center was elected at PEN’s Congress in late 1993, the Bosnian center began taking over the delivery of aid, and Boris was elected chair of the Peace Committee.


Boris Novak. Photo credit: The Bridge Magazine                        Veno Taufer. Photo Credit: Alchetron

I attended my first Peace Committee Conference as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee in 1994 at the midway point of the Sarajevo siege. At the time PEN was  also being asked to help writers who managed to get out of the city. In London I’d met  one of these Bosnian writers and gave him my son’s old computer which he accepted as if I’d given him the keys to the city for he had no means to write. Writers fleeing not only the Balkans but situations in Africa and the Middle East needed support as they landed in new locations. It was at the Peace Committee meeting in 1994 that PEN’s Exile and Refugee Network was first conceived in partnership with the Writers in Prison Committee. The initiative was confirmed at the PEN Congress later that fall in Prague.

This initiative for exiles and refugees moved into an exploratory phase which became a leit motif in PEN’s work over the next two decades as it had been in the decades past. PEN’s Exile Network, spearheaded by PEN Centers, including Canada, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Belgium, England, America and many others took the initiative and offered residencies, aid and services to refugee and exiled writers arriving in their countries. Eventually PEN International formed a partnership with the expiring Parliament of Writers Cities of Asylum. In 2006 PEN became a founding member of ICORN—International Cities of Refuge Network. [More in future blog post]

The following year in 1995 the Peace Committee meeting in Bled featured a debate on hate speech, seen as both cause and effect in the conflicts. The gathering included such intellectual luminaries as Adam Michnik, an architect of Poland’s Solidarity movement and editor of the leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw. The debate was lively over the incendiary nature of hate speech and the limitations that should be imposed. Both in the Balkans War and in the civil war in Rwanda, which had just ended the year before, hate speech and writing fueled the strife. In spite of PEN’s advocacy for free expression, PEN also called on its members “to use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people” and pledge “to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds.” Even as “PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship,” it recognizes “freedom implies voluntary restraint” and members pledge “to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.”

The very Charter of PEN contained the axis of the debate. What were or should be limits on expression? Should PEN take a position? At the 1995 Peace Committee conference and in debates since, the views tended to fall according to cultural and national experience. Those in Europe, Africa and elsewhere who had experienced effects of hate speech urged stricter limitations on speech; whereas Americans, bred on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, remained wary of limits and argued that the answer to offensive speech was more speech, the drowning out of harmful ideas with inspiring ones. In my notes of the meeting and debate that year, I find no consensus or clear recommendation except for a reminder from one speaker who knew and quoted Russian exile and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “Don’t go against your conscience and don’t tell lies!”

Proposal at 61st Congress for PEN to explore setting up an Exile Network. Resolution passed.

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 15: Speaking Out: Life and Death 

What Are You Not Reading This Summer?

I was recently sent a questionnaire as part of a profile asking me what I was reading:

I find myself reading several books at the same time. I just finished Phil Klay’s Redeployment today, am reading Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen, am re-reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians, re-reading Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this and can’t leave this question without noting Elliot Ackerman’s Green On Blue.  Because I read both e-books and paper books, I move around among narratives easily.

The answer was a snapshot in reading time, indicative of the pleasure of dancing among narratives. I find myself enjoying on several platforms the movement between hard-edged, nuanced stories of war and its aftereffects in Klay’s Redeployment and Ackerman’s Green on Blue, the harsh and surprising world of Clement’s indigenous Mexican women in Prayers for the Stolen and the gentle, but no less desperate stories of Southern women trying to find their lives in Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this, a collection recently re-published by a new small press—Bacon Press—in paperback. Graham Greene is a master who I am always re-reading, appreciating how he integrates the international world of politics and deceit with compelling narratives set around the world.

Recently I returned from PEN International’s biennial Writers in Prison conference and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) meeting, a gathering this year in Amsterdam focused on Creative Resistance, a gathering of over 250 individuals from 60 countries around the world who work on behalf of writers threatened, imprisoned and killed for their writing. I remain conscious of these voices too. They occupy a kind of negative space—those we are NOT reading, not able to read because they are not able to write.

The list unfortunately is long, and many individuals stand out for me, but I will highlight two here. Though I couldn’t read either because of language differences, I read with attention their cases and link here to actions that can be taken on their behalf:

Raif Badawi, a blogger and editor in Saudi Arabia, had his sentence confirmed this past week by the Supreme Court that he must serve 10 years in prison and receive 1,000 lashes for “founding a liberal website,” “adopting liberal thought” and for “insulting Islam.” Raif had planned a conference to mark “a day of liberalism,” and he launched an online forum, Liberal Saudi Network to encourage political and social debate. His lawyer has now also been arrested.

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His wife, who fled  with their three children, says she received threats from the Saudi embassy when she was in Lebanon that they would kidnap her children and forcibly return them to Saudi Arabia; the court verdict would force her to separate from her husband.

Though now living in Canada, she says, “I believe that there is a will for freedom in the country that will not be deterred.” Of the solidarity movements that support her husband, she adds in an interview with PEN International, “I used to believe it was a fantasy for a person to stand in support of another person regardless of geographical, racial, religious, linguistic and other differences, but what you have done for Raif’s case has taught me that I knew nothing about humanity.”

Link for more information and action.

—Gao Yu–Chinese journalist, former chief editor of Economics Weekly and contributor to the German newspaper Deutsch Wele and a poet–was arrested on charges of illegally obtaining state secrets and sharing them with foreign media and sentenced this spring to seven years in prison. When she was first disappeared, she was writing a column entitled ‘Party Nature vs. Human Nature,’ which is said to have considered the new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and its internal conflicts. Gao Yu, who is 71, has been an intrepid journalist her whole career and an honorary director of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. She has often been at PEN conferences in Hong Kong and contributed to an essay in PEN’s 2013 report “Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China.”

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She has served time in prison before, the first time for reporting on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and five years for reporting on political and economic issues in Hong-Kong based publications. She’s known for her critical political analysis of the inner circles of the Chinese Communist Party. Her arrest and sentencing has signaled to many the retreat from hope of wider press freedoms under the new leadership.

For those of us lucky to have met Gao over the years, we’ve seen she has a sharp mind, a smiling face and an unmistakable light in her eyes as though she is slightly amused and looking at a much longer narrative for China. At the recent PEN conference, each meeting had an empty chair on the stage, and a picture of Gao Yu as the honored writer not there.

Link to more information and action.