The buds burst onto the trees this past weekend in Washington, DC and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Northern Virginia, heralding spring with cherry blossoms, tulip blooms, jonquils, forsythia. The skies dawned blue, then cloudy and windy with the backwash of southern storms, and now blue again. Spring has come!
It has been over a year since most of us have traveled anywhere though slowly the hum of life is returning.
In the absence of first hand encounters, I shared last month a retrospective of March blog posts and found appreciative readers so I repeat the exercise again. These April posts travel from China to Myanmar to Turkey to a sweep of Africa. Many of the issues remain current today.
This 2021 retrospective may prove to be a kind of dividing line—before and after the flood. None of us knows how the world will accelerate again with citizens crossing borders. I hope for the return to a world connected. We are more digitally connected after this year and that digital connection continues to gain momentum. But I also look forward to sharing a meal with colleagues around the globe and to gathering in person.
Below are the opening paragraphs of April blog posts beginning in 2008. Readers can continue reading the essays by clicking the titles. The journeys bridge past and present with a promise, I hope, of a future in situ and in person in years to come:
One of the more creative and moving responses to the Olympics in China this year is a poem relay, initiated by writers and members of International PEN. The poem June, was written by Shi Tao, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for sending to pro democracy websites a government directive for Chinese media to downplay the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
You may recall in 2004 Shi Tao was identified when Yahoo! turned over his email account to the authorities. Charged with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities,” Shi Tao now faces the next decade in prison. His poem June is his memorial of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
By Shi Tao
My whole life
Will never get past “June”
June, when my heart died
When my poetry died
When my lover
Died in romance’s pool of blood
June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth shifts, the rivers fall silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead.
(translated by Chip Rolley)
International PEN through its 145 centers around the world is circulating the poem as a parallel to the Olympic Torch relay. Over 110 PEN centers are participating by translating the poem into at least 90 (and counting) languages, and then sharing the written and oral versions in their countries and on the internet. By the end of the journey the poem is likely to be translated into as many as 100 languages, languages large and small–multiple Chinese dialects, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Basque, Galician, Portuguese, German, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Bosnian, Serbian, Slovene, Croatian, Macedonian, Romanian, Hungarian, Finnish, Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Russian, Chechen, Hindi, Pashto, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Greek, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese, Malay, Haitian, Somali, Afar, Swahili, Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Krio, Wolof, Poular, Lusoga, Lingala, Chichewa. Tagalog, Cree, Nahuatl, Tsotsil, Mayan, Bikol, etc. etc…
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…
The volcanic cloud hovered above like the mythic hand of Vulcan, unseen and disrupting the plans of mere mortals.
I was stranded in Casablanca after a short research vacation, en route to a literary festival in London and board meeting in Paris. What does one do, stranded in Casablanca? I headed north to Tangiers and waited out the volcanic ash and waited for an open seat on an airplane. It was not hard duty.
The “doorway” to Africa, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans meet, is where Hercules is said to have smashed through the Isthmus and created two continents. Under blue sky with no volcanic ash in sight, I contemplated the pillars of Hercules, one in Europe—the Rock of Gibraltar—and the other in Africa. I wandered through medinas and souks, drove along the coast, visited Tetouan and Cueta, guided by a 6’2” history teacher who strode slightly in front of me in a long saffron robe, maroon fez, hands behind his back, instructing me in 3000 years of history in this region where the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews all trod, where at least four colonial powers—England, France, Spain and Portugal—claimed and fought for land. I learned that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States after it gained independence, and the first foreign legation the new United States of America sent out was to Morocco.
“You understand?” the guide kept asking me as he spun through the stories of conquest and power, of cultures on the move. “I told you that, remember?” I expected an exam any moment.
In mythology Hercules features most prominently in the region, but in the days after the volcano, I also read legends of Vulcan. In one tradition he is said to be the father of Jupiter, king of the gods. In another mythology he is the son of Jupiter and Juno, who threw their ugly baby off Mount Olympus. Vulcan fell for a day and a night and broke a leg when he finally landed in the sea. There he sunk to the bottom where a sea nymph found him and raised him as her son. According to legend, he spent a happy childhood playing with dolphins and the fish and all the wonders under the sea.
