Monthly letter from John Ralston Saul, International President to PEN membership

Monthly letter from John Ralston Saul, International President to PEN membership

May 28, 2012

Dear PEN Members, Dear friends,

May and June are the months when our standing Committees tend to get together. This matters because we are a grassroots movement spread all over the world. We need to see each other in order to continually set and reset our direction.

The new Balkans Network held its inaugural meeting in Belgrade in early May. I found it a very moving experience. Branko Čegec of Croatia talked of “filling in the black hole of the last few years”. The Albanian PEN representative, Sadik Bejko, spoke of the network helping to build bridges through linguistic borders. For the next three years the Balkans Network will be based in Belgrade, then rotate to a non-Slavic language centre – again, this decision represents a careful evocation of the cultural complexity and richness of the region. Vida Ognjenovic, with her colleagues from Serbian PEN and PEN Centres throughout the Balkans, have started something that shows how PEN can celebrate difference and cooperation at the same time.

This new network’s approach is particularly important as the growth of populism in Europe continues. Earlier presidents, such as György Konrád and Jiří Gruša, have warned that this is a dangerous phenomenon for free expression. And I join them in this concern. Populism is never a friend to literature as a free force of social criticism, or to culture in general.

Later in May during the Peace Committee meeting in Bled, Slovenian PEN called on the 26 Centres present to speak out against a sustained populist attack on leading Slovenian writers by the “yellow press”.

Every year the Committee meeting in Bled is linked to the International Writers Meeting, which is in its 44th year. In the beginning it was a gathering across the Cold War wall. Now, there are other walls to be crossed.

Sometimes we don’t give ourselves credit for just how broad and complex a movement PEN is. Everyone understands our writers in prison work. It is already more complex to create a strategy to deal with the raw violence that strikes without even the formalities of arrest. We are working out how to deal with new communications technologies that are racing to both open up and shut down free expression in different ways at the same time. We are strengthening our ability to defend endangered languages, as can be seen through the Girona Manifesto. Our education programmes, mainly in Africa, show that literature and free expression need to be advanced in different ways in different places.

But behind all of our activism and programmes, lies a basic truth about PEN. We are a movement built on ideas. We need to take the time to talk through our conviction and the very real crises we face somewhere in the world, every day.

PEN needs a place for dialogue; a place where we can talk together, not necessarily with utilitarian purpose. But to work our way through issues. The Peace Committee is becoming more and more that place for our shared dialogue.

For years, PEN International members have been wanting to find a place in the debate over the environment. But we are not an NGO of environmental experts. Nor should we be. Yet if that enormous movement of environmental NGOs is blocked, it is partly due to a failure of language; a true absence of the sort of language that makes change possible. It struck me in Bled that members such as Sylvestre Clancier were working their way towards that sort of language. And that is our job: creating language that works.

The Committee also wants to give itself a tighter focus. Over the next year, its chair Evard Kovac and its vice-chair Teresa Salema (re-elected in Bled) will lead a group to develop a manifesto clarifying their role in PEN.

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As most of you will know, Thomas von Vegesack died this month. As did Carlos Fuentes. I was in Stockholm for the ICORN annual meeting just after it happened and all of us from PEN had an opportunity to reminisce about Thomas. Thomas, as chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, was a seminal figure throughout PEN. I had seen him some months ago in Stockholm. He was the same funny, ethically-driven figure many of us remember from two decades ago.

Carlos Fuentes was working until the last moment. Late last year he took the time to help make our Mexican mission a success and to align himself clearly with the cause.

Finally, the Board and Committee Chairs will have a working session in London from June 20 to 22. If there are issues you would like to be raised, please send them to any of us and to Laura.

All best wishes,

John Ralston Saul