– Mark Kingwell
Mark Kingwell talks to Mark Medley about wit, Salman Rushdie, and almost losing his shirt
MM: When did you join PEN Canada?
MK: I was a PEN volunteer before I was a member. I was working backstage at the 1997 benefit and shook hands with Salman Rushdie just before he went onstage. I still have my “I am Salman Rushdie” button! At another benefit, a man offered me a hundred dollars for my (very used) Barbara Klunder PEN t-shirt. I couldn’t close the deal—I was wearing nothing underneath. I joined as a member in 1999 after I published my third book.
MM: What prompted you to join?
MK: It was clear to me that PEN Canada was doing very good work, very effective advocacy and support. My American friends, including a lot of fairly prominent writers, are down on PEN because they think it’s well-meaning but not very practical. Not true. I’ve seen real bravery and political change that stems directly from the efforts of PEN. As someone who was free to publish at will—well, assuming an interested editor!—it seemed like an obvious way to be part of something good.
MM: Why is the organization important to you?
MK: No one else works so directly in support of freedom of expression around the world. And with effect. The writers and journalists we help are under the kinds of threat we in the comfortable West can barely imagine. Even if it’s just the banal freedom to tweet your thoughts about a baseball game or post a photo on Facebook, self-expression is a necessary condition of democracy. We should always remember that there are people out in the world writing and posting things that are a lot more important, under conditions that are a lot less permissive. They deserve our support.
MM: What’s the greatest threat to freedom of expression facing writers today?
MK: It depends where you are. There is a real danger, under conditions of apparent freedom, of self-censorship, conformity and escalating civility. But these, however real, are the problems of luxury. The greatest threat to freedom of expression in many parts of the world is just the same as it always was: authoritarian and repressive governments who know that the cold light of the truth, expressed with force and wit, is dangerous to their power.
MM: What would you tell a writer thinking of becoming a member of PEN Canada?
MK: It’s the right thing to do. Simple as that.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. He is the author of, among his many books, A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of Pluralism, which was awarded the Spitz Prize for political theory in 1997, and In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac. He is a member of the advisory board of PEN Canada.