On land Vulcan eventually discovered fire and its properties, including fire’s ability to draw out from stones the iron, silver and gold which Vulcan then hammered into swords and shields and into jewelry for the woman he thought was his mother. In myths as in history, events come back on themselves. Juno, admiring the woman’s jewelry, discovered that the talented blacksmith who’d fashioned it was Juno’s own son. Juno demanded that Vulcan return; he refused. The plot thickened…
It rained every day on the Bosporus as we ferried back and forth across Istanbul’s grand waterway to discuss current and impending conflicts in the globe. Inside the windowless room, sitting in a large square facing each other, former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and a former NATO commander toured the world in words and debate to find paths to end these conflicts, to encourage the opening up of political systems and to keep those systems, their leaders and others from killing their citizens. Reports from seasoned, on-the-ground researchers informed the discussion of the board of the International Crisis Group.
Outside the meeting room, the Middle East continued in a state of foment. Its citizens had taken by surprise many of the experts in the room. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s regimes had fallen through nonviolent resistance comprised of strikes and mass protests by its citizens. However, Libya’s President Gaddafi was attacking and threatening to slaughter his dissenting citizens and had sent that country into civil war. Syria and Bahrain, slightly more restrained, had also killed hundreds of protesting citizenry.
The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was a focus of the debate. At what point does the international community have a responsibility to intervene when a government not only doesn’t protect its citizens but attacks them? Can the international community prevent such actions so that there will never again be another Rwanda or Srebrenica? Does the responsibility to protect inevitably lead to military intervention as it has in Libya? How does the U.N. and NATO unwind its commitment? Can it? Should it? And what about the simultaneous bloodshed in the Ivory Coast? Why were nations not invoking the Responsibility to Protect there?
These questions unfurled and swirled with no definitive answers. Rather, the answers were iterative, inching towards solutions. Even with some of the brightest minds around the table, foreign policy and diplomacy is not so much an art or a science; it is more like a grand bazaar, a trading of perceptions and perceptions of national interests…
(This blog post originally appeared on www.africa.com, a website that features arts, culture, news, travel and commentary about Africa.)
Africa for me began in imagination. I was writing a novel The Dark Path to the River, which had an unnamed African country as the back story for a drama at the United Nations. The African characters started talking in my head, telling me their stories.
I had read widely about Africa, but at the time I had only been to Kenya on a traditional safari. I continued reading African literature, audited courses on African folklore and politics. While writing the book, I returned to Africa, to Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, where I visited schools and children I’d been engaged with through a nonprofit organization. I listened to the rhythms of the languages, to the songs, observed the colors of the green hills, the red dirt, the fuchsia, orange, yellow and blue flowers, the clothing of the same astonishing colors and patterns. I met with fellow writers and artists.
I have since returned to Africa dozens of times. I’ve visited schools in east, west, central, and southern Africa. In Uganda, I’ve plowed through the bush in a jeep to arrive at classrooms in a clearing whose materials hung from the roofs of huts with no doors so the cows of the pastoralist herders wouldn’t trample them. I’ve visited brick schools built by villagers in Malawi where the children sat on the extra bricks for stools: I’ve sat in classes in bullet-scarred schools that have been rebuilt after the civil war in Sierra Leone. In Ethiopia I’ve participated in a village bridal ceremony, have sat around smoking fires in villages in Mali eating goat and rice, have walked through the modern capitol buildings of Abuja, Nigeria, watched the sun rise over the Indian Ocean in Tanzania and set on the Atlantic in Sierra Leone…
(In the past weeks I was brought to focus again on the situation of two writers in prison, one in China, the other in Turkey, both countries that have consistently challenged and imprisoned writers. In China the hope for expanded freedom of expression that came with the Olympics and China’s engagement with global institutions has not materialized, and Chinese writers remain in prison with long sentences. The situation in Turkey for a while was improving, but in the past year arrests have again escalated.)
Voice in China
I had dinner recently with three colleagues of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate and writer currently serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese jail. Two of his friends, Shen Tong and the other friend arrived in the U.S. around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, but the younger best-selling writer and democracy activist Yu Jie didn’t leave China until January, 2012 after being detained and tortured and put under house arrest. He now lives in Virginia.
