February 23, 2018

PEN, Djaout, Saro-Wiwa

On this day in 1921 the first branch of the now worldwide writers' organization, PEN, was founded in England by Mrs. C. A. Dawson Scott. Its first president was John Galsworthy, and early members included Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells and D. H. Lawrence. The acronym derives from Poets and playwrights/Editors/Novelists, but today the organization includes critics, translators, journalists, etc. Besides operating in the usual ways of professional organizations, PEN is especially active in supporting writers who are politically oppressed, and for promoting freedom of expression. Their web site features the 4-line poem by assassinated Algerian writer Tahar Djaout that has rallied and inspired many:
    Silence is death.
    If you are silent you are dead,
    And if you speak you are dead,
    So speak and die.
Found in Djaout's papers was the manuscript for his recently published anti-fundamentalist novel, The Last Summer of Reason. His murder triggered a wave of writer-killings in Algeria -- over fifty between 1993 and 1996. It also triggered the birth of a new writer's group, separate from and somewhat alternative to PEN, the International Parliament of Writers, with first Salman Rushdie, then Wole Soyinka and now Russell Banks as president. This is from the IPW's "Declaration of Independence," written by Rushdie:
    Writers are citizens of many countries: the finite and frontiered country of observable reality and everyday life, the boundless kingdom of the imagination, the half-lost land of memory, the federations of the heart which are both hot and cold, the united states of the mind (calm and turbulent, broad and narrow, ordered and deranged), the celestial and infernal nations of desire, and -- perhaps the most important of all our habitations -- the unfettered republic of the tongue. It is these countries that our Parliament of Writers can claim, truthfully and with both humility and pride, to represent.... Our Parliament of Writers exists to fight for oppressed writers and against all those who persecute them and their work, and to renew continually the declaration of independence without which writing is impossible; and not only writing, but dreaming; and not only dreaming, but thought; and not only thought, but liberty itself.
Ken Saro-Wiwa's (photo, above) birthday is October 10, 1941. The following is part of a letter he managed to have published in several British newspapers in 1995, some months before the Nigerian authorities hanged him and eight others:
    A year has gone by since I was rudely roused from my bed and clamped into detention. Sixty-five days in chains, weeks of starvation, months of mental torture and, recently, the rides in a steaming, airless Black Maria to appear before a kangaroo court, dubbed a special military tribunal, where the proceedings leave no doubt that the judgment has been written in advance. And a sentence of death against which there is no appeal is a certainty.

    Fearful odds? Hardly. The men who ordain and supervise this show of shame, this tragic charade, are frightened by the word, the power of ideas, the power of the pen; by the demands of social justice and the rights of man. Nor do they have a sense of history. They are so scared of the power of the word, that they do not read. And that is their funeral....

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