Monday, July 23, 2007

Bridging literature and conscience

In 1966, Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes attended the International PEN Congress as an observer and commented on: "the improbable spectacle of 500 writers - conservatives, anarchists, communists, liberals, socialists - meeting, not to underline their differences or to enunciate their dogmas, but to....bear witness to the existence of a community of the spirit while accepting the diversity of intentions."
Community and diversity - both evident in plenty in Dakar in early July at the 73rd Congress, where writers, notoriously contrary, solitary, came together with a common concern for freedom of speech and to use a collective international voice to uphold it. I was there to help make our efforts at Scottish PEN part of that voice.
PEN bridges literature and conscience, and shows us how no writer can afford to live in a bubble of complacency. As Orhan Pamuk said at the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Memorial Lecture in 2006, 'When another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free. This, indeed, is the spirit that informs the solidarity felt by PEN, by writers all over the world.' In 2005 he had been prosecuted for 'insulting Turkishness'. Later the charges were dropped.
The situation for Iraqi writers, artists and translators was perhaps one of the most poignant issues I came across during the Congress. In fear of their lives at the suggestion of collusion with the US and Britain, they have flooded into Jordan and Syria, the creative life of the country bleeding away while they wait in a place where they cannot work, get social support or hope for quick resettlement in another country. What is the British government doing about this?

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