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


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

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

As you know, PEN now has a partnership with the Hay Festival network. This means our Free the Word! program fits into already existing festivals. And so through literature we are able to get across our messages about free speech, debate, translation, endangered languages, digital standards and so on! This partnership began in October in Xalapa in Veracruz State, Mexico – a difficult place where writers have been dying. The Free the Word! events at the Xalapa Hay Festival involved Peter Godwin, the President of the PEN American Center, Wole Soyinka, Michael Jacobs, Jeanette Winterson, Frédéric Martel, and Janne Teller . They ensured that our story was told. There were difficult moments, tense moments involving local powers, when Peter and others ensured that our message was delivered and clear.

I am just back from Colombia, both Bogota and Cartagena. The Hay Festival in Cartagena is a major Latin American event. It is a remarkable gathering of Hispanic writers from all over the Americas. Our former President and recent Nobel, Mario Vargas Llosa, was there, as were Herta Müller, Julian Barnes and David Grossman.

PEN was represented by Sergio Ramirez and Gioconda Belli from Nicaragua, Luisa Valenzuela from Argentina, Carlos Vásquez Zawadzki, the President of Colombian PEN, Francine Prose, former President of American PEN and myself. PEN Colombia organized three extra public meetings drawing large numbers of local writers. I was deeply impressed by the enthusiasm of the Cartagena writing community. Later in Bogota, there were a series of public and internal events in which I also took part.

The primary point is this: PEN needs to be the gathering place for everyone who is tied to writing. Our Centres need to be as big and inclusive and diversified as possible. The days of the “PEN Club” are long over. A strong PEN Centre is not small and inward looking. It is outward looking and acting; and it has the authority of its whole community. A growing number of our Centres have gone one step further by creating categories of associate membership and student membership for readers. After all, literature and freedom of expression belong as much to the reader as they do to the writer.

You may remember a year ago we took a Delegation to Mexico City where close to a hundred writers have been killed, often reporters on small newspapers or radio television stations in the north of the country. Many officials like to say that those killed are neither real writers nor real journalists. I have never understood the point of that argument. Is it less of a crime to kill a lesser known writer than a famous one? From the moment our Delegation arrived, we were asked to clarify who we spoke for, and to do that by defining what we meant by writers. This was expected. I simply said that a writer could be a Nobel Prize winner or a provincial journalist or anyone in between. Period. If we look at the 850 names on our Writers in Prison Committee Case-List, many are not PEN members, most are not famous literary figures. But they live by language and are dying, being imprisoned or threatened or fired or beaten up for this. They are one of us.

PEN Colombia has taken on the challenge of building a large and diverse Centre. Their membership is growing fast and it is growing around the country. I hope they will become a model for reinforced Latin American PEN Centres, embracing the unknown and the famous, the controversial and the quiet, the established and the emergent.

Our impunity program in Latin America, including our new Publishers Circle eBook on Impunity – Writers Against Impunity – is filled with the voices of Latin American literature. This book demonstrates just how important it is to gather together all of our community so we can speak publically as one.

A PEN Centre made up of the few leading and well known writers will have difficulty fulfilling its mandate because it has not reached out to embrace the community and perhaps those most at risk. Equally, a PEN Centre which does not include the leading writers or those writers who are at risk will have great difficulty fulfilling its mandate. After all, those writers who have the confidence of the public are key to our message. And those at risk are most in need of our umbrella. And we can never know when and where the courage of freedom of expression will most be needed. Of course, this inclusive approach won’t work everywhere. Centres functioning inside dictatorships may find it impossible to gather everyone in, as will Centres that exist in exile. But these are exceptions to the rule. What we all share is our desire to reinforce all of our Centres in order to strengthen their influence and the influence of PEN International.

The most common challenge is that writers and publishers are divided in a myriad of ways. There is always the standard local version of left versus right. But aside from extreme positions such as promoting violence and hatred – which break our Charter – these sorts of divisions are not PEN’s business. We stand for literature and free expression. This is a big umbrella. We are not members of our PEN Centres or of PEN International because we agree politically, but because we believe in literature and free expression. And we believe that these belong to readers and listeners.

We can reinforce our Latin American Centres by doing just this – by reaching out to our full community in each country and by creating powerful coalitions of writers of all sorts who respect and believe in our Charter. As the crisis of impunity seems to be spreading, this reinforcement is essential.

With best wishes,


John Ralston Saul