Scottish PEN is delighted to be supporting the #AmplifyBlackVoices campaign over the coming weeks. We will be highlighting black writers we work with, sharing the work of black writers at risk of imprisonment internationally, and reflecting on how the fight for racial justice ties with writers’ right to freedom of expression.July 15, 2020
Scottish PEN is delighted to be supporting the #AmplifyBlackVoices campaign over the coming weeks. We will be highlighting black writers we work with, sharing the work of black writers at risk of imprisonment internationally, and reflecting on how the fight for racial justice ties with writers’ right to freedom of expression. We will also be promoting books by black members of Scottish PEN, and sharing non-fiction, poetry and fiction reading recommendations. The following introduction to our series of posts has been written by Scottish PEN Trustee and Writers at Risk Committee Co-Chair, Jane Archer.
Image courtesy of Iiona Virgin, via Unsplash. Visit virginlewisfamily.com to view her beautiful photographs.
In April this year, celebrating the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, Scottish PEN launched ‘Declarations: On Freedom for Writers and Readers’. One of the contributors, Jim Aitken, stated that Scottish PEN’s book ‘shows exactly the kind of engaged debate that is going on within Scotland’s literary community and within the nation at large. Liberty remains a key theme of our writers precisely because it shows concern for people’. Freedom of expression is a central issue in our work at Scottish PEN and is emphasised in the PEN International Charter.
Much of our work focuses on authoritarian regimes where writers can be imprisoned or killed for expressing their views. More recently, particularly in the UK and the US, the concept of freedom of expression is under extreme scrutiny. There are those who view freedom of expression as simple and absolute – an inalienable right to express whatever a person wants. However, there has been much debate around what poses a legitimate restriction and/or consequence for expressing certain views.
(Article 10 of the Human Rights Act outlines various restrictions on this right, including the ability of public authorities to act ‘proportionately’ in order to protect national security, health, human rights and public safety).
In the 2nd Annual PEN HG Wells Lecture, now an introduction to a new edition of ‘The Rights of Man’, Ali Smith states that meetings between writers are always ‘fraught with the politics of their times, because writers, to paraphrase the great Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago, can’t not be political simply by dint of being human and being a citizen’. Hence why, in 1934, HG Wells, as president of PEN International, excluded German PEN from the organisation for its treatment of Jewish writers (and other writers who did not adhere to Nazi ideology).
Smith also emphasises how easy it is to mock activism, suggesting that in the UK, ‘we’ve never had a culture that has understood, or forgiven, the potency of activism; we’ve hardly ever forgiven our intellectuals as it is’. The ‘Amplify Black Voices’ campaign is a form of activism in relation to literature and publishing. Recommending black authors will do very little to change structural inequality based on race but, at the very least, it lends Scottish PEN’s support to voices that often go unheard or unread.
The PEN International charter also requires members (of PEN) to pledge themselves ‘to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world’. The ‘equality’ word looks small on the page, but it is there nonetheless, written in a post-second world war time where writers’ experienced the direct connection of freedom of expression to equality and peace. Vice President of International PEN, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, states in his book, Decolonising the Mind : The Politics of Language in African Literature, that ‘Language carries culture and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in this world’.
The Black Lives Matter movement is questioning and challenging historic and current values in the US and UK. Bernadine Evaristo has come to the fore in recommending black authors’ books and challenging the under representation of black women’s voices and stories (see her pinned tweet of ‘20 Black British Womxn writers’). Jackie Kay has also produced a list.
A YouTube clip of Afua Hirsch also resurfaced during the shift in attitude (from white people) towards statues. It shows her on a panel programme proposing that the UK public might want to reflect on the stories behind some of the people cast in stone or marble. Groans are heard from the rest of the (all white) panel. One panellist asks, ‘if [the statues] offend you so much, why do you stay in this country?’. She looks visibly taken aback at the statement as she is on friendly terms with this person. The clip demonstrates how black people are never quite allowed to belong, always one step away from ‘go back to where you come from’ (and sometimes experiencing its shier, but equally racist, cousin ‘but where do you really come from?’).
It’s clear to the Board and staff at Scottish PEN that there is value in lending our support to the Amplify Black Voices campaign in this fraught context. The issues relating to freedom of expression, human rights, the defence of writers and the literature they produce are nuanced and we hope that by basing our response in our areas of expertise and experience, we can encourage the continuation of this important societal conversation.
At Scottish PEN, our work is steered by our members, a diverse mix of published writers, journalists, publishers, readers, students and young writers. We would encourage our members to get involved in this campaign, whether by sharing their own reading recommendations, or by sharing their views on how we can meet our aims of defending freedom of expression and promoting literature through this campaign.
