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

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

June 29, 2012

Dear PEN Members, Dear friends,

In some ways this was a month focused on linguistic rights. Not that the rest of our world stopped turning. In Mexico the good and the bad continued to speed in a complex spiral. President Calderon has finally signed the Law of Protection for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in the presence among others, of PEN Mexico’s Jennifer Clement. Cathal Sheerin in our International office organized a very solid awareness campaign around the G20 meeting in Mexico City. Yet the violence continues to accelerate. And there lies our constant challenge: to stay on target as long as it takes to change things.

And how wonderful it is to see Aung San Suu Kyi moving around the world with her message. PEN International was involved in defending her from the first moment of her arrest 23 years ago. I remember a group of us managing somehow to get a recorded message from her for a PEN benefit in Toronto in the 1990’s. This campaign for free expression began with the 1962 coup. And it is not yet over.

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Back to linguistic rights. It is surprising how many people still struggle to see the link between the health of a language and its culture and the reality of freedom of expression. I have just been in Crimea with the Crimean Tartars. It was a gathering of the Ural Altay Network chaired by Kaiser ÖzHun. Hori Takeaki was there, as well and Gil-won Lee from the Board and writers from 11 PEN Centres.

In 1944, May 18, Stalin ordered the expulsion of the Tartars from Crimea. In 24 hours, some 250,000 people were swept up and sent off to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Siberia. Half died in the process of expulsion and resettlement. For almost half a century they struggled to be allowed to return. Meanwhile, they were denied their language and cultural rights. During much of this struggle, they were led by Mustafa Dzhemilev, now in his 70’s, with whom I spent time in Simferopol. He was one of the founders of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union and was often in jail.

In 1989 the Crimean Tartars came home in a remarkable mass movement which was no longer illegal, but nor was it approved. Over the last 23 years they have rebuilt their lives and re-launched their culture. None of this has been easy. Ukraine is a country where the constant debate is between the Ukranian and Russian languages. Within this country, lies the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is 70% Russian speaking and 25% Tartar. The Ukranian and Autonomous Republic rules have made their renaissance possible, but with difficulty. There are just 15 public primary schools teaching in Tartar, but no secondary schools. So only 16% of Tartar youth can be educated in their own language. They lack curricula, school books, teachers. They have created a private sector television station, but national rules designed for the other aspects of Ukranian multilingualism limit them to 25% of broadcasting in Tartar on their own station. On public stations they are limited to 3 hours a week – far less than their percentage of the Crimean population. And so on.

At the same time, it must also be said, that it is within this structure that they have made so much progress over so few years. No one is in jail. They are part of the political process. Nothing is forbidden. At the same time, their situation makes the reality of cultural and linguistic life difficult every day. The effort they must expend is far greater than that of those who belong either to cultures with a big population base or to a minority in one country which has the support of a majority in a neighbouring country.

In situations like these the Girona Manifesto creates a clear understanding of language rights. You could sense this in our public events.

And PEN has a practical role to play in Crimea. Between Crimean Tartar writers and the PEN Centres present there was talk of a possible PEN Centre or at least of finding a way to include Crimean Tartar writers in our work.

This same story could be told, with hundreds of variations, around the world. As a Canadian, I think of the more than 50 indigenous languages in my own country, a large number of them in danger of disappearing. Throughout Africa there are indigenous languages, often spoken by millions, but marginalized by the continuing dominance of the languages installed by the empires. These imported languages – I personally live in two of them – also have their role to play. Three of them are the official languages of PEN precisely because they are so international and have a particular richness which comes from having multiple poles of influence.

But the indigenous languages are also essential. And while the roles of the international languages, aiding communications across borders, is central to the reality of our own internationalism, so the role of indigenous languages and those with smaller populations are equally important because they represent a profound truth about their particular civilization. And literature rises out of the particularity of our civilizations.

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A few days before this Crimean meeting, the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, chaired by Josep-Maria Terricabras, gathered in Barcelona with 11 Centres present. Hori Takeaki and I were there along with Laura McVeigh and Frank Geary from the International office. The focus was on the challenge of translation, particularly for languages with small populations. There was also a formal public launching of The Girona Manifesto with the President of Catalunya.

I then went to Madrid to meet with the Cervantes Institute to begin a conversation about possible ways of working together.

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The Board and Committee Chairs met in London for two days. Most of us only see each other twice a year – the other opportunity being at the Congress. And it is virtually impossible to talk about ideas and policies during our quarterly telephone meetings. We concentrated on long-term strategy in Turkey, China and Mexico. We adopted a very preliminary declaration on digital rights which will be reworked and brought back to us before being presented to you at the Congress. We began working out possible new approaches to governance. Now that our finances are more solid – thanks to new funding from sources such as SIDA and the Publishers Circle – we discussed possible options. As always in the area of finance, we could do a great deal more with more. And of course, we looked at how, during the Korean Congress, to put more emphasis on real content and less on bureaucratic technicalities.

Finally, we took advantage of a clause in our constitution which allows us to co-opt up to three expert advisors onto the Board. These are non-voting positions. We voted unanimously to co-opt for a two year term Elizabeth Hiester, an international lawyer specializing in technology, telecommunications and media. The whole digital revolution is going to take up more and more of our time as its effect on freedom of expression and on the means of production and the distribution of literature and distribution grow. Elizabeth is eager to give us particular help in this area. She also has experience in environmental law and a strong demonstrated commitment to freedom of expression.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul