Notes from Krakow WiPC Conference - PEN International Writers in Prison Committee Chair’s Notebook # 11
Welcome in Krakow: I arrived in Krakow at dawn on Sunday—by train from Bled, after a week-long Peace Committee writers’ conference and meeting—and in the main market square, four enormous banners already announced the upcoming Writing Freedom events: three currents joined, our 10th WiPC Conference, the biannual ICORN conference, and the Czeslaw Milosz Festival. At the opening-night reception hosted by the Mayor of Krakow, Deputy Mayor Magdalena Sroka warmly embraced a motley crowd of writers who didn’t know one another; we stood side by side, as individuals from dozens of countries, some of us in exile from homes that have become extremely dangerous, others welcoming those writers to our cities and PEN Centres. Over the next several days, that changed. In fact, within twenty-four hours we were milling around a fabulous early-evening barbecue at the Villa Decius, which felt more like a wedding than a conference. And every evening we dispersed in small groups to the patios and gardens and rooftop terraces of this wonderfully walkable city.
Old friends, new friends: as always, at a WiPC meeting there are the stalwarts, those who have contributed to the work of the WiPC and PEN for many, many years— two former WiPC chairs (and both former International Secretaries), Joanne Leedom Ackerman and Eugene Schoulgin, others like Jens Lohman, Mr. Ide, Fawzia Assad, Job Degenaar, Bao Viet, Nadezde, Alexey Simonov, Carl Morten and Chiara. There are midcomers, like Margie Orford, Iida Simes and Negar Josephi, who’ve plunged into the world of PEN in the past several years and who are, in the minds of those of us who’ve been around for twenty-plus years, the new blood, new energy, new perspective we need in PEN, so watch out, midcomers! And there were people who came for the first or second time to a WiPC or PEN meeting, like Lobsang Chokta, Menchu Sarmiento and Rita Gracián, here to tell stories that we need to here, but also here to find their place in PEN. We also had the complete staff of the Writers in Prison Committee, Cathy, Tamsin, Ghias, Patricia and Emma, and Secretariat staff Paul Finegan and Sarah Clarke, PEN’s executive director Laura McVeigh. Hori Takeaki and John Ralston Saul also joined us. And I was thrilled to be able to introduce to the conference our new Programme Director, Ann Harrison, who starts work with us in June.
Despite the challenge of the logistics (on occasion a troop of ICORN delegates tiptoeing across the back of our meeting space!), the conference was surprisingly intimate and informal, PEN members and staff coming together to learn and listen and talk. This was a working meeting, not a public meeting; we were not focused on communicating outwards—no resolutions, no press release—but with talking to one another. Much happened between the lines, and around the official agenda, in small meetings on the windy terrace overlooking the Vistula River.
Frontline Reports: From Ma Thida, we learned about the complexity of the situation in Burma, where there suddenly are opportunities for democracy, but deep vulnerabilities in infrastructure, and freedom of expression, such as weaknesses especially in regional media. We heard from Syrian writer and editor Najati Tayara about the volatility of the situation in Syria, and Rita Gracián of Guadalajara told us about the utter lack of action in Mexico, despite promises for change, in tackling the ongoing slaughter of journalists. In panels and Focus sessions, we heard from those with direct experience of threats to freedom of expression in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and northern Europe. In these sessions writers were able to speak across the divides imposed by regimes, compare notes, articulate the significance of regional trends.
From Lobsang Chotka, testimony concerning the tragedy of self-immolations in Tibet, and a plea for PEN’s support. From Eugene, an inspiring account of the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Afghan PEN centre in Kabul, which embraces in its membership and impressive programming almost 250 writers from many ethnic and language groups across Afghanistan. We heard from Carl Morten, who’d just been to the Ethiopian PEN Centre meeting, and from other Centres, about the dance that PEN Centres often must do, around the profound freedom of expression issues in their own country. Bringing external, international attention to these issues is perhaps the most important thing that PEN International, and the WiPC in particular, can and must do.
Workshops about working: In sessions on the Universal Periodic Review and the new PEN Declaration on Digital Freedom (led by Deji and Sarah Clarke), we explored components of our campaigning on freedom of expression issues. We talked about where to go with the China Report; Tienchi stated clearly that the problems of Tibet are extremely serious and urgent, and that the problem of Tibet remains, even for the most courageous dissident in China, the greatest taboo subject. Many of us returned home determined to erase all passwords and seriously address the security weaknesses of our own computers, thanks to the excellent workshops led by Hadi, from Tactical Tech. On the final morning, we had an excellent informal discussion about RANs and the case-list and the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, with great input and provocative questions from many centres, and from Ann.
Writing Freedom: There were poetry readings. There were exchanges of books and intense discussions about writing projects. People sat in the garden at Villa Decius, quietly working on their own writing. And we talked about some of the most innovative work that PEN International is currently doing, and will do more of: publishing books and reports that fuse the two bases of our work, literature and freedom of expression. We looked at the China Report: Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China, launched on May 3rd. We talked about (and sold copies of) Write Against Impunity, the collection of Spanish/English writings on that subject by many Latin American writers. We heard also about Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, English PEN’s very successful e-book project, and the Tunisian anthology Fleeting Words: An Anthology of the Revolution, rolled out over the past year, in Arabic, French and English. “Every word has a price” is the title of one of the pieces in that collection. And this, from a poem by Alicia Quiñones of Mexican PEN in the Impunity collection:
‘Memory” dances while the towns try to explain why blood runs through their squares.
‘Memory” bursts every once in awhile.
From Krakow to Reykjavik: Before Congress, probably by mid-August, the WiPC team and I will create a concise report from this meeting, so that we can use our meeting in Reykjavik specifically to determine our strategy and campaign objectives for the next year. This report, with some recommendations and questions, will go to all WiPC Centres. If ideas occurred to you, if you circled questions in your own notebooks, underlined suggestions, discussed ideas with one another (“wouldn’t it be great if we could….”) please send them to me or to staff. It’s so important that we see the Krakow conference as a stepping stone up to our ongoing work.
Thank you all for being there, see you in Reykjavik,