Yu Jie consulted with Liu Xiaobo during the writing of Charter 08, the manifesto calling for democracy in China which resulted in the imprisonment of Dr. Liu. He and Liu Xiaobo also co founded the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and Yu Jie has written a biography of Liu Xiaobo.
At a round wooden table in a bustling Washington restaurant the friends outlined their campaign. Among their strategies, they are working to gather a million signatures worldwide calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since Liu’s imprisonment. So far they have gathered about half a million signatures in 130 countries, including from 135 Nobel Laureates. The Friends of Liu Xiaobo are also campaigning for the release of other prisoners of conscience in China. They and the Nobel Laureates are mobilizing support around the world and have been told the Chinese government has started to take notice and to worry about the scope of the campaign. Dr. Liu is the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in prison…
April 2014 I didn’t post in April.
I write in restaurants. I find my corner, find the plug, choose the restaurant and the table where I am not taking up needed space, where I can hunker down and concentrate with just enough ambient noise to take me back to my roots of writing in the middle of a newsroom. I have my favorite spots around town. I know the nicest waiters and waitresses, the best cups of coffee, the places I can write through breakfast and lunch without taking up space for other customers and can get fed at the same time.
The routine also gives me access from time to time to interesting conversations. I am not a natural eavesdropper, but it is unavoidable when people sit nearby and talk as if I am invisible. People’s lives come together and fall apart in restaurants and sometimes in my presence. In Washington I have also overheard conversations I’m sure were meant to be confidential. It surprises me how one assumes a lone person ten feet away can’t hear just because she appears engaged in her work.
This morning I am in one of my favorite spots, big floor to ceiling windows, few people here but me this early, truly fresh squeezed orange juice (one of the reasons I come here). I plug in my computer; the waiters and waitresses know me well and bring decaf coffee and yogurt parfait, and I settle in for several hours work. But twenty feet away a meeting is going on around a big table, everyone perched on high stools leaning in. I am good at ignoring such talk, but I hear the word ISIS and then talk about their finances and other interesting international issues. As I’m setting up my work for the morning, I listen casually, wondering if this is a group of government employees strategizing in the open at this restaurant with good coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. Or is it a team from an NGO or a think tank, and then I hear the word “campaign.” And I know with a sinking feeling that the long campaign season has begun. Whose campaign? The name is never mentioned, but by the pronoun, it is not hard to guess…
April 2016 I didn’t post in April.
April 2017 I didn’t post in April.
April 2018 I didn’t post in April.
I passed two ducks strolling down the highway on Easter morning—large mallards waddling and chatting with each other, staying on their side of the white-lined shoulder, yet precariously close to the cars whizzing by. They appeared oblivious to the traffic. I wondered where they were going and where they thought they were. They were several miles from water. On their side of the small highway on the Eastern shore of Maryland sprawled a shopping center with a supermarket, restaurants, movie theater. On the other side spread a bit of green field and beyond that more stores and beyond that woods, and beyond that the water—the Tred Avon River which eventually flows out into the Chesapeake Bay.
I was tempted to turn around and try to get a picture, but by the time I could make the turn and get back, they would likely have flown away. Instead, I carry their picture in my mind. I love ducks…
[April 2020: [Beginning in May, 2019 I began writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In April 2020 there are four posts in the PEN Journeys.]
[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…
“Contrary to our tradition, this year’s PEN Congress is being held in a country in which a massive, genocidal military and paramilitary operation is under way. Besides mass murder, the crimes perpetrated against the civil population of Chechnya include deportation, rape, torture, destruction and theft of personal property as well as the systematic looting and destruction of the material bases of Chechnyan culture and civilization. At the same time, freedom of information has been severely curtailed, and the official propaganda plays on xenophobic and even racist ethnic stereotypes…” So began a Declaration from the 67th World Congress of International PEN voted by the Assembly of Delegates in May 2000.
The decision to hold the International PEN Congress in Moscow was a controversial one, resulting in some members refusing to attend because of Russia’s prosecution of the war in Chechnya and the concern that holding a Congress in Moscow would give the government an appearance of approval. However, PEN’s Secretariat with the new Executive Committee concluded that the long-planned millennial Congress also presented the opportunity for International PEN to show solidarity with Russian PEN which had been outspoken both on the war and on behalf of Russian journalists and writers under pressure.