We look forward to sharing contributions by Scottish PEN Board and staff members over the coming weeks. In the meantime, here are some reading recommendations of my own.
In her book Brit(ish): On Race, identity and belonging, Hirsch writes about the conditionality of black people in the UK. She takes you in to her personal story to explore areas such as ‘Bodies’, ‘Heritage’ and ‘Class’.
‘Most of the well-heeled residents of my home-suburb prefer to say they do not see race at all. And because race allegedly did not exist, in this all white world, the whiteness that made me so self-conscious was regarded as completely normal. It was I who was at odds with my environment – I did not conform. But since there was no such thing as race, there was no space in which it could matter. But it did matter to me. Even before I had a vocabulary to express it, race began to manifest itself in my life.
By the end of my childhood, I’d learned that black people were ugly. It took a few more years to learn that we were criminals too. The younger children thought I was the ‘scariest’ girl in the school. I found this amusing at the time, it was so far-fetched. My most noticeable feature is probably my smile. The fine lines around my eyes testify to the fact that, if anything, I smile too much. I have never inflicted violence on another human being – or animal for that matter- in my life. My temperament is mild, friendly and unconfrontational. I’m not saying these are necessarily desirable characteristics – I don’t like the idea that people, or especially women, should try to be mild and sweet. I would like to be fiercer. But I am who I am. A friend’s little sister, the year below in the same school as us, later confessed that whenever I spoke to her, she began to shake. There is only one explanation for this perception. I looked ‘scary’ because I am black.Extracts from Brit(ish): On Race, identity and belonging, by Afua Hirsch
Reni-Eddo Lodge is the first UK black author to top the UK book charts (Michelle Obama is the only other black person to do so). Eddo-Lodge’s book is a powerful indictment and personal declaration of how white people resist even the concept of racism and our collective and individual responsibility for it. She discusses sets racism in an historical and structural context while fully explaining and exploring white privilege, feminism and class. The extracts below are from the original blog and in the preface of the book.
‘I’m no longer talking to white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us. This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it.
I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. Their eyes glaze over or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.
Amid every conversation about Nice White People feeling silenced by conversations about race, there is a sort of ironic and glaring lack of understanding or empathy for those of us who have been visibly marked out as different our entire lives. It’s truly a life-time of self-censorship that people of colour have to live. The options are: speak your truth and face the reprisal, or bite your tongue and get ahead in life. It must be a strange life, always having permission to speak and feeling indignant when you’re finally asked to listen. It stems from white people’s never-questioned entitlement, I suppose.’Extracts from Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
The first recommended American author is poet, essayist and playwright Claudia Rankine, who interrogates and dissects the casualness and insidious nature of racism in every single part of life. Whether it is custodial deaths, exchanges with neighbours, viewing a house, or the treatment of Serena Williams, Rankine’s work is a personal and structural study of racism’s damage to body, mind and soul, and how there is nowhere to hide – from white friends, white progressives, white academics, white strangers –white people’s racism.
‘You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed. He tells you his dean is making him hire a person of colour when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively being insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn to red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level’.Extracts from Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
This outlined attitude towards diversity is common in the UK too. In a piece published by Literature Alliance Scotland, Chitra Ramaswamy discusses her experience of winning a prize and the prize-giver making a casual comment of her award ticking ‘all the boxes’. She says, initially, ‘it was nothing really, just a light-hearted joke, more at the expense of the funders and their infuriating rules than the writer who happens to be Indian, English, bisexual, a woman, the daughter of first-generation immigrants’. She says, ‘the comment is nothing special. It is in fact about as standard as organisations headed by straight, white, middle-aged men. And it is not intended to cause offence.’ And then adds (telling the story in third person), ‘But in the quiet place of things left unsaid, she feels humiliated, because there she was, foolishly thinking she had won a prize for writing a good book.’
The second recommendation American author is Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me. The back-cover states: ‘The story of race in America is a brutally simple one, written on the flesh: it is the story of the black body, exploited through slavery and segregation, and today, still disproportionately threatened, locked up and killed in the streets. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live with it? And how can America reckon with its fraught racial history?’
Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, DC, and I was seated in a remote studio on the far west side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier.
The host read the words for the audience, and when finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of believers themselves. The answer is American history.’Extract from Between the World and Me. Ta-Nehisi Coates
Jane’s short stories have been shortlisted & commended in the Bridport Prize, The White Review & Manchester Fiction prize. She had been published in New Writing Scotland and Mslexia. She is currently working on a novel ‘Cutting the Roses’, whichhas been longlisted in the inaugural Deborah Rogers New Writers’ Award, Lucy Cavendish Prize and the Blue Pencil Award. Jane was awarded a Luminate bursary to complete the book. Jane is on the board of Scottish PEN and co-chair of the Writers at Risk Committee.
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