Writers in Peril

Last month I had the privilege of blogging for the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, a literary festival that spotlights international 

— By | June 8, 2010

Last month I had the privilege of blogging for the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City, a literary festival that spotlights international writers. During the festival I met writers from all over the world and was exposed to work that had not yet been translated. In a market where translations account for only 3% of all books, festivals like this one serve a much-needed cultural exchange function. Yet, of all the writers present, the most important writers were perhaps the ones who weren’t there.

During the Opening Night Ceremony, Salman Rushdie (chairman of the festival) talked about the significance of the empty chair placed next to him on the podium. The empty chair was to represent the 650+ writers around the world who have been persecuted, jailed, or tortured for their art.  It’s a staggering number to think about, particularly if you live in a country where freedom of speech seems to be taken for granted. Reports of incriminated writers, journalists, and bloggers are distressingly common, as is the lack of press covering this topic.

On June 1, PEN American Center issued a press release stating that Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo had been moved from a detention center to a remote prison to serve out an 11-year sentence for a mere 224 characters in a series of essays which “incited subversion of state power.” PEN has assembled a 100-page-long caselist filled with situations such as Liu Xiaobo’s.

As our sense of community becomes increasingly globalized, it’s important to contribute not only to a national voice but a collective global voice.  In an interview about whether writing/writers can “change anything,” Salman Rushdie responds:

In countries with tyrannical or authoritarian regimes, somehow people do seem to turn to writers and intellectuals to serve as the conscience of those countries. If you look at Cuba, China, Iran, Iraq, various African countries like Somalia, Sudan, you can see the writers of those countries occupy a very public role. In the free societies, Western democracies, there are enormous differences in how people see the world of writers. In France, writers are still very central, and that country’s prominent writers still very much participate in political dialogues. In the U.S., in the heyday of Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, there was a similar phenomenon. That’s less so now.

In other words, writers from free Western democracies can learn something from exchange and political awareness–if only to remind us what art is capable of.

We are grateful for organizations such as City of Asylum/Pittsburgh which is a residency program that gives exiled writers an opportunity to create art without fear of persecution. We are now partnered with their magazine, Sampsonia Way. Please check out their website and help keep the voices of all writers alive.

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