“The writers of Russia, united under the auspices of the Russian Centre of the International PEN Club, are concerned about the escalation of the war in Chechnya which is becoming a threat to not only peaceful residents of Grozny-city but also to the national security of Russia. The ultimatum announced to women, children and old people of the Chechen capital makes them hostages of both terrorists and federal forces. It is hard to believe that in this situation the Russian authorities are going to use the same methods as terrorists. We are very aware how hard it is to cut the tight Chechen knot, but in any case innocent people do not have to become victims of the decisions taken…” Russian PEN sent this appeal earlier to the acting President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
Russian PEN members, including President Andrei Bitov, had signed the appeal. Russian PEN’s General Secretary Alexander (Sascha) Tkachenko noted at the Congress that it was essential to call on all those involved—Russian and Chechen—to cease their brutalities. Sascha himself had regularly stood up to the Russian government. He championed the cases of imprisoned writers Alexandr Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, both of whom had recently been freed after trials. Pasko, who was a journalist and former Russian Naval officer, had been arrested and accused of espionage for his publication of environmental problems in the Sea of Japan. Nikitin, a Naval officer, had been charged with stealing state secrets by contributing to a report that revealed the sinking of Russian nuclear submarines and the dangers these decaying submarines posed to the environment.
The freedom and the openings which many embraced after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s were beginning to close down and restrictions tighten. At the Moscow Congress Pasko expressed his gratitude for everything PEN had done to obtain his freedom. He urged the Assembly to focus on environmental problems. But he warned that the structure of the current Russian government had grown out of the KGB, and he feared nothing good would come for free speech or the environment…
“Whenever and wherever writers band together, whenever and wherever the members of PEN gather, regionally or nationally, there seems to be an emergency on our agenda…” So German novelist Günter Grass opened the 67th PEN Congress in Moscow in 2000. Grass was referring to the crisis in Chechnya at the time, but his observation held true the following year as PEN hastily arranged a replacement Assembly of Delegates in London, November 2001.
Two months earlier the United States had been attacked on September 11. A month later a U.S.-led NATO coalition invaded Afghanistan. But the conflict which upended PEN’s plans stirred in the Balkans with an impending civil war in Macedonia.
PEN’s 2001 Congress was originally to have taken place in the Philippines, but funding fell through. (Philippine PEN finally hosted a Congress in 2019.) Macedonian PEN agreed to move its 2002 Congress ahead a year and host PEN in the ancient city of Ohrid, but the Albanian National Liberation Army attacked Macedonian security forces in February 2001. As fighting escalated, PEN was again faced with the dilemma of whether to hold a Congress in a country in conflict.
Finally, in August given the political situation in Macedonia, which was close to civil war, PEN’s Executive Committee “against the advice of the International Secretary” but “united in trying to overcome the situation,” decided to cancel the Macedonian Congress. Instead PEN planned a three-day replacement Assembly of Delegates in London where the business of PEN and its committees would take place but without all the literary and social events that usually accompanied a Congress. Delegates who arrived early could attend English PEN’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer service at St. Brides on Fleet Street, and English PEN hosted an opening reception and literary evening at the British Library; another reception at Lancaster House was hastily arranged, hosted by the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Ten years earlier a similar replacement Assembly had taken place in Paris when the Congress had been canceled in Delphi because of finances and the start of the Balkan War. (PEN Journey 7)
In September, “alarmed by the escalating volatility of the situation,” International Secretary Terry Carlbom sent a letter to PEN’s Vice Presidents announcing the change and asking for support. That letter was dated September 11, 2001.
On September 11, I was in New York City. I had just flown in the night before from an International Crisis Group board meeting in Brussels to attend meetings at Human Rights Watch. That morning I was dressing and watching the news when, like millions of Americans, I saw the first plane fly into the World Trade Center. I assumed it was a terrible accident when suddenly live on tv I saw the second plane crash into the South Tower…
I remember diving from a rowboat into Lake Ohrid and swimming in pristine water. I love to swim but never did so at PEN Congresses. However, the 68th Congress was held on one of Europe’s oldest—3 million years old—and deepest lakes which floated in the mountainous region between North Macedonia and eastern Albania. The water was the cleanest I had ever seen or felt. I swam without looking back until finally, I heard a voice from the boat shouting, “Come back! You’re almost in Albania!”
