From Perth to Pune

Scottish PEN travelled to Pune in September for the 84th PEN International Congress. This is a report of the event written by Scottish PEN trustee, Jane Archer.

photo credit: Kelly Fliedner

This blogpost has been written by Scottish PEN trustee, Jane Archer following her attendance at the 84th PEN International Congress held in Pune, India from 26th to 29th September. 

The 84th PEN International Congress 2018

“Experiments with Truth”: Freedom Truth Diversity

We live in times where the above words/themes of PEN International Congress are so often misused and manipulated by state parties, corporate industry and the media. This year’s congress was a means of challenging and developing our understanding of these words and their relatedness to upholding human rights. The Congress title was drawn from Mohandas Gandhi’s autobiography and written on the South India Delegate pack alongside an iconic image of Gandhi reading on the floor. We were meeting in Pune to mark the centenary of his birth.

I travelled from Perth in Scotland, where poverty is evident in areas of poor housing and low employment, to Pune, South India, where poverty means whole families sleeping on cardboard on the streets and small children, usually girls, asking tourists for money that would go unnoticed if it dropped out of our pockets. This was the uneasy context of PEN centres coming together to share projects, network and work productively together.

On arrival, and throughout congress, delegates were asked not to use social media. Congress wanted to protect the identity of speakers, but also to make sure little was said publicly to upset the Indian government (which had, a month before congress, arrested and imprisoned five political activists for their views and criticisms of the current administration). There are times when human rights defenders must think strategically and carefully about when to challenge, to criticise, to highlight persecution or question parties’ involvement in a death; however this decision did not sit easily. Freedom of expression is key to all PEN Centres’ work and this was a clear reminder that freedom of expression is not a given in many situations.

The opportunities to work with other centres were many-fold. I met board members from several Australian PEN centres at a protection meeting and we developed a cross-international group of centres to collaborate on work with a specific writer at risk. This writer is currently in a detention centre on Manus Island due to the Australian government’s policies on refugee and asylum seekers. Behrouz Boochani is an Iranian Kurd and a journalist/ writer. He has written a book No Friends but the Mountains from prison by text and it has been translated into English. It is published by Picador Australia. PEN Melbourne and PEN Sydney, and case workers Arnold Zable and Janet Galbraith, are working together to highlight the horrendous situation. At our recent Day of the Imprisoned Writer event at the Scottish parliament, Scottish PEN presented Nicola Sturgeon with a copy of the book. Without our attendance at congress, there would be no forum for these new relationships and joint working.

When PEN centres and PEN International come together, work can be done on a strategic level to join resources and therefore make a stronger impact. The session provided by Scottish PEN’s project manager, Nik Williams, highlighted how expertise and developments on defamation in Scotland could be shared at a global level. Additionally, I was able to discuss Scottish PEN’s partnership with Glasgow City Council (and others) to establish Glasgow as the first ICORN (International City of Refuge Network) City of Refuge in Scotland. Throughout congress, different PEN centres and International PEN were able to share experience: the successes and the reasons why some ICORN residencies for a writer at risk failed.

It felt to me that diversity was often the ‘quieter’ word among the three at congress. PEN boards are still predominantly white and male. In addressing writers at risk, not enough is said on gender and sexual identity. The specific issues of women at risk are not highlighted enough; although the president of PEN International, Jennifer Clement, the sole woman on a stage of fourteen men, in her speech, placed a spotlight on the number of women missing in India (63 million) and the number of girls unwanted by their families (21 million).

At one point in Congress, a PEN centre made the claim that, in a population of 500,000, ‘there are no problems related to the LGBTQI community, which is not very expressive in [our country]’ After ‘coming out’ to 80-90 centres in the hall, I respectfully challenged those assumptions and made it clear that LGBTQI people have existed throughout centuries, in all nations and all lands; and that prejudice and discrimination exists, to greater or lesser extent, everywhere. One woman, after the session had ended, said that I could not impose my values on other people. The inference was that the acceptance (and protection) of LGBTQI people is an ‘issue’ promoted by the west. I did, however, receive assurance from the director of PEN International that LGBTQI human rights were being addressed. What surprised me was that no one else said anything about their own sexuality, although, afterwards, a considerable number of people thanked me for speaking out.

Interestingly, on my return to Scotland, I went to hear my partner speak at the WOW (Women of the World) festival in Perth. Afterwards, we went to see the Bad Ass Women session (a celebration of LGBTQI women). While waiting, a small child ran on to the stage and a woman came swiftly after him. He was then parked just beside the curtain, in the corner, so he could see her and she could see him.

The panel started and after a while the woman described growing up in India as a transgender person and how, at one time in Indian history, there was recognition and acceptance of what was called then ‘the third sex’. The woman spoke about how transgender people are viewed as a threat. She went on to say that she is manager of a rape crisis centre and tirelessly fights for women’s rights.  At questions, I told her, as we sat in Perth, I had just returned from India. She asked where about and I replied Pune. She laughed and said that’s where she was brought up, that’s where she was from. That, for me, ended Congress 2018, in the best way possible.

Tags: Congress defamation ICORN PEN International Writers At Risk Committee