Salman Rushdie, the recently-elected President of American PEN, gave the keynote speech at a press conference recently held in Barcelona as part of a week-long conference organized by the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, entitled ‘The Value of the Word’. In front of a rapt audience and under the gaze of numerous cameramen and photographers, Rushdie was the first speaker at a debate at which Jiri Grusa (President of International PEN), Dolors Oller (President of Catalan PEN), and Carles Torner (Catalan PEN) also spoke.
Rushdie opened his speech with a reference to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, in which a writer’s manuscript is destroyed by fire, and later returned to him intact. Rushdie used this example – ‘books survive but writers don’t’ – to illustrate his conviction that the job of PEN is to defend the physical survival of the writer in the belief that the writing itself will somehow survive by other means. In every country where writers are in danger, and in the struggle for free speech, the fundamental question is the same: ‘who has the power to tell the stories of our lives?’. As the only species which tells stories as a way of defining ourselves, humans pass on their lives through stories – a form of communication which is fundamental to our existence, and which lies at the root of what it means to be human. Any attempt to limit storytelling, Rushdie said, is therefore more than an attack on a story itself, and becomes instead an attack on human nature itself.
One usually thinks of censorship as being imposed by a third party, but Rushdie noted that a more dangerous trend has emerged recently: self-censorship. The exile of writers from cities such as Baghdad, Tehran, Beirut and Damascus, is indicative of more than a simple crackdown on literature by what Rushdie termed ‘the superpowers’; more a reluctance on the part of writers themselves to publish anything which might be deemed controversial. The issue of self-censorship was something that the Chair of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, Joan Smith, referred to at another session of the conference, when she introduced International PEN’s ‘Writers, Anti-Terrorism and Freedom of Expression’ report. She noted that the anti-terror legislation, introduced by so many countries in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, has had a significant impact on writers, and has shifted the burden of censorship from the state to the individual writer, something Smith felt was dangerous.
Rushdie admitted that until the publication of The Satanic Verses he had not thought about the issue of free expression a great deal: ‘when there is enough air to breathe, it seems uninteresting to remark that there us enough air to breathe’. Banning works, he said, was unwise, as censorship only ensures that the power of such works is increased, and further makes them harder to control. Referring to his experience of living under the fatwa, Rushdie stressed his gratitude to PEN for all the work it had done to campaign on his behalf, and noted how glad he was that his new position as President of American PEN would allow him to give something back to the organisation. He stressed the ‘enormous energy and passion with which PEN fights on behalf of writers throughout the world’, and noted that the organization’s ability to put a spotlight on repressive regimes had led to a number of releases of prisoners.
For Rushdie, the current crisis facing free expression is now centered in the USA. He talked about a number of recent developments in the US which were of particular concern to him: the Patriot Act – introduced within three months of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 – which allows the FBI to seize people’s (previously private) records from libraries and bookshops; the ban which prevents US publishers from editing works from countries under trade embargoes*; and the alert system (in which a scale of colours is used to warn the public of the level of threat of a forthcoming terrorist attack), which he felt was a deliberate attempt to scare the public so that the government might manipulate them more easily. Rushdie was prompted to ask: ‘Will freedom be lost in the attempt to defend freedom?’, and wondered to what extent we would tolerate the destruction of the values that we in the west are supposed to be defending.
The world after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, he said, is a changed one: our stories are no longer separate, but enmeshed; and we can no longer ‘steal our cultures away from each other’. Policies such as those imposed in the US are dangerous, and stem from a fear of other countries, and an unwillingness to engage with the outside world. Such ignorance is dangerous, and we cannot afford to continue in this vein. If, as Rushdie believes, literature at its best can educate us by ‘open[ing] the universe a little more’, then we need to make sure that the literature available to us is as representative as possible of the whole world – not just a small corner of it. Writers need the space and freedom to tell stories. They deserve the right to write.
To read more about the Barcelona Forum click here
To read International PEN’s Writers, Anti-Terrorism and Free Expression report, click here; then follow the links to the Writers in Prison Committee pages. The report is filed under ‘Publications’.
Report by Catherine Speller
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/news/_789