Albania, or rather the Albanian Liberation Army, a paramilitary organization, had recently been in conflict in Macedonia and was the reason PEN’s Congress there had been postponed the year before. (PEN Journey 25)
Swimming with me was my friend Isobel Harry, Executive Director of Canadian PEN, and in the boat sat Cecilia Balcazar from Colombian PEN and another PEN member. They watched over us in this break from the PEN meetings. My memories of the 2002 PEN Macedonia Congress include intense meetings of the Assembly in the Congress Hall of the old Soviet-style Metropol Hotel and neighboring Bellevue Hotel conference center and relaxed gatherings afterwards at lakeside cafes in the town of Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the evenings we gathered for literary events with UNESCO-like titles—The Future of Language/Language of the Future and Borders of Freedom/Freedom of Borders. These were also the themes of the Congress. There was music and poetry in Macedonian and other languages I didn’t understand, recited in cavernous, shadowy chambers, including in the ancient Cathedral Church of St. Sophia, a structure from medieval times, rebuilt in the 10th century. Its frescoes still adorned the walls from Byzantine times in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and had been restored after the church was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire.
While current politics and conflicts occupied the daytime work of PEN, history suffused the gathering. Civilization in Ohrid dated to 353 BC when the town had been known as “the city of light.”
“The old millennium, especially in ‘old’ Europe, should, I believe, be left behind with all its anachronistic boundaries—geographical, historical, racial, ethnic, state, linguistic, religious and cultural—and give way to the unfolding of the new millennium, to its open-mindedness and tolerance,” Dimitar Baševski, President of Macedonian PEN, wrote in his introduction to the Congress. “For generations we in Macedonia have lived with a creed according to which culture and not warfare or power is perceived as the field for competitiveness among nations. The aims of the World Congress of International P.E.N. in 2002 perfectly correspond with the spirit of this creed.”…
As many Americans, I have watched with disbelief and sadness events that have taken place in my country and in my home city of Washington, DC over the last days. I have felt unable to add words. This morning I rose early to watch the sunrise on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I’ve been living this year.
I listened for inspiration. I wasn’t seeking political answers or recriminations, justifications or blame. I wanted inspiration to move forward. I share here the verse that came into my thought and the photos of the morning:
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” —Romans 13:12
Boats skimmed along the Potomac River this last weekend of August—power boats, yellow and red kayaks, boxy green canoes, sleek white sculls. I settled into the latter late Sunday afternoon, dropping oars into the warm water. Many in Washington are still out of town—on vacations or home visiting constituencies—but in their place are tourists exploring the nation’s capitol. The heart of the city beats on in festive cadence.
Baking in the summer sun, I eased leisurely down the river—past the Kennedy Center, the Watergate apartments, past the Georgetown waterfront where outside cafes were filled with people eating and bicyclists walking their bikes, past the new park along the river, then under Key Bridge, where a moment of shade brought relief. On the bridge above bikers and runners and cars crossed the river to and from Virginia. My scull sliced the surface of the water past the spires of Georgetown University, which peeked through the trees on the shore like a medieval fortress. I aimed out to the Three Sisters Islands, rowing with one oar to turn the scull then traversed the river, crossing the wakes of larger power boats so I could return on the opposite side, rowing past the nature preserve of Roosevelt Island towards the public boat house.
By the time I neared the home shore, sweat was dripping down my brow into my eyes, blurring my vision. The sun was slowly sinking in the sky, but relinquishing none of its heat. The boat house was already closing, and kayaks and canoes were pulled up on the dock; mine was one of the last sculls to return.
Summer is near its end. On Labor Day next weekend American flags will flutter beside the Potomac, and the political season with midterm elections will shift into high gear. But before the business of campaigns and politicians fill the air, summer may yet linger for just a bit longer like a temporary denouement before the pace of life accelerates. I take a moment here to savor the summer, which has been spent almost entirely in Washington—one of the hottest summers on record—a summer of writing, reading good books and welcoming into life a new grandchild. It has been a summer of quiet pleasures and great moments.