Jennifer Clement's Keynote Speech at the 2018 IPA International Publishers Congress
It’s very special to be in a place filled with publishers in India - a country with a grand literary tradition and one that has contributed prodigious scientific knowledge to humanity.
I am the president of PEN International, an organisation that was founded in 1921 to promote friendship, intellectual co-operation and exchange between writers from around the world. One of the founding values of PEN is that literature can and does play a significant role in developing mutual understanding and world culture. PEN also stands for for freedom of expression and acts as a powerful voice on behalf of writers who are harassed, imprisoned and even killed for their work. Since PEN was established almost one hundred years ago, our members across the globe have been the voice of the silenced.
In 1933 PEN led protests against the bonfires that the Nazi Party lit across Germany, burning thousands of books that they’d decided were “impure”, and appealed to end religious and political imprisonment. The PEN Charter was drafted in direct response to these events; to establish and remind all our members that we each have a personal responsibility to resist all hatred, to counter discriminatory narratives, injustice and the censorship of government critics.
PEN is the world’s oldest and largest international literary organization. There are over 140 autonomous PEN centres in more than 100 countries. While PEN originally stood for “poets, essayists, novelists”, our membership has grown to include a broader understanding of the term ‘writer’, including playwrights, publishers, translators, academics and journalists.
In our almost 100 years of standing in defence of freedom of expression we understand the importance of recognising those individuals who continue to write and speak out despite the risks they face. Every year PEN gives the Oxfam-Novib/PEN Award for Free Expression at The Hague in recognition and celebration of such individuals. This award serves not only to honour bravery but also, in some cases it also acts as a shield, a mantle, and protection as if recognition were a sanctuary.
It does not always work. Prizes can be complex. Shortly after the great Chinese poet Liu Xioabo was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 while in prison, his wife, the poet Liu Xia, was placed under arrest without being charged with any crime. Last year, Liu Xiaobo was released from prison after spending over eight years behind bars, just to die days later in hospital.
I will never forget the 2010 image of the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, sitting beside an empty chair graced by Liu Xiaobo’s medal and diploma. You may know that the Empty Chair is significant to PEN: its a symbol we use in all of our meetings to remember those writers who cannot be present because they are imprisoned, detained, disappeared or killed.
Xiaobo once said, ‘I hope I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crimes’. In voicing the great Chinese poet’s name here, I praise the fact that the IPA Prix Voltaire has been awarded to Gui Minhai this year. PEN has campaigned tirelessly for Gui Minhai and other publishers kidnapped and jailed by China against the rule of law. We are happy to join hands with the IPA to campaign together in defense of freedom of expression everywhere it is threatened from China to Eritrea, to Honduras to the Unites States.
The first year that I presented the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award for Free Expression, the recipients were: the Egyptian poet Omar Hazek who spent over 18 months in prison for a peaceful protest demanding justice for a man killed by security forces; Eritrean poet, journalist and editor-in-chief Amanuel Asrat whose fate has been unclear since his arrest 16 years ago; and Turkish journalist Can Dundar, a member of PEN Turkey, who at that time was in pre-trial detention in connection with his journalism. Not one of the recipients was present for the ceremony – Dundar was in jail, Asrat has been jailed since 1991 and remains in prison today and his fate is unknown; while Hazek was barred from leaving Egypt as he attempted to travel to the Netherlands to attend the ceremony. In that room the Awards became a symbol of human bravery.
In order to speak here today, I wrote to the Turkish Kurdish novelist and lawyer Burhan Sönmez, who is a member of PEN’s Board, to ask him how such awards have affected the treatment of writers imprisoned in Turkey. He responded, “It is difficult to have judgement about this question. My personal feeling is that a prize is not a strong shield to protect writers under Erdogan's regime. The Turkish & German journalist Deniz Yucel has been in prison for one year and, Ahmet Sik has received many prizes, but he has not been released since last year. But,” Somez continues in his letter to me, “on the other hand, we may assume that it helps. For example Necmiye Alpay and Asli Ergodan were released from prison on their first hearing at the court thanks to the strong international solidarity including prizes and honorary memberships to PEN centres...if I had not received the Vaclav Havel prize last year I might have been picked up in one of the arbitrary arrest campaigns. Who knows?”
