November & December 2013 Letter from PEN International President John Ralston Saul
31 Dec 2013
Dear PEN members, Dear friends,
First, best wishes to all of you for the New Year. Some of you have already celebrated your official date; others are about to do so.
Last year saw a remarkable growth in PEN’s work. Our renewed and enlarged education work, with the support of SIDA, has us building free expression and the importance of literature at that all important level of young people. Our Writers in Prison group continues to develop original methods with its new director, Ann Harrison and many engaged Centres. In March, Romana Cacchioli, will join us as Director of International Programs (which includes centres development and committees). Romana is fluent in French, Italian and English. Our interventions in the digital area are increasingly strong, based our Digital Declaration. Cooperation between PEN International and interested groups of PEN Centres has led to several essential delegations. Our Congress in Reykjavik was a big step forward in making these gatherings more useful and dynamic – and in reuniting the literary with our free expression work. And it is now confirmed that next year’s Congress will be held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. I think this is particularly exciting. We will be going where we have a great deal to learn and to contribute.
Our legal weight is growing in part thanks to our nascent PEN writer/lawyer group, which Jarkko Tontti and Elizabeth Hiester are steering. Free the Word! is playing a growing role in literary festivals around the world, bringing writers to the fore who come from countries with free expression and other problems.
We are increasingly present at key international forums, pushing forward PEN’s issues, whether in Geneva and New York or at meetings, for example, in Indonesia where Sarah Clarke, our Policy and Advocacy Officer spoke for us at the Internet Governance Forum. In mid-November, Marian Botsford Fraser, Ann Harrison and Magda Carneci, played a leading role at a gathering in Tunis organized by the EU to bring together writers from across the Maghreb.
A number of the world’s leading writers have agreed to join our PEN International Writers Circle. We will be launching it very soon. The Publishers Circle continues to grow. We are very excited that the great German publisher C.H. Beck has just joined. And the Circle’s work advising publishers in Yangon was an important step in the launching of our new PEN Centre in Myanmar.
By the way, I am writing to you from India where Haroon Siddiqui and I have come to take part in the official launching of the new Delhi PEN Centre.
One bit of sad news is that our Executive Director, Laura McVeigh, has decided to stand down in order to spend more time with her young family. We will all miss her and wish her well. She has contributed a lot over the last three years to PEN’s solid growth.
Laura will be with is for another three months. We will put an Interim Executive Director in place and begin an international search for Laura’s successor.
In late November I was in Johannesburg and Pretoria and sat down with some of our PEN members. I was also at a large and fascinating gathering – not on behalf of PEN. It was devoted to strengthening the role of what is called Indigenous Knowledge Systems. This is a program run out of the University of South Africa (UNISA) and led by Catherine Hoppers. It brings together writers and other intellectuals from around Africa, plus a few non-Africans. I found myself talking a lot about PEN and our Girona Manifesto, because it is relevant to this important movement to reassert the role of African cultures and languages.
In early December I led a small Delegation to Moscow, with Hori Takeaki, Ola Wallin (Board member of Swedish PEN), Marianne Bargum (VP of Finnish PEN) and James Tennant, our literary officer in London.
As you know, there are growing numbers of free expression problems in Russia. Russian PEN has come out very strongly on these issues. And PEN International is now undertaking an important campaign to lobby for the removal of three dangerous laws which specifically put writers at risk: the so-called gay ‘propaganda’ and ‘blasphemy’ laws, prohibiting the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality and ‘religious insult’ respectively, and the re-criminalisation of defamation. We need you all to become involved.
One exciting part of our work in Moscow was the launching of a special Russian jury for our New Voices Award. We met large groups of emerging writers, held a public event at the Non-Fiction Book Fair, in which Russian PEN President, Andrei Bitov, took part, as well as Ludmila Ulitskaya, Russian PEN VP and Irina Prokhorova, chair of the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation. We spent an afternoon with Russian PEN and then met with Masha Gessen, who is being forced to leave Russia because of another law forbidding anyone from the LGBT community from raising children. The state will have the right to simply seize these children and take them away from their parents.
We joined publically with Russian PEN leaders in calling on younger writers to join PEN. In difficult, threatening times we all need an organization to defend us – an organization profoundly independent from all authorities; and one which is both truly national and truly international.
The good news is that a wave of emerging writers are now joining Russian PEN; and the New Voices Award will encourage many young writers to think about our cause, which is also theirs. Most important, PEN International, together with PEN Russia, has taken a strong public stand for free expression.
Best wishes to you all,
John Ralston Saul