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


31 August, 2012

Dear PEN Members, Dear friends,

This will be a short letter. I wanted to get it off to you before many of us meet in Gyeongju for the 78th PEN International Congress.

I am writing to you from Australia where I have been largely for non-PEN matters. However, as always, I ensure there are a few minutes for PEN in every event, including an empty chair. The theme of these has been Liu Xiaobo, who is still unjustly in prison. We must not allow his cause and that of the many other writers in prison in China to slip out of the public view.

During my time in Sydney, Sydney PEN organized a large gathering of their members and of potential new members. It was very impressive and I learned a great deal about their concerns. It was exciting to discover that their President, Michael Fraser, is not only a lawyer, but an expert in the area of digital freedom of expression, which we will be concentrating on in Gyeongju and after. My guess is that there are many writer/lawyers in PEN around the world. For example, Jarkko Tontti, the President of Finnish PEN is a lawyer. He was a great help in the Crimea when we were working on a statement about the rights of the Crimea-Tartars. My feeling is that we must build this linkage of literature and the law. We made use of it in Mexico with success, thanks to the University of Toronto Law School’s Renu Mandhane. We now have a coopted lawyer on the International Board – Elizabeth Hiester. And we have a growing relationship in different countries with the international law firm of Clifford Chance. So much of freedom of expression is defined and protected by the law that it can only be a good thing for us to build in legal expertise.

While I was in Melbourne, I met with the Board of Melbourne PEN. Both Judith Rodriguez and Judith Buckrich, whom all of you know, where there. On the same day, Arnold Zable – their President – and I did a PEN event at the Melbourne Writers Festival which drew several hundred people.

Melbourne PEN has a partnership with Cambodian PEN. This is a model many of you could develop for your PEN Centre. It involves established Centres partnering with new Centres and developing a long term working relationship. Melbourne PEN is also using the multicultural nature of their city to develop relationships with communities which have writers in difficulty in their home countries.

Finally, both Centres are very concerned about the return of an Australian refugee policy that involves holding some refugees in overseas camps. The last time this happened, several writers were held incommunicado and children were denied their right to education.

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Hori Takeaki is just returning from an important gathering in Kyrgystan, outside of Bishkek. With the leadership of Dalmira Telepergenova and Kaiser ÖzHun, the Presidents of Central Asian PEN and Uyghur PEN, a Summer School for Freedom of Expression has been organized again this year. The idea is of crucial importance: help people to formalize their understanding of the importance of free expression; give them the tools to use it on a daily basis. This year there were students of all ages from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

The whole effort has been supported by PEN International and our Ural-Altay Network.

I want all of you to know about this because it is perfect example of PEN working on the ground to strengthen our cause. I keep saying it, but it cannot be said enough. We are a grassroots organization. This program, like our school programs in Africa, demonstrates how we can work on the ground.

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I am very much looking forward to seeing those of you who will be there in Gyeongju in a few days time.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul