Canadian writer John Ralston Saul began his term as president of PEN International in October 2009. The first Canadian to hold this post, his tenure focused on endangered and indigenous languages, the connection between literature and freedom of expression, and the further decentralization of PEN. The following is Saul’s final letter to the PEN membership after the election of Jennifer Clement at PEN International’s 81st congress in Québec City.
November 16, 2015
Dear PEN Members, Dear Friends,
A last monthly letter to say thank you and to report on the 81st Congress in Quebec City.
First, the obvious, we have a new President. Jennifer Clement, a wonderful novelist. She was President of PEN Mexico when we organized our first new style international delegation in 2012, so I have seen her handling difficult, risky situations. I know she is already hard at work and I look forward to being a follower.
It was a remarkable election. All three candidates – Jennifer Clement, Zeynep Oral President of PEN Turkey and Vida Ognjenović President of PEN Serbia as well as an International Vice-President – came from countries with difficult political situations and have had to prove themselves over the years, standing up to authoritarian regimes. I have worked with all three and am filled with admiration for them.
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I write this as the news of the Paris and Beirut murders come in. We know what we stand for – against violence, against hatred, for respect of the other however much we disagree, for freedom of thought and voice. For 20 years now a spiral of violence has been turning, ever wider, ever more aggressive, dragging in new layers of society, giving birth to ugly populism, to a renewed racism, to a sense on all sides in these conflicts that free expression is a necessary victim. But the true victims are those killed, whether in Paris or in Beirut or in Syria. They, their families, their friends.
What we know is that none of this populism or vengeful thinking has lessened the violence. Nor have the constant moves to promote security systems over citizen’s rights. To the contrary. Violence continues to grow. The strategy is therefore wrong. Our belief in a humanist way and in free expression becomes ever more essential.
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The Congress in Quebec was a great success. It predated the Paris and Beirut murders by a few weeks, but you will know what I mean when I say that each time we gather it is in a dramatic atmosphere of both suffering and success; of crises actual and anticipated. This is the world of writing and of free speech.
84 centres from 75 countries took part. Some 300 writers, publishers, translators, and yes, bloggers.
As many of you know, it also included one tragedy which has marked us all. Djibril Ly, the President of the new Mauritania PEN Centre – voted in unanimously in Quebec as an official Centre alongside PEN Mali – fell seriously ill and died. Although it was tragic moment, he was never alone. Romana Cacchioli and Anne-Laure Mathieu in particular were constantly with him. A number of us including Romana, Anne-Laure, Émile Martel, Ismaïla Samba Traoré, Carles Torner, Annie Pénélope Dussault and myself were with him when he died. All of this is described in the following link. Let me simply add that he was a new friend, but I felt already a long friendship stretching into the future. Djibril was an example for all of us and an admirable writer.
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I know he himself would have been inspired by a number of the outcomes of the Congress: the Quebec Declaration on Literary Translation and Translators for a start. Here is one more foundational document. Over the last six years we have given ourselves a range of these fundamental documents – ethical documents – which flesh out our Charter. The Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights, the PEN Declaration on Digital Freedom, the Resolution on Anti-LGBTQI Legislation, PEN’s International Principles on Author’s Moral Rights and Copyright, and the Bled Manifesto of the Writers for Peace Committee. And now the Quebec Declaration.
PEN has the force of its words and the creators of those words. The more we explain clearly what we believe in, the stronger we will be.
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In another moving moment, Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger who has been sentenced to a thousand lashes, and their three children came to join us in Quebec City. They first took part in a ceremony at an outdoor public monument created to draw attention to three key cases – Juan Carlos Argenal, the Honduran journalist who was murdered in 2013 in his home; Amanuel Asrat, Eritrean poet, critic and Editor-in-Chief of the leading newspaper Zemen, who was arrested in his home in 2001; and Raif Badawi, still in jail in Saudi Arabia, still under sentence to receive 1,000 lashes, in effect a death sentence. Ensaf Haidar then came with her children to speak to the whole PEN Assembly.
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During the week in Quebec City, we launched the PEN International Writers Circle with 22 founding members from around the world. We hope that another twenty will quickly join us. This is the second of four PEN Circles. The Readers Circle will follow, and then the Screen Circle.
These Circles are new ways to bring leaders of the creative community and its supporters into a close relationship with PEN. These Circles and their members are increasingly important in the building up of the independence of PEN International through the growth of unrestricted funds which allow us to face those many unexpected crises which strike the world of literature and its free expression.
