International PEN Goes to Canada

<i> Digby Diehl, of PEN Center USA West, is book critic at Playboy magazine</i>

One of the largest and most geographically diverse international meetings of writers ever convened ended last week on a high note of cooperation and understanding through literature. International PEN president Rene Tavernier called this literary global village “one of the most important Congresses in the history of PEN.” Six hundred writers from all over the world were hosted for the 54th International PEN Congress in both Toronto and Montreal, where they read from their works, debated literary issues, struggled with problems of freedom of expression and confronted painful matters of censorship and imprisoned writers.

Reflecting the positive atmosphere of glasnost , the congress announced the reinstatement of a long-dormant Czechoslovakian Center with recognition of Czech- and Slovak-language branches, and accepted two new centers from Eastern Europe in Ukrainia and Romania. In addition, a task force was organized through the Austrian Center to reexamine literature and ideologies in both East and West since World War II to recommend important work that had been ignored on either side of the Iron Curtain. The Moscow Center and centers from the Baltic states worked in cooperation on a resolution protesting “declarations against the freedom of speech of the Baltic writers” by various Soviet organizations.

The specter of Iran’s death threat to writer Salman Rushdie over his novel “The Satanic Verses” still hung over the congress, and Lady Antonia Fraser made an impassioned plea for concerned observers to realize that the situation was not better. “If anything, life is worse for Rushdie since the new administration in Iran has reaffirmed the death threat,” she stated. “It is tragic that one of our most distinguished PEN members cannot walk where he might be recognized.”


A “Recommendation on Tolerance and Fanaticism” adopted by the congress specifically addressed the Rushdie case and called upon the Islamic community to cease the use of terrorism against writers. International secretary Alexander Blokh noted that many victims of this fanaticism are Muslims themselves: “There are Islamic writers, even in cities like Paris and London, who live in a state of permanent terror.”

For the first time in recent decades, both the United States and Canada were criticized by PEN for freedom-of-expression violations. The U.S. Congress was urged to rescind the Helms amendment to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) appropriations bill which would restrict funding arts projects on the basis of content. John Farrell, president of the USA Center West in Los Angeles, drew parallels to the Rushdie case, suggesting that the Helms Amendment “. . . reflects the pernicious influence of religious fundamentalism.” The U.S. centers in New York and Los Angeles jointly called for a end to the ideological exclusion provisions in the McCarran-Walter Act which have been used to refuse visas to writers such as Farley Mowat, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes because of their political beliefs.

The PEN Congress unanimously supported a resolution calling on the Canadian government to alter a little-known law that allows any individual who requests an injunction order against a writer to prevent an unpublished manuscript by that writer from being published. This action was taken in response to the legal tactics used by the Reichmann family, who are Toronto developers, against free-lance writer Elaine Dewar in a $102-million libel suit. Precedents already established by this case (which has not yet gone to trial) would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in Canada.

Following an extraordinary three-day meeting of the PEN Writers-in-Prison Committee, the congress took action on many specific cases in more than two dozen countries. Thomas von Vegesack, chairman of the committee, noted that 382 cases now are being followed, which is the highest number of writers imprisoned in the past five years. “It is terrible to think that in the contemporary world so many countries are becoming more repressive,” he observed.

The situation in China has grown dramatically worse since the armed attack on the student demonstrations in Beijing’s Tian An Men Square on June 4. According to the Writers-in-Prison Committee report, at least 2,000 people have been arrested and more than 20 executed. Chinese media have reported that more than 60 categories of books and publications have been banned, including foreign newspapers and magazines.

The committee is monitoring 36 specific cases, affecting some of China’s best-known intellectuals. A 38-year-old Chinese poet, Duo Duo, spoke movingly to the congress of his decision to live in exile after witnessing the Tian An Men Square massacre. “Politics and art are inseparable in China,” he said. “In a totalitarian society, politics is always a theme for writers--even when it doesn’t seem to be.”


Other countries with particularly disturbing records for imprisoning writers, according to Von Vegesack, include South Korea, where PEN has identified 41 cases; Vietnam; Nepal; Turkey, where Kurdish writers are regularly arrested; South Africa; Romania, which was accused of “cultural genocide against the Hungarian, German, and Serbian minorities”; Burma; Israel, and Cuba. The situation in several Latin American countries is more tragic, as dozens of journalists have been killed because of their writings in countries such as Columbia, El Salvador, Peru, and Brazil.

The charter of International PEN (an acronym for Poets, Essayists and Novelists) dedicates the organization to fighting for freedom of expression worldwide and to fostering international understanding through literature. The latter certainly was accented in Canada, where participants could select from more than 50 readings, literary panels and “encounters” with authors. After four days of English language in Toronto, the entire congress was transported to French-speaking Montreal via an exhilarating train trip on the specially chartered “Author Express.”

In the literary sessions, one could hear playwright Arthur Miller musing on his experience of writing “The Crucible” during the McCarthy Era or watch a film of Simone de Beauvoir discussing feminism in America in 1978. Harold Pinter read from his plays “The Betrayal” and “Mountain People” with emphatic use of what are now known as long “Pinteresque” silences. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (“Anthills of the Savannah”) calmly faced down a British journalist who was advocating that the children’s book “Little Black Sambo” should be banned by saying he could not imagine the circumstances under which he would endorse the banning of any book.

Larry McMurtry, president of the American Center in New York, could be heard frequently on the congress floor speaking eloquently in his role as a delegate. Or, late at night in the hotel bar, you could listen to Leo Tolstoy’s grandniece, Tatyana Tolstoya (“On the Golden Porch”) explain that there is such a gap between the meanings of words in Russian and in the bureaucratic language of Soviet officialdom that the average Moscow citizen would need a very thick translation dictionary to understand officials.

A panel on “Universality and Women’s Writing” drew a standing-room-only crowd to hear Claribel Alegria of El Salvador, Margaret Atwood and Nicole Brossard from Canada, and Monika Maron from East Germany engage in heated debate about whether women could create literature with the same universal appeal as literature written by men. When discussion was opened to the floor, Betty Friedan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alison Lurie and Miriam Tlila from South Africa made eloquent statements from the audience. Because the Canadian organizers made a point of inviting 50% women among the 60 “honored guests,” participants took the opportunity to meet and establish a new International Network of Women Writers to explore ways of assuring the widest possible audience for literature written by women.

A second innovation at the Canadian Congress was the establishment of special panels and readings for younger writers whose work is not yet established. “The Next Generation” programs featured writers such as Luis Rodriguez from Chicago, Mutabaruka from Jamaica, Arturo Arias from Guatemala, Gichora Mwangi from Kenya and Alootook Ipellie from Canada. “Although we all came from different cultures and had differing degrees of experience, we felt that we had a commonality,” said Luis Rodriguez. “Each of us was from a segment of society that doesn’t usually get heard. And it was nice to be heard for a change.”

For the first time at an International PEN Congress, the USA Center West from Los Angeles was represented by a delegation of 15 writers--fourth largest at the congress--including official delegates Joanne Leedom-Ackerman and John Farrell. The Los Angeles center proposed four resolutions on various issues, all of which were adopted.