PEN Congress and Some Other South African PEN Updates by Margie Orford, Executive Vice President of SA PEN

26 Sep 2012

I was privileged to attend this year’s PEN International Congress held in Gyeongju in South Korea. This was after quite a busy PEN year in which some of the projects around the Secrecy Bill and our literacy partnership with Nalibali have started to take some shape. I will come to these below.

Margie OrfordThe Congress (getting there was an epic journey) was held in Gyeongju, a small mountainous town that was once the old Buddhist capital of Korea. So it was a lovely setting. There was a great Free the Word! Festival that happened in parallel. Soyinka and Le Clezio were the two Nobel Laureates in attendance and both spoke wonderfully. A literary highlight was the presence of some North Korean writers in exile who spoke very movingly about their own experiences and the difficulty of keeping any sort of literature alive in North Korea. The Congress accepted two new PEN Centres – the North Korean Writers in Exile and a Lebanese Centre – into PEN International. Both represented by brave people in very troubled parts of the world.

The Congress itself was busy and businesslike. Much of what is attended to is International Board work – so the books were presented and accepted. Eric Lax, who has become a friend over the last three conferences I have attended, has managed to get PEN International out of the red and firmly into the black. The work done by John Ralston Saul and Laura McVeigh on stabilizing funding through the Publishers’ Circle has worked out well and the big publishers have committed money for the next three years. All of this is on the website (, but I thought it was encouraging for our own efforts – especially that of Justin Fox who has done a great job in drawing in publishers to make our own South African Publishers’ Circle.

Laura McVeigh, the new director, has certainly brought much more focus to PEN International and she is starting to build a good team of people and PEN is hiring so the load has eased on the few people who seemed to do everything. As in everything in the world, a great deal of work has shifted to managing social media and the website is well worth visiting to see what the various PEN Centres are doing. She has also managed to secure a substantial grant from the Swedish International Development Agency, SIDA. Some of this funding is available for projects in Africa, so I will be applying for some funding from SIDA for the work that we are doing with the Nal’ibali campaign.

There were elections. I stood for a vacant board position – and despite a wonderful nomination speech from Nicholas Kawinga of Zambian PEN – was defeated by two votes. I had a great deal of support though from a variety of PEN centres and the experience was interesting and well worth it. Although I did not win, it was certainly good to campaign a little and to focus clearly on what we have been doing. Which is plenty.

Over the last year, I have worked with PEN International, American PEN, with the Secretary General, Takeaki Hori of Japan and with Marian Botsford-Fraser, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee in drafting the pioneering Declaration on Free Expression and Digital Technology. We presented this work to the assembly and the PEN International Assembly voted unanimously on September 12th in favour of the declaration that will focus on issues of freedom of expression and digital media. This declaration – the text of which is also online – took a great deal of work and focus and it sets the basis for a way of moving forward into a very different world. One of the main problems is that there is no longer the familiar dyad between citizens and state. This is now triangulated with the large companies that control digital technology and information. There was much discussion on this issue – but I think if you read the text you will see that we have managed to be coherent about the principles of freedom of expression and the fast-changing digital world. I will continue on this committee and we will focus on the crucial and thorny issue of copyright for the next congress. It was a difficult issue but deftly dealt with and passed.

Another exciting initiative is the PEN New Voices project. This was a new project that PEN International has taken up with enthusiasm. I had been thinking of and discussing ways in which to pass on the PEN baton of freedom of expression, as it were, and to find ways of fostering new talent and young writers. The project will work like this: each PEN centre chooses one or more senior and established writers – Nobel Laureates, if that is appropriate – but well known figures in their countries and linguistic traditions. These writers do not need to be PEN board members – the point is that they are well known and have prestige. Each of these will choose a young man and young woman under thirty – blogger, poet, novelist, whatever – and put these young people forward. PEN international will publish their work (online, I imagine) and there will be winners in each region. Three of the best will then attend the next Congress. It is easy and cheap to do and will, I hope, enable a good mentoring system between senior writers and the really new generation. It will also avoid the impossible weight of sifting through competition entries – and will get rid of the gender balance issues in an elegant way. I presented this at the Congress – and it was met with much discussion and enthusiasm. PEN International will be announcing the details shortly.

South African PEN came up for discussion because of our submission to the UN Peer Review. This was facilitated and financed by American PEN – Raymond Louw did almost all the input, so many thanks to him. And the charming and ever helpful Deji Olukotun, a Ford Foundation Fellow at American PEN, made the submission. I am sure you saw the international coverage that this generated. Most importantly, however, PEN objections to the Protection of Information Bill – aka the Secrecy Bill – are on record. This will be of great value, I hope, in our future work against the bill that looks set to be passed soon. Although there have been plenty of amendments the crucial public interest defence for the publication of classified material has not been included. I had several questions about this from PEN centres and offers of support and assistance. We will need to consider how we take this further.

Pretoria PEN petitioned to the Assembly to have the name of the Centre changed to PEN Afrikaans. Dido Ekm made the most moving presentation, the assembly voted and the name change was passed almost unanimously (there was one abstention). I hope that we will work together with PEN Afrikaans– especially on issues that pertain directly to freedom of expression and with the Nalibali literacy campaign.

I have attended three congresses in a row now, and the experience has been invaluable. I have managed to build and consolidate networks and friendships that have enhanced what we do. American PEN in particular has provided South African PEN with substantial material support. I am currently discussing partnerships with them for the literacy project. They will also be assisting us in drawing up a strategic plan and a fundraising profile so that we can cost, budget and fundraise for the future. I have also learned a great deal from them and from English PEN about how to make PEN work sustainable in terms of people and money.

There are two main areas that South African PEN needs to focus on for the next two or three years. The first one is, of course, the threats to freedom of expression in South Africa. These are serious and we need to work strategically on this issue.

The second is the pernicious effect that not being able to read has on a citizen’s ability to participate fully in his or her society. This is why the work with Nal’ibali is so crucial. The partnership we have with Nal’ibali is simple and contained: PEN can provide an intellectual and non-partisan political space in which to discuss literacy and freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights: and without it –whether by a law that prohibits one from reading or writing or due to neglect that results in children not learning to read – one cannot be a full citizen.

So far, I have taken part in a panel discussion on children’s reading, mother tongue and literacy at the Grahamstown Festival. I am hoping to do the same in Johannesburg at the Jozi Book Fair at the end of the month. We will be applying for a SIDA grant to host three or four forums/workshops around this – with Nal’ibali next year. (They will do the admin – they have a campaign manager). Part of the motivation in raising Publishers’ Circle Funding was so that we could do some of this work – which draws in authors from a variety of publishers. And building a reading, thinking public is essential to the long-term future of publishing anyway. So a natural fit.

One final thing – the Open Book Festival turned out to be a great success. Mervyn Sloman has really pulled off something special. I was also glad to be able to have PEN partner with them in a small way again. American PEN brought out Cathy Park Hong, a wonderful Korean- American poet – appropriately enough after the congress there. We are hoping to do another exchange for next year and to get some South African writers to New York for the PEN World Voices Festival in April. So slowly things are taking shape.