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Beyond the choosing of our new International President, Jennifer Clement, there were other important elections in Quebec City.
Markéta Hejkalová finished her second term on the Board. She was an invaluable leader in the organization of congresses. Regula Venske was elected to fill her place. Salil Tripathi was chosen to succeed Marian Botsford Fraser after her six creative and successful years as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. Elisabeth Nordgren was chosen to succeed Ekbal Baraka as the Chair of the Women Writers´ Committee.
Margaret Atwood, Joséphine Bacon, Russell Banks, Joseph Boyden, Jung Chang, Adrienne Clarkson, Chris Hedges, Danny Laferrière, Robert Lepage, Jean-Francois Lépine, Yann Martel, Julio Rivas and Louis-Karl Picard Sioui took part in a myriad of public events in packed halls. These were organized in partnership with the impressive Festival Québec en Toutes Lettres led by Bernard Gilbert.
And the third annual New Voices Award was presented by Yann Martel at the opening Gala to Rebecca F. John from the Wales PEN Cymru Centre. Each year a growing number of young writers are taking part through their PEN Centres.
It was a wonderful Congress for which we owe great thanks to PEN Quebec, to our friend Émile Martel and to all those who worked with him.
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During the Congress there were discussions and debates around Indigenous literatures, the role of journalists in war situations, our OutWrite program to support the LGBTQI community which is now faced by restrictive laws in 75 countries. There was an important discussion involving new ideas about how we can better protect writers at risk.
A range of resolutions were passed, for example, to support centres in difficult situations. They return home to Australia, the Balkans, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Mexico, Myanmar, Viet Nam, Turkey with the full authority of the Assembly behind them. In other countries writers are not yet allowed to organize PEN centres or they must do so in exile. In all these cases we are speaking out on their behalf.
These resolutions and others – for example on the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean area and in Europe – are now on our website and have been sent to the relevant authorities.
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I am deeply thankful to the hundreds of you who have received me, taken part in delegations and worked on fundraising over the las six years. These are just three of the many areas in which so many of us have worked together.
I must personally thank Haroon Siddiqui and Émile Martel, who first pushed me to run for President and have given invaluable support and advice ever since. At the same time, let me thank my two home centres, PEN Canada and PEN Quebec. And officers past and present – Hori Takeaki, Eugene Schoulgin, Eric Lax and Jarkko Tontti. The Board and Committee Chairs. Franca Tiberto, who first convinced me to write this monthly letter so that members would be in touch with what I was doing. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman for her constant and wise advice. Carles Torner and the Secretariat, devoted to the cause of PEN. Roberto Alvarez and Alain Pescador, my two invaluable, enthusiastic and tireless assistants.
But above all, I owe thanks to you, the members and supporters of PEN. My happiest moments have been, first during those long and complex sessions of our General Assembly when so much of the PEN family comes together and expresses itself in its full complexity; and second, during those many delegations and visits to centres, working with you on your home turf.
Finally, all my thanks to Adrienne Clarkson for her constant advice, patience and her long-standing commitment to the cause of PEN.
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PEN is a remarkable phenomenon, unlike any other civil society organisation – a democracy dependent on its members and on your engagement. The result is thousands of volunteers devoted to the cause; a cause which for many of you involves personal risk.
That, more than anything else, sticks with me after six years. I managed to visit 50 of our 150 centers. Only a third! And in centre after centre, I found novelists, poets, publishers, others, whose desire was to express themselves. Yet authoritarian regimes stood in their way. Blocking the right of all citizens to be themselves. We all work together to change these situations, which is what makes our work and our cause, no matter how difficult the situation, an expression of optimism. If you add the teenagers I met in our school programs in Sierra Leone or the student graduates of our Freedom of Expression summer school in Central Asia or the participants in our New Voices competition or the young people I met at a village gathering in Myanmar, eager to speak out for the first time in public or the courageous student activists in Honduras, that optimism becomes ever clearer.
The very different situations of our members and the initiatives these differences make necessary, produces a complicated organisation. But this complexity also explains why PEN matters and why its influence continues to grow.
Thank you for allowing me to play this role over the last six years. Now I look forward to continuing my commitment as an active and supportive member.
John Ralston Saul
Photo: Kate Szatmari