September 2015 Letter from PEN International President John Ralston Saul
28 Oct 2015
Dear PEN Members, Dear Friends,
You have often heard me talk about PEN as a grassroots organisation – a virtual nation of the word – driven by 30,000 writers around the world. This last month has been, for me, a moving illustration of this reality.
I am just back from Odessa in Ukraine where writers, publishers, journalists, translators had gathered. As I put it at the opening of this new literary festival, we were there in solidarity with our friends. People came from Russia, Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, etc. It was the idea of and organised by Ulrich Schreiber of the Berlin Internationales Literaturfestival, Hans Ruprecht of the International Literature Festival Leukerbad and Ukrainian PEN´s Vice-President, Andrei Kurkov.
What does this sort of solidarity signify? Quite simply, in the midst of a war in which there are as many volleys of propaganda as there are of shells, writers can demonstrate the possibility of civilization by talking with each other and with the public – in public – and in a language which is above manipulation. The presence of the Russian writers Mikhail Shishkin and Yerofeyev was important and symbolic. The halls in which we spoke were jammed with young people eager to participate. The first International Literature Festival of Odessa is an important initiative.
I should add that it was exciting to hear the young Ukrainian poet Sheril Zhadan first read his poetry, then sing with his ska and reggae band, Sobaky V Kosmosi. He takes Leonard Cohen’s idea of the singing poet in quite a different direction. That dance floor, literally heaving with teenagers who had come with us from the literary sessions, was some sort of answer to the obscure manipulations not all that far away in the Donetsk area.
Two days before, I had gone briefly to Kiev with our friend Andrei Kurkov and Mykola Riabchuk, PEN Ukraine´s President, to hold first a press conference and then a public session. During that session, we all struggled with what a PEN strategy should look like in such an unstable situation. In any case, the first step is to be there – both internationally and through our PEN centre – and to be heard. And above all, we need to be heard using a language which people on all sides can recognise as a reflection of reality. Not propaganda. This expression of culture, this willingness to accept a debate filled with confusion, is a powerful counterweight to propaganda.
I was in Mali, the week before, in Bamako; an even more fragile situation than Ukraine. We have two active and impressive PEN centres in the region, in Mali and in Mauritania.
They are new centres. Both will be presented for official acceptance by the PEN Assembly in Quebec City in a few days. Again, here is PEN installing itself where it needs to be – in countries faced by enormous challenges.
Why was I in Bamako?
Had the extremist forces managed to continue their advance through Mali two years ago, all of our members would have been in mortal danger. The very idea of a cultural community, of civil society, of public discourse, let alone free speech, would have been in danger. The leaders of Mali PEN – Ismaïla Samba Traoré, Hanan Keïta, Aïcha Diarra and Chirfi Moulaye Haïdara had a courageous idea: they would bring writers together from all over francophone Africa to talk about, and so to assert, the need for peace in their country. Mali is still faced by extremists in parts of the north, but also by other tensions between communities. They called this gathering a search for “peace and social cohesion.” And it was personally relevant to many of the participants because many other countries in the region are faced by similar threats and tensions.
Whatever their situation at home, there was a remarkable collegiality among the writers from Mauritania, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Congo, along with Senegal. As in Ukraine, you could call this an exercise in solidarity. Just being there and speaking up is a first step. Everyone used the sessions to describe their particular situations and the situations in their country. Djibril Ly from Mauritania, who had had a terrible experience in prison, was particularly eloquent. Samfou Digilou from Chad laid out an astonishing narrative of sequential military interventions. Yet, Samfou in Chad is building up a potential PEN Centre, as is Jean Claude Awono in Cameroon and Èric Bekale-Etoughet in Gabon, among others. I felt that through the clarity of these debates there emerged a calm optimism – coming perhaps from the force of creativity, from literature and the determined use of free expression.
People spoke of how you cannot hold a state together if citizens cannot see themselves reflected in the institutions of the state. Interestingly enough, there was an echo of the situation faced in Mexico and Central America, where the high levels of corruption make justice and the fair delivery of services almost impossible. As Fatim Keita put it, “social cohesion is impossible without justice – La cohésion sociale est impossible sans la justice.” There is enormous energy in this African francophone writing community. But, as they pointed out, they are faced by a sparse publishing industry and weak education systems, which in turn restricts readership. I could add that a weak education system restricts citizenship.
PEN Mali has developed a large program with young writers. They were very present during the three days and spoke up with creative points of view. PEN Mali has also created new literary prizes and I was able to present the inaugural prize for young writers to Aboubacor Sanogo.
Finally, it was good to spend time with the Senegal delegates – Abdoulaye Fodé Ndione and Djibril Diallo Falémé. Senegal PEN has played a leadership role in the development of new centres in francophone Africa.
Forgive my continued inverted narrative, but a few days before I was in the new London Office of our Secretariat – twice the size with no rent increase; a place where we will have room to develop our new fellowship programs. The first four fellows have arrived in London from the Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona. We are already in negotiations with universities in other countries.
Before that, I was in Athens, in part for the International New York Times Forum on Democracy; in part to meet with a range of writers and publishers over the construction of a new Greek PEN Centre – a centre which would represent the rich writing community and have an important role to play in the current crisis.
And finally, before that, I was in Zagreb, Croatia on personal business. However, I spent time with Nadežda Čačinović and Croatian PEN. They organised a public meeting to discuss PEN’s work in the Balkans, including the refugee crisis. This situation is not going away. PEN is constantly intervening and this crisis will play an important role in Quebec City. With Nadežda and Slavenka Drakulić I called on the Foreign Minister, Vesna Pusić, with whom we examined the refugee situation and the unfortunate reaction of some European states.
And I was able to spend some time with my old friend and our International Vice-President, Predrag Matvejević. He was, as he has always been, on the cutting edge of today’s issues.
As you can see, this last month as President has been a bit intense. Meanwhile, everyone else in the PEN leadership is working just as hard. Carles will bring you up to date on a lot of new initiatives.
I came home to Toronto a few days ago to a gathering of Japanese PEN writers, led by Jirō Asada and Canadian writers, led by Randy Boyagoda, the Presidents of the Japanese and Canadian PEN centres. That is the solid work of bringing cultures together. PEN centres around the world are constantly at work doing just this – encouraging the idea that we must reach across borders, in part by bringing writers together. During the gathering in Toronto there was a discussion of literature and war. We are never free of this drama and the suffering it produces. In the midst of it all, we use our voices to insist that life is possible.
I look forward to seeing many of you in Quebec City.
All best wishes,
John Ralston Saul