November 2011 Letter from PEN International President John Ralston Saul
17 Nov 2011
Dear PEN Members, Dear Friends,
Sixteen years ago today, our colleague Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by Nigerian officials for writing and speaking, and doing so persistently. I was in southern Tunisia with a group of writers and film makers when I heard the awful news. Many of us remember that day very specifically, with a sort of bitter shame.
PEN had worked hard for Ken Saro-Wiwa’s freedom; for his life. And we failed. And we felt that failure.
This life of literature and free speech of which we are all part has never been a pretty thing or a gentleman’s respectable undertaking. It has always had a rough and risky side to it. Sometimes those risks are merely financial or involve social alienation or the difficulty of finding a public. Sometimes they involve prison, exile, death. With Ken Saro-Wiwa all the facets of the full risk were played out. Here was the terrible reminder that you could be talented, famous, and you could be right. Yet mediocre, authoritarian officials could hang you and mutilate your body.
Each time I think of our campaigns, the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa re-emerges. We need to do what we do with such a careful balance of determination and care. Lives are in play.
Mexico is an example of this complexity and I know that many of you took part in our Mexican Day of the Dead campaign on November 2nd. There are dozens of other very different examples. Think of Dawit Isaak, whose life hangs in the balance in Eritrea.
We had an interesting opportunity to explain our work at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. I had had a conversation a few months before with its Director, Juergen Boos, and for the first time PEN International was invited to take part. Laura McVeigh and Ali Nihat came with me and we had a number of events. First, German PEN is always there with a stand and I was able to take part with their President, Johano Strasser and their Secretary General, Herbert Wiesner in their annual Frankfurt press conference, focused on Egyptien publisher Mohamed Hashem, the winner of their 2011 Hermann Kesten Prize.
We also did a major launch of the PEN International Publishers Circle in what is called the Weltempfang – Frankfurt’s new Centre for Politics, Literature and Translation.
This took the form of a public session with Eva Bonnier, Chair of the Swedish Publishers Association, Ronald Blunden, VP of Hachette Livre and Anders Heger, Norwegian PEN president representing Norwegian publishers. I chaired the event. It was called Free the Word: Times of Transition. Quite a few PEN Centres were there, for example Kaiser ÖzHun of Uyghur PEN and Kaitlin Kaldmaa of PEN Estonia; and a big crowd.
The next morning we had a good meeting with many of the members of the Publishers Circle to discuss its activities. The idea for now is to concentrate on supporting publishing in chosen countries where it is difficult. Thanks to the leadership taken by our PEN Centres in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Canada, the Publishers Circle now has 14 members. Starting with the three international founders – Hachette Livre, Penguin Group and Random House – they are: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag (Norway), Aschehoug forlag (Norway), Cappelen Damm (Norway), Albert Bonnier Forlag (Sweden), KF Media AB/Norstat (Sweden), De Oberoende (Sweden), Natur & Kultur (Sweden), Söderströms förlag (Finland), House of Anansi Press (Canada), Douglas & McIntyre (Canada) and Harper Collins (Canada). The idea is to take it to between 30 and 35 members. One of the practical results is that we are building up the percentage of unrestricted funds in our budget.
The Book Fair also asked me to give the Weltempfang opening speech on behalf of PEN. The oral record is on our new website.
We are already talking about an annual role for PEN International at the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is all part of us taking our messages to a broader public. I should add that Iceland was the guest of honour this year. Sjón and many other of our Iceland PEN members were in the spotlight.
On a practical front, the Digital Media and Communications group chaired by Hori Takeaki and made up of Marian Botsford Fraser and Margie Orford has begun to work. Eric Lax’s group on structural reform has already received written suggestions from some of you.
All best wishes,
John Ralston Saul