Margie Orford Discusses the Women’s Manifesto with Nadia Davids

29 Nov 2017
Margie Orford Discusses the Women’s Manifesto with Nadia Davids

The Women’s Manifesto was tabled and unanimously passed at the PEN International Congress on 21 September 2017 in Lviv, Ukraine. Margie Orford, former PEN SA President and current PEN SA and PEN International Board Member, was on the Advisory Committee that drafted the Women’s Manifesto and spoke to PEN SA President Nadia Davids about the genesis of the document, what the reception to it has been like and more. PEN International President Jennifer Clement has also shared an update on the Manifesto, which can be read below the interview.

Nadia Davids: Congratulations on the Women’s Manifesto being passed at PEN! An historic moment. Can you tell us a little about its genesis.

Margie Orford: Jennifer Clement, the current president of PEN International, is the first woman to hold that position. Women and their stories, women and the violence they face, violence as a form of gendered censorship has been a central to her writing and her work with PEN Mexico as they have to my writing and my work in South Africa. The Women’s Manifesto grew out of the conviction – one that is widely shared across the global network of PEN – that gender equality is not only essential for free expression to be a reality but that the vitality and beauty of literature is diminished if women’s stories are not told. Women are silenced not only by laws but by custom, religion and culture too. The ties that bind women’s tongues are often so intimate that they are difficult to see. The Women’s Manifesto is a way to address that complexity. These issues are outlined in the preamble to the Manifesto – the motivation and explanation – that was put before the PEN International Assembly at the Congress in Ukraine in 2017. The Women’s Writers Committee has worked tirelessly since its inception to champion women writers and to address the deep fault lines of discrimination and – too often violence – that women who write and speak face in both their personal and professional lives. The members of the Women Writers Committee – drawn from PEN centres on all the continents helped draft and guide this Manifesto, as did the wonderful Advisory Committee who gave the collective input that was so vital in ensuring that this Women’s Manifesto was passed unanimously.

Nadia Davids: It’s a document that calls for systemic change but deliberately avoids the language of policy-makers. Why is this?

Margie Orford: We are writers. Language – its power, resilience and beauty is the material from which we fashion our dreams and our political ambition. We wanted something that both inspired and set out clear and pragmatic goals. It is easy to write with grace when one knows what one wants, that is one thing. The other is that this document – like all PEN documents – needs to travel across each and every linguistic frontier. It is being translated into the ‘official’ PEN languages – French, Spanish, English – and also into the many different languages used by writers around the world. Poetic language crosses frontiers and it dissolves them too because the even if the languages vary the spirit is carried across by poetry.

The language – the jargon – of policy makers goes in and out of fashion but embedded in the Women’s Manifesto is a deep commitment to human rights and equality and a belief in the uniqueness and value of each and every person.

Nadia Davids: The response at this year’s PEN’s Congress in Lviv was a heartening, unanimous and resounding yes! to the Women’s Manifesto as an adopted resolution. It was a wonderfully moving moment to witness. I know it was the result of months of careful crafting and consultation and working to find a language that was both inclusive and inspiring, so I imagine you must have been utterly elated?

Margie Orford: I was so thrilled I cried. I felt that the unequivocal endorsement of the Women’s Manifesto by PEN Centres from around the world – so many languages, religious and ethnic backgrounds, histories – countered the frightening resurgence of misogyny and racism that characterises so much of contemporary politics and political discourse. It was wonderful to see so many men vote for this Women’s Manifesto and for a reassertion of the importance of feminism and equality. PEN International has worked over the last few years to ensure that free speech is a reality for all people and the Women’s Manifesto builds on this. There was the wonderful Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights that was passed some years ago. This has proved to be a vital tool for minority linguistic groups – for example Kurdish and Uighur speakers – and for the people of Tibet who face sustained persecution and the erasure of Tibetan culture. As important is the Resolution on anti-LGBTQI legislation passed in 2014 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Nadia Davids: Speaking of language, one of the queries from the South African discussion around the Manifesto was about the use of the word ‘women’ as opposed to ‘womyn’ or ‘womxn’ and that the chosen word might read as trans-exclusionary. What are your thoughts about this?

Margie Orford: The Women’s Manifesto – like all PEN International’s documents – goes into a multiplicity of languages. There are two key elements to this question. The first is practical and, in a way, technical, and is to do with the global dominance of English. English is one of the very few languages in the world where the word ‘woman’ is a variant of the word ‘man’ thus making the play on the vowels in ‘womyn’ and ‘womxn’ works towards destabilising or questioning the category or concept of ‘woman’. In most languages this does not work at all. In Catalan, for example, woman is ‘dona’ and man is ‘home’. In Turkish woman is ‘kadin’ and man is ‘adam.’ In isiXhosa woman is ‘umfazi’ and man is ‘ndoda’. The examples are endless and in PEN’s other official languages – French and Spanish – we have ‘femme’ and ‘homme’ or ‘mujer’ and ‘hombre’. So the current usage of ‘womyn’ or ‘womxn’ would not carry into other languages. That said, the Manifesto has been drafted with great care to be inclusive and welcoming to all women. It is also there as a powerful tool to challenge patriarchal power structures and the narrow and confining definitions of gender and speech that go with that.

Nadia Davids: There have been terrific and concrete responses from outside of PEN. Can you tell us a little bit about those?

Margie Orford: The Women’s Manifesto has been welcomed by publishers, writers and activists. It can and will be both a catalyst for action to expand whose voices we hear and how and a focus for those of us who are working towards inclusivity and diversity.

The Manifesto has already been translated into Finnish, Spanish, Esperanto, Turkish, Italian and Arabic to mention but a few – we get translations sent in all the time and it is wonderful to see it. I am so looking forward to having it translated into all of South Africa’s national languages too.

Nadia Davids: What does the committee plan to do with the Manifesto going forward?

Margie Orford: The first thing to be done is the translation work – to have this manifesto in as many languages as possible so that women writers have this to hand if they face discrimination or silencing or the outright violence that so many outspoken women face. We are looking at how to ensure that gender equity and non-violence is guaranteed in all PEN Centres.

A very important aspect of this work – for writers in South Africa – will be the next practical step which will be to do the VIDA count of women in the literary arts in South Africa. This will be to see how many women are published and reviewed and win prizes. In many parts of the world this is astonishingly skewed towards male writers. I am hoping that South Africa will buck the trend.

PEN International President Jennifer Clement sent the following update about the Women’s Manifesto:

Next year I will be presenting the Manifesto at the United Nations in NYC and in India at the International Publisher’s Congress as well as implementing a PEN/VIDA count in all our PEN centres.

In the meantime, the award winning actress Noma Dumezweni (who stared as Hermione Granger in the original West End and Broadway run of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) will be the first reader of the Manifesto. The video will be posted on the PEN International website by the end of this year.

While I was in Nazareth a month ago Dareen Tatour (the Palestinian poet who has been in jail and is now under house arrest) spoke about the Manifesto’s personal importance to her. This video will also be on our website in a month or so.