Q&A with New PEN SA Head of Communications Nick Mulgrew

31 Jan 2018
Q&A with New PEN SA Head of Communications Nick Mulgrew

PEN SA extends a warm welcome to Nick Mulgrew, who has joined the permanent staff at PEN South Africa as its new Head of Communications (originally the Newsletter Editor). He was asked about what drew him to work for PEN SA, what makes PEN SA an important organisation, and what he hopes to contribute to our work.

PEN SA: You have been a professional member of PEN SA since 2015: what motivated you to become a PEN SA member?

NM: PEN SA had always been supportive of me as a young writer, even before I was a member, inviting me to submit to the PEN International New Voices Award, and celebrating my first achievements and publications on their website. I felt a professional body of goodwill and solidarity, that extended its goodwill and solidarity to a relative nobody in the beginning of their career, was the sort of professional organisation I should be a part of.

Writers in South Africa have always benefitted from unity in politics and purpose. I think of organisations like COSAW – even though PEN SA is older than COSAW, COSAW was a more productive force for many years – and how much can be gained from pooling and sharing information, and kindling political and professional engagement between people who work in literature and journalism. I hoped PEN SA membership could be a way for me to become more engaged, and it turned out – through co-judging competitions and participating in advocacy – that those hopes would be realised.

PEN SA: This year you assumed the position of PEN SA Head of Communications: what was the appeal of this role and what contribution do you hope to make to PEN SA’s communication’s strategy and aesthetic?

NM: Chiefly I was excited about the new Board and leadership of PEN SA, and was motivated by an opportunity to learn from and work with people who I admire and respect as writers and intellectuals. I’ve been lucky enough to work on various boards and on various literary projects – Short Story Day Africa, Prufrock, uHlanga, CueMedia – and each collaboration, as well as being personally enriching, has presented me with new ways to contribute to literary communities in southern Africa.

I look to revise PEN SA’s communications and aesthetics to reflect the difficult social and political moment we have entered, as well as the potential for writers and literary professionals in union to address the challenges and threats made to civil liberties and freedom of expression and the press. Also, I’d like PEN SA to be an organisation that shares opportunities and celebrates excellence. I’d hate us to be a dour, patronising professional union; that wouldn’t be a good reflection on our members, who constitute a vibrant and diverse body.

PEN SA: PEN SA is a local chapter of PEN International. In your view, what are the positive aspects of this global membership, and what are the unique attributes of the local chapter?

NM: The benefits of a global union of writers and literary professionals are obvious: advocacy and worldwide solidarity in the face of arbitrary imprisonment and impingement on freedom of the press. PEN Centres internationally can harness the force of their Professional Members and Supporters to help effect the release of writers in prison, and other people at risk in our field. It’s also a pleasure to be able to bounce ideas off of, and share resources with, colleagues at Centres around the world, who all have different local contexts and histories.

In South Africa we have an interesting context that intersects with the PEN Charter, in that, unlike in countries such as the United States, our Constitutional definition of ‘free speech’ or ‘free expression’ does not colloquially or legally mean “you can say what you want”. It would be lovely if that was the way it worked, but in unequal societies such a definition of freedom of speech can result in a cooling effect on the speech of people from subaltern or otherwise oppressed communities.

Free speech, as this society has come to learn (and will come to learn), does not mean the personal liberty to say anything without censure or consequence; it means all people in a society have the same opportunity to speech, the same freedom to speak, and the same opportunity to be listened to with dignity. Our society, still very much emerging from under the twin yokes of colonialism and apartheid, has a need for hate speech legislation and other overseeing mechanisms that govern our public discourses. PEN SA has an important role to play, I believe, in the negotiation of re-defining free speech away from an individual-centric power-game, to a philosophy that might result in more equal and dignified public discourses.

PEN SA: What contribution does PEN SA make to the southern-African literary scene, and what changes do you wish to see at PEN SA during your tenure?

In addition to the above, I hope PEN SA can make a practical contribution and provides practical encouragement to writers in their day-to-day lives, especially with regard to sharing news of opportunities, awards, new publications, and so on. It’s my job to make this happen, and I feel personally invested in it: writing is not an easy job, and writers sometimes need all the signposts and hand-ups they can get.

PEN SA: What are you reading?

NM: Masizi Kunene’s epic poem Emperor Shaka the Great, and Sandra Cisnero’s novel The House on Mango Street.

(Image by Mia Borman)