July 2014 Letter from PEN International President John Ralston Saul
25 Jul 2014
Dear PEN Members, Dear Friends,
Apologies for the break in my letters. I have been on the road since early May visiting PEN Centres in South America, Europe and Asia.
First, as many of you know, Carles Torner has stepped in as Acting Executive Director. All of us on the Board are excited about this. Carles has a long history with PEN. He has served on the Board. And, as Chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, he led PEN to create the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights in 2004. For 6 years he was head of the Literature and Humanities Department at the Institute Ramon Llull, which could be described as the Arts Council of Catalonia. So he has a great deal of management experience in the world of literature. Carles is from Barcelona, speaks French, Spanish, English and Catalan, all fluently. And, of course, he is a well known poet and essayist.
A few words about our upcoming 80th Congress in Bishkek. In early June as part of the preparations, Hori Takeaki, International Secretary, Carles Torner, Markéta Hejkalová, International Board member, Jena Patel, Congress Officer and I were in Kyrgyzstan to meet with the Central Asian Pen Centre, led by Dalmira Tilepbergenova.
This is going to be a particularly meaningful Congress. Several hundred writers will be coming to a country and a region where our presence can have an important and positive impact. We will be at the heart of the Central Asian Republics in a country where there is the greatest experimentation with free expression and democracy. Think of it also as a region with Russia close by on one side and China close by on the other. This gathering will be complicated, delicate and important.
Central Asian PEN works very hard across not only political, but also linguistic and cultural borders. One of the purposes of the Congress will be to bring writers together from all five republics. The other four exist in far more difficult political situations. And there are a variety of difficult ethnic tensions in the region. In some ways what we will be trying to do in Bishkek will resemble what we did in Belgrade, bringing together writers from throughout the Balkans, which led to the creation of the Balkan Network, one of the few, if not the only, structure linking people in the region.
Of course there remain free expression issues in Kyrgyzstan and during our trip we raised these in the appropriate places. The funding of the Congress will meet PEN’s rules of independence and will not involve any government financing. Many universities and cultural institutions will be involved.
One of the many things we did during our trip was to sit down with university students who were graduates of our PEN Central Asian Centre’s Freedom of Expression Summer School. Each of them talked of how this PEN program had given them the courage to speak up in different ways in each of their lives. Their openness and the clarity of how they saw free expression was deeply moving.
Finally, I should add that Bishkek is a surprising city, surrounded by the Caucuses and filled with a mixture of the peoples of Central Asia. Those of you who are coming will learn a great deal and be fascinated.
In early May I went to Argentina and Chile with James Tennant, our Literary Manager. This is part of our drive to reinforce PEN’s role in Latin America, in part to face up to the violence against writers and the impunity for the perpetrators in a growing number of countries, led unfortunately by Honduras (http://tinyurl.com/p3gn7qo), Mexico (http://tinyurl.com/m2m49ey) and Brazil. Our Brazil Centre is now strong and active, as are those in Mexico and Nicaragua. We may be able to create a Honduran Centre at the Bishkek Congress.
The Argentinian and Chilean Centres have a long history. The aim today is to encourage the leading writers of both countries to join so that the Centres represent the full influence of these rich literary communities. The current presidents in both countries – Beatriz Curia and Aileen L’Huillier – are eager for this to happen.
In Buenos Aires we did a major event on PEN at the Book Fair, held a meeting at the National Library and met a large percentage of the country’s leading writers, publishers, journalists and translators. Luisa Valenzuela, Gabriela Adamo of the Buenos Aires Book Fair and many others made this possible. We are now in the midst of a membership drive and many are now joining.
In Santiago we held a large meeting at the Neruda Foundation, as well as several other gatherings. Thanks to Antonio Skármeta (now on the PEN Chile Board) and Fernando Sáez Garcia, Executive Director of the Neruda Foundation and many others, a recruitment campaign has now begun. Almost all of the leading writers are eager to become involved.
Incidentally, thanks to Antonio, we were able to call on the great Nicanor Parra, now 100. He was brilliant and funny. A model for us all!
After Chile I went to the annual meeting of German PEN in Schwäbisch Hall. Here is one of our large and fully engaged Centres, with a strong writers in exile program, a taste for debate on issues, and an active Board. It was a great pleasure to be with them and in the hands of their new President, Josef Haslinger and their new Secretary General, Regula Venske.
After that we held our biannual International PEN Board meeting in Barcelona where we spent two days setting policy. The Committee Chairs were also there. The Board will report to you on the outcomes. It should just be said that PEN is growing, our programs are multiplying. These are all designed to work through our Centres and our Committees. So it is a decentralized and member based approach.
Our work in education in particular with the support of Swedish International Development Agency and the International Law firm, Clifford Chance, much of it with our African Centres, is increasingly important. With UNESCO we now have a program focused on supporting minority language publishing involving four PEN Centres: Haiti, Kenya, Nigeria and Serbia.
Carles, Romana Cacchioli, Director of International Programmes, Émile Martel, President of Québécois PEN and I have just met with La Francophonie and are working on areas in which we can cooperate. The Publishers Circle training initiative in Myanmar is now developing into a literary translation training program.
While I have been in these places many other things have been happening elsewhere. The Peace Committee meeting in Bled. The Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee meeting in Girona. They are moving towards a new initiative in support of translation.
Finally, Jarkko Tontti and I went to Estonia, Finland and Sweden.
In Estonia, with their PEN President, Kätlin Kaldmaa, we began working on how this successful Centre could find more financial support. We sat down with the Board and met with the Minister of Culture, Urve Tiidus.
In Helsinki we talked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about supporting PEN programs, as is the case in Norway and Sweden. We had a public event with members and Pekka Haavisto, Minister for International Development, chaired by the Centre’s new President, Sirpa Kähkönen.
And in Stockholm we held the last of four meetings bringing together Russian and Ukrainian writers with other PEN members. This was organized by PEN Sweden, and in particular by Ola Wallin and Ola Larsmo. These four gatherings in Kiev, Warsaw, Bled and Stockholm have been all about the Russian and Ukrainian PEN Centres standing united, refusing to be drawn into the propaganda struggle. In Stockholm, Lyudmila Ulitskaya of Russian PEN and Aleksandra Hnatiuk of Ukrainian PEN were particularly eloquent.
We put out an initial statement on this, signed by those initially involved. It will soon come to all of you and I hope you will add your names as Centres and as individuals.
Let me close by mentioning the deaths of three devoted PEN leaders. First, Peter Day, who was editor of the PEN International magazine for a decade and a friend to many of us.
And South Africa has lost, as we have, two historic figures. Anthony Fleischer, the President of the Centre, died on June 5th. Anthony was a strong opponent of apartheid and a leader who encouraged new young writers. He was a great servant of PEN.
Nadine Gordimer was International Vice President of PEN and Nobel Prize winner in 1991. She was a great writer and a courageous voice for the principles which have brought us all to PEN. Her story is that of the long struggle against racism and for a fair society.
Nadine, Anthony and Peter are reminders of what PEN has always stood for. We have a Charter which we try to live up to. But we also have members whose very lives are illustrations of our purpose.
All best wishes,
John Ralston Saul