18 January 2018
The Hague, Netherlands
2017 was a year of uncertainty and turmoil and 2018 is promising to be just as difficult. The Rohingya crisis forced up to 600,000 people to flee across Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh, where they remain trapped in refugee camps. The rise of nationalism, xenophobia and fear of those who are different from us empowered cynical and opportunistic leaders to benefit from the suffering of populations who have been forced to flee their homes as barrel bombs fall on their streets.
In European elections we saw signs of this too. For example, Marie Le Pen, though losing the 2017 French presidential election, received a significant share of the vote. And for the first time in decades, a far–right government, including a party with links to Nazi groups, took power in Austria. Fringe groups across the world, empowered by these shifts, are marching with their banners of division and hate, terrorizing those who oppose their ideology.
The Syrian war will soon enter its seventh year, claiming close to a half million lives. In my country, Mexico, the killing of journalists does not stop and is a painful reminder of the increasing dangers writers face. Every month, every week, brings another death. Today our PEN community mourns the killing of Carlos Dominguez in Tamaulipas
And the president of our neighbouring country to the north declares openly his racism by insulting the whole of the African continent, Haiti and Salvador –and by continuing to promise a wall along the border of Mexico.
Watching these events unfold, I can’t help but think that we are in the grip of a collective, global identity crisis, made worse by an even bigger global memory loss, which denies how inter-connected we already are. I believe our future depends on this connectivity.
We must remember that we have faced this before. As individuals, as communities, as nations, we have seen opportunistic politicians and ideologues use the disenfranchisement, helplessness, poverty and pain of others to consolidate power, to divide further, to push upon us man-made definitions of who deserves what and why; man-made power structures of those who rule, those who are superior, those who conquer.
We have been here before. And as hard as it may seem we must remember this, so that we can remember who we are. I am the president of an organization that was born almost 100 years ago, when other wars and other cynical ideologies were ripping families, communities and countries apart. PEN was born out of the idea that no matter how different we may be from one another, whether it’s the colour of our skin, the god we pray to, where we are born or where we call home, that we have words, language, and literature in common.
Today, we celebrate the courage of writers who have pursued this ideal, this love of writing, this faith in words as a tool to inform, to be a doorway to new and unexpected worlds, to challenge tyrannies and to seek justice. The recipients of tonight’s award are only too familiar with how threatening words can be to those who seek to divide us. Eskendar Nega is serving an 18-year prison sentence for his free expression work as we speak and Milagros Socorro has faced endless threats for hers.
Through words and dialogue we can build bridges that can begin to close the deepest and farthest of divides. We have done this before. This is a core part of our identity as writers and members of PEN. This is a core part of my own identity as a writer and as a human being. As the PEN charter states: PEN members pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.
Today, during a time of unparalleled global identity crisis, I believe that we should all make this commitment, as a first step toward a shared identity.