John Ralston Saul's December monthly letter to the PEN membership

John Ralston Saul’s December letter to the PEN membership.

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

As many of you know, the entire Board of Directors of PEN Turkey is now under investigation for having insulted the Turkish Republic, as laid out in Article 301. Of course, there are already some 70 writers in prison in Turkey and many others caught up in the tentacles of the often unfair legal system. The vast majority of them are Kurds or those who have written in support of Kurds. And then I look at the events in Iran, Syria and China – to name only three. There have been no lack of indignities visited on free expression around the world over the last month.

But there is something particularly disturbing about this incident in Turkey, a country which eagerly describes itself as a democracy. And it comes in the form of the dispassionate and procedural opening of an investigation of the entire Board; of eight well known writers who have been elected by so many other writers.

This touches some of us very personally. We know them. They are friends. We were with them in Ankara and Istanbul in November.

Apparently the investigation has been in the works since June when the Board spoke up in defence of the composer Fazil Say.

Of course, Turkey is a rich and complex civilization. Of course there are many good things to be said about that civilization. But such cultural and historic richness only makes this affront to free expression worse. The country suffers from a deeply flawed legal system and an often unjust application of the law.

The obvious point is that no law should exist to limit criticism of a citizen’s own country. This is particularly obvious in a democracy. The citizens – not the government – are the guarantors of the legitimacy of the state. States remain healthy to the extent that citizens can speak up and criticize even the most basic of natural assumptions. The authorities have no innate right to define the loyalty or the patriotism of the citizenry. In a democracy the authorities are the servants of the citizenry not the bosses.

Look at how the state undermines its own legitimacy through such a law. Here are the 48 words issued by the PEN Turkey Board in defence of a fellow artist:

“As the Turkey Centre of the international writers association PEN, we strongly condemn and meet with consternation the [news] that our esteemed composer and pianist Fazıl Say has been called up to court. The international community has been put on alert in the face of fascist developments in Turkey”.

Suppose we were to accept that such a law should exist. Are these outrageous words? Are they not fairly normal phrases of protest? There is no international democratic standard by which words such as these could be used to justify unleashing the legal system on any individual or group. In this particular case we are talking about eight writers, well known, indeed rewarded in Turkey and in other countries for their contributions and their talents.

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All of this raises a related point. People periodically ask me whether I think we at PEN are making progress. I suppose they mean: will authorities around the world stop arresting and bothering writers? History is pretty clear on this. They will not stop. They can’t help themselves.

And PEN, as one of the voices of history, will go on working to reduce this stupidity. We will go on finding the right words and actions to condemn them for their weakness and working to get writers freed. Weakness? Yes, the weakness of grown men and women, with concrete power in their hands, who are frightened of language because words escape their tools of authority. Frightened. Thin skinned. Vainglorious. Or simply vain. They cannot bear the sounds of free expression and therefore of creativity and imagination.

What of the question – Is PEN making progress? The answer it that we are working – all of us – to drag free expression and therefore creativity itself, out of the corners and shadows into which those with concrete power have always tried to shove it. We have our WiPC methods. Our RAN’s. We have reinvented our missions. We have our growing education programs in many parts of Africa. Our support for languages at risk increasingly organized around The Girona Manifesto. Our Impunity campaigns in Latin America. Now there is our digital work with the Gyeongju Declaration of September. Our publishing work in difficult areas with the Publishers Circle. Our discussions around peace. Our Free the Word events. And so on. And so on. We are constantly building new tools to help us drag free speech into critical areas.

When I think of this personally, the answer is precise: we are working to place literature and free expression at the centre of our civilizations. These are not little pressures to be produced as a distraction once political and military and economic problems are solved.

What we work for is not comfort. It is muscular, uncomfortable, transparent free expression and the opening up of the imagination through literature. This is what creates the energy to solve political and economic problems. The very fact that some 800 writers are in prison, while virtually no politicians, officers or businessmen are, is an eloquent demonstration of the power creativity holds when it comes to solving problems.

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Please, all of you, take this affront to our colleagues in PEN Turkey as an affront to what we all stand for. Write about it in your own countries. Write to the Turkish authorities.

With best wishes,

John Ralston Saul