International Writers’ Day 2006

This year’s event, titled Migrations of the Mind, celebrated the ideas-traffickers of the twenty-first century – the international writers who fuse cultures, challenging received wisdom and opening up spaces in which radical new stories can be told. Smuggled inside their novels, plays and memoirs, writers transmit thoughts across frontiers. Since 1921, PEN has colluded in writers’ defiance of the intellectual border police who seek to limit the free trade in ideas. Now our work is even more important than ever. 

Report by Jonathan Heawood: 

“Running a big literary event is like cooking a meal from a new recipe or having a baby: you may know all the ingredients, but the final result comes as quite a surprise. However much fun you had conceiving it, the end product is entirely new, entirely itself, and not always entirely happy. Having spent four months putting together the programme for International Writers’ Day, I was knocked sideways by the concrete reality of these writers and the strength of their opinions.

Jung Chang
Jung Chang
I had brought eight international writers together under the heading Migrations of the Mind to explore the challenges of taking stories between cultures. Each writer exemplified the problems of a world increasingly built out of small and mobile communities. Yet as soon as they were put together on stage at the ICA, most of the participants fiercely refused to define themselves either culturally or nationally. Whether Chinese or Turkish, Moroccan or Northern Irish, they saw themselves purely as writers, compelled to tell certain stories not because they were representatives of their communities, but because they were compelled to write, full stop. One by one they queued up to challenge the premise of my event – but in doing so they brought out a quite different, and far more interesting problem.

Born in France to a Turkish family and now based in Arizona, the young novelist Elif Shafak explained that she would rather remain on the threshold of any identity than be forced into the box of Turkishness, women’s writing, or any of the other labels that US literary culture tries to stick on her. When pressed to say where her roots are, she recalled the image in the Koran of a tree that has its roots not in the earth but in the air.

With an unprecedentedly mobile world population, writers are everywhere on the frontline of cultural exchange, putting into words the experiences of millions whose own identities are contested and denied. Yet writers themselves hate to be categorised: there is something about being a writer that is all about putting your roots in the air. Stories, on the other hand, grow downwards, seeking the cultural nutrients in the soil. This is the central tension in the contemporary international writer’s life: wanting to grow away from the ground yet being brought back to earth by stories – sometimes with horrific results.

When David Edgar, chairing a session on theatre and censorship, asked the Northern Irish playwright Gary Mitchell whether he spoke for the Protestant community in North Belfast, Mitchell replied pugnaciously that he spoke only for himself. Mitchell knows all too well what it means to be accused of representing a community. He calmly described the intimidation that he and his family have received at the hands of loyalist paramilitaries who object to his portrayals of their culture.

Mitchell doesn’t want to be the representative of the Protestant community. “I want to be remembered,” he says, “for writing brilliant plays about the human condition that will make people want to be better people.” However, his reception in the north – where the government has been shockingly slow to acknowledge the acts of cultural censorship being perpetrated on Mitchell by the vestigial UDA – shows how difficult this is.

Monica Ali
Monica Ali
Like Mitchell, the British Pakistani playwright Yasmin Whittaker-Khan has been threatened as a result of her work. Her play Bells, staged last year at the Birmingham Rep, explores the world of the mujra: so-called dancing clubs prevalent throughout South Asia and now common in Britain. As a young girl, Whittaker-Khan watched candy-coated Bollywood representations of the mujra, and wanted to be a courtesan when she grew up. Even in writing Bells, she explained, she was as much attracted by the glamour as she was horrified by the closeted prostitution. But this ambiguity meant nothing to her detractors, who saw that she had brought “her” community into disrepute. Jung Chang, Monica Ali and Tahar Ben Jelloun all told similar stories of the perils involved in becoming the scribe for experiences wider than their own. Ben Jelloun, the great Moroccan writer who has lived in France for the last 30 years, remarked in closing the day that sometimes it is the job of the writer to be an agent of unhappiness: telling the world’s truths is certainly not a job for crowd-pleasers.

What surprises will next year’s International Writers’ Day hold in store? I’d certainly like to bring more of the world’s great writers to London and would really appreciate suggestions for participants. Whom would you like to see and hear in London? What should be the theme for the day’s discussions? Email me at with your suggestions.”

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