Many writers who have been imprisoned have spoken about the fact that campaigns for their freedom, including awards and letters, can have a positive effect on the way they are treated in jail. Publishers also can and do play a key role in promoting and defending free expression. In 2001 PEN launched its Publishers Circle, consisting of publishers who wanted to support PEN’s work. In 2013 our Publishers Circle supported the publication of the anthology Write Against Impunity, a protest against the culture of impunity for crimes against writers that prevails across Latin America. In July 2013, members of our Publisher’s Circle formed part of our delegation to Myanmar, charged with aiding research into the current state of the publishing industry in the country, investigating ways PEN can support Burmese writers and publishers, and carry out knowledge-sharing workshops with local publishing houses. Most recently, in January of last year, several members of our Publishers Circle joined PEN on a mission to Turkey including Eva Bonnier, Ronald Blunden and William Nygaard, in an act of solidarity with the Publishers in Turkey who have been facing an unprecedented crackdown. Today we have 24 global Publishers Circle members and at PEN we believe that publishers are in a unique and strong position to defend freedom of expression. It is in this spirit that I challenge the IPA and everyone in this room to play an active role in defending freedom of expression in both China and beyond at a time when this fundamental human right is under grave threat.
I’d also like to add here, as some of the discussions at this congress center around copyright, that PEN has a Copyright Manifesto, which passed unanimously in at our congress in Ourense in 2016. It was important that PEN, as the oldest and largest organisation of writers, take a strong stand on copyright and our Manifesto is a document that can be used in a court of law or as advocacy.
I am the first woman President of PEN International. Therefore, one of my missions has been to help women writers and explore how violence against women creates censorship. The immeasurable variety of violence that women face–- from sex-selective abortion to stolen girls who are sold and trafficked, to female students at universities who are rated and slut-shamed on social media – one common result is that it silences the voices of women.
The historic lack of freedom for women and girls has in the past and is also in the present day almost always defended by reference to culture, religion and tradition. These arguments underscore that few groups have suffered greater violation of human rights in the name of culture than women.
It is the extraordinary legacy of women writers and journalists that inspire us at PEN to continue fighting the many barriers women writers still face. Whether that is censorship in the form of physical or emotional violence, a society that stereotypes and marginalizes them, or a publishing industry that still sees women earning less, publishing less, and being reviewed less than their male peers.
Because of this PEN has created the PEN’s Women’s Manifesto, which stands for non-violence, safety, education, access and parity. Even in countries where we think there is parity, there just simply isn’t. The novelist and journalist Kamila Shamsie, an advisor on our Manifesto, discovered that most every woman who had won the Booker or Pulitzer Prize, her novel’s protagonist had been a man. Almost every woman writer knows that if she writes about women she will not win awards – consciously and unconsciously the female experience is considered less profound. Carolina Criado Perez, who was also an advisor on the PEN Women’s Manifesto, created the campaign to have a woman, who is not the queen, on a British bank note. Criado Perez was so vilified she had to shut down all her social media accounts as she received so much hate mail that even included threats of rape and murder. Thanks to her we now have Jane Austin’s face on a ten-pound note. Vida - an organization in the USA that tracks how many women’s books are reviewed (the path to visibility, prestige and literary prizes) – has discovered grave problems, which include the fact that women writers, if reviewed, are usually reviewed by women and their work is almost always compared to the work of another woman. The poet Grace Schulman, an expert on Marianne Moore, an American modernist poet, recently told me that Moore, who died in 1972, is always compared to Emily Dickenson, who died in 1886 almost one hundred years earlier, instead of her male contemporaries!
This is a global problem that also persists here. In thinking about women and because we are in India, we need to honour the brave life of the Indian journalist and editor Guari Lankesh who was murdered on September 5th 2017. She fought injustice with words. Her killers had bullets.
We must also underscore the India’s government’s annual economic survey, which was released January 30th, just two weeks ago, which claims that more than 63 million women are “missing” across India and more than 21 million are unwanted by their families. “The challenge of gender is long-standing, probably going back millennia,” wrote the report’s author, chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, noting that India must “confront the societal preference for boys”.
I feel the deepest sorrow at the loss of these girls’ voices, stories- their lives. PEN’s Women’s Manifesto speaks to this sorrow and ends with these words: Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge.