July/August letter from John Ralston Saul, International President, to the PEN membership.

3 September, 2013

Dear PEN members, Dear friends,

In a few days, many of us will meet in Reykjavik for the 79th PEN International Congress. Many things will happen there. When it comes to rights, we are faced today by a curiously old fashioned situation – that is, there are serious freedom of expression issues in all of the world’s great powers. A troika of unacceptable laws in Russia. The United States leading in an explosion of surveillance systems that are overwhelming two centuries of privacy and free expression progress and rules. And then there is the continuing situation in China.

There will of course be many other issues. This will be an opportunity to broaden and strengthen the work of our Digital Declaration, with writers like Douglas Coupland taking part. On another front, Iceland is one of the great success stories of a language spoken by few and yet growing ever stronger. Reykjavik will be a logical place to expand the role of the Girona Manifesto and of our work supporting languages in danger.

Because of the close partnership between our International Congress and the Reykjavik International Literary Festival, the role of literature will be front and central in everything we do. This is a very good model for us to follow in the future.

On the exact 40th Anniversary of the Pinochet Coup in Chile, Antonio Skarmeta of Chilean PEN will be joining us. And Kiran Desai will be asking the Assembly to accept a new PEN Centre based in New Delhi.

We will also be asked to approve a new centre in Myanmar. This is a truly historic event, as for decades we have worked on prisoner cases in Myanmar.

In late July, our Publishers Circle held an event in Yangon– the first of its kind for PEN. It was a publisher’s workshop to help emerging publishing firms learn how to organize themselves professionally. After all, PEN is a movement of literature and freedom of expression. Without a publishing system neither can function.

Ronald Blunden, senior Vice-President of Hachette Livre, Jo Lusby, Managing Director of Penguin North Asia and Ola Wallin, publisher of Ersatz and part of the Swedish small publishers collective De Oberoende (and a Board member of Swedish PEN), spent three days with 15 Myanmar publishers. They talked about the state of local publishing and worked through their professional needs.

At one point, Ola explained how money could be saved by small publishers using cooperative methods. He gave the example of sharing a single local for warehousing books. The same day, the local publishers went out and rented a shared warehouse. The point is: these sorts of workshops can help put literature and free expression on a solid, practical footing.

During the same week, meetings took place with writers and publishers, in order to finalize the details for the creation of a Myanmar PEN Centre. Our international Secretary, Hori Takeaki and our Executive Director, Laura McVeigh took part.

We must now ask how we will follow-up on this Publishers Circle work and where we will hold the next workshop. We can talk about all of this in Reykjavik, but also at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

This will be the last Congress for Eric Lax as International Treasurer. He has done an amazing job in every kind of situation and as an officer of PEN, has contributed to every part of our work, whether on Missions or in developing strategy.

This will also be Haroon Siddiqui’s last Congress as a Board member. He has been a real force on the Board and a tireless worker on the Finance Committee. His analytic strengths have been incredibly valuable.

And finally, this will be Edvard Kovač’s last Congress as Chair of the Peace Committee. He has devoted himself to expanding the Committees role and finding its place for the next decade.

I hope you will have a chance to thank them in person.

The last words of this letter go to Iceland’s great novelist, Halldór Laxness:

…. books are the nation’s most precious possession, books have preserved the nation’s life through monopoly, pestilence, and volcanic eruption, not to mention the tons of snow that have lain over the country’s widely scattered homesteads for the major part of every one of its thousand years.

Best wishes to you all,

John Ralston Saul