Following the PEN International and ICORN conference in Lillehammer, Scottish PEN board member, Jane Archer shares her thoughts on the profound and necessary gathering to defend free expressionJuly 21, 2017
At the end of May, myself, fellow Scottish PEN Board Member, Liz Niven and Scottish PEN’s Policy Advisor, Nik Williams travelled to Lillehammer, Norway to represent our centre at the Biennial International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) Meeting & PEN International Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) Conference entitled In Other Words.
This unique meeting brought together WiPC and ICORN members, writers and activists to come together to understand the threats to writers across the globe, share ideas and findings and work together to tackle attacks on free expression. With writers under threat around the world, including most notably this year, Turkey, Mexico, Syria, Russia, China and Iran, this conference felt more necessary than ever.
Writers from different centres introduced their work including Alicia Quinones of Mexico PEN who highlighted the plight of Mexican journalists and how two writers have been recently killed & another abducted, adding to the 126 writers or journalists who have been killed this year. Impunity and corruption are still at the heart of Mexican politics and therefore have a dangerous impact on writers, with many at risk as soon as they begin an investigation. Similar reports were shared from Ukraine, Bangladesh, Eritrea and the Uyghur PEN Centre where threats and intimidation is worryingly commonplace, with no sign of abating.
The ongoing refugee crisis coloured many of the segments and it was fitting that PEN International used this gathering to launch their Make Space campaign, which seeks to create opportunities for writers who have experienced forced displacements, whilst challenging xenophobia and discrimination in resettlement settings. Renowned Kenyan novelist, himself living in exile, Ngugi wa Thiong’o launched the event with a poignant reading of the campaign’s mission statement and a reminiscence of the role PEN International played securing his release from prison in 1978.
As WiPC committees from across the globe shared their work, the impact, passion and strength of this network soon became apparent; many worked on different cases in different countries, but it was fascinating to watch centres share ideas and establish relationships that could strengthen their work in the future.
The connection between PEN International and ICORN represents a significant relationship that offers real and substantial support to writers under threat; many participants at this conference were living in exile in ICORN cities across the globe and the freedom this offered them to continue to write was remarkable. With only one ICORN city in the UK, we have our work cut out to ensure we can support this vital network.
Around the sessions there were a number of cultural events that formed part of the Norwegian Festival of Literature. Renowned novelist Kamila Shamsie delivered the Bjornson Lecture and spoke passionately about divides, walls and the immigration process, and how we cannot fall victim to idea that it has only been an issue since the Trump presidency. She rifted on the idea of the gloves coming off, stating in fact that the gloves have always been off, it is just that the mask is slipping. She challenged writers in European and North American, saying if you’re supposed to write about what you know, then know more. She added that if writers are in safer countries they can write about what’s happening across the world.
On the second night there was a musical celebration that highlighted the power of art to transcend nature borders or politics with singers from Iran, Afghanistan, and Norway; a dancer from Syria (still living in a Syrian refugee camp); an animated short film from Afghanistan; a Palestinian hip-hop performer; and the Lillehammer choir. This was followed by discussions and reading which featured a Skype conversation with Khadija Ismailova who had been recently released from jail in Azerbaijan.
As the conference continued over the few days so many fascinating sessions were held; a discussion about the rise of Trump and the alt-right following journalists who retraced a route John Steinbeck took in 1960; an exploration into blasphemy and criminalised defamation laws around the world; fake news and further in-depth discussions about the ICORN network and how cities can get involved. These sessions left myself and Liz Niven going through different Scottish cities, figuring out which may be the best fit. Watch this space.
On the third day, our Policy Advisor (now acting-Project Manager), Nik Williams presented to the conference our research we are undertaking with the University of Strathclyde and supported by PEN International exploring the impact of surveillance on the willingness of writers to express themselves. This investigation into self-censorship and surveillance was followed with interest by the audience who included the PEN International president, Jennifer Clement and both German PEN and Norsk PEN expressed interest in replicating the research.
As the conference drew to a close we knew threats against writers would continue, but with so many passionate and committed PEN centres from around the world we knew there were voices speaking in unison for free expression to be protected wherever people choose to express themselves.
Jane Archer / Scottish PEN Writers at Risk Committee