Letting the words flow in Belgrade – Linda Cracknell

  “Good morning, Scotland”. The greetings begin as at 9.30am as delegates pass Drew and myself, crossing the border between Scotland and Sierra Leone, on their way to their country’s designated position. It’s the first day that we’ve gathered as an Assembly and this year the alphabetical order has been reversed so that Zambia sit […]

 

“Good morning, Scotland”. The greetings begin as at 9.30am as delegates pass Drew and myself, crossing the border between Scotland and Sierra Leone, on their way to their country’s designated position. It’s the first day that we’ve gathered as an Assembly and this year the alphabetical order has been reversed so that Zambia sit near the front, and Austria at the back of the large hall. For the next two and a half days this is where we’ll be with our green, red and amber cards for any matters needing a vote. The first day’s agenda ranges through a resolution to send a message of congratulation to Liu Xiaobo for his Nobel Prize, to the next ten years’ strategy for International PEN as we head for our centenary, to the election of new Board members.

But inevitably in a gathering of of writers from nearly 90 countries, it’s in the snatched moments between formalities that we build and renew relationships, share experience and find inspiration. The chatter starts well before 9.30, over breakfast. My own writing projects have already benefited from the internationalizing effect of the gathering. Professor Chris Wanjala of Nairobi University is reading the draft script of my next radio play to check for any false notes in the portrayal of my main character, a Kenyan. I last met Chris in Nairobi in 2009, when I discovered that he had once been a student of Jenni Calder’s! Help has also been offered amongst the Norwegian contingent in finding a photo of Norway under Nazi occupation to illustrate my story of a walk in the footsteps of a friend’s Norwegian father who had to escape through the mountains to Sweden during the war.

Being in this human cauldron of language and literature, sharing a commitment to freeing the word, also refreshes the sense of what we are doing at Scottish PEN. We are reminded of the need to rejuvenate the membership, reinforcing the sense of our strategy to develop university groups. Future featured writers fo our PENning online magazine suggest themselves to me. The initiatives of other centres inspire fresh ideas and assure us of the solidarity of our network.

There are also new issues to tackle, some urgently. I’ve been inclined to think of the new technologies as mostly a liberating force for literature and writers. In a workshop I attended today, some of the uses the PEN centres have made of the internet were showcased, such as Sweden’s excellent Dissident Blog, and Jordan’s online magazine which offers a window into the controversies of the Arab world. Both are publishing what might otherwise be censored. Some writers in exile here have also spoken about the internet as a means of maintaining identity and links with homelands. 

But new challenges to freedom of speech related to technology were starkly exposed at this meeting. In particular the tension between privacy and apparent creative freedom. Concerns included the opportunity for surveillance offered by web technology, currently being abused by authorities in China. Its control by the State was also highlighted as has been seen this year in Egypt when the internet was silenced at a critical moment in the uprising. And then there is the role of private enterprise, in particular the telecom companies, whose technology has assisted authorities in tracking individuals, for example in Belarus. We were also reminded that out use of the technology depends on mining in DR Congo and is a source of exploitation and conflict there. ‘Blood on your phone’ someone said, and chilled the room.

The need for International PEN to develop good practice guidelines and policy on this kept people talking and planning as the sun sank somewhere behind us. Beyond the glass and concrete of Belgrade’s Continental Hotel, a fat yellow moon rose above the the old town and fort on the other side of the Cava river. Pavements radiated the day’s heat into the bones of lolling stray dogs, trams rattled and rumbled over the bridges, and fishermen settled on the river bank for the night, beside the great moored up barges and floating restaurants. But inside the 77th International PEN Congress, the words and the talk flowed on.