Literary Corner

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Veno Taufer: VUKVAR

I had an apparition of Vukovar and I took a walk for a few
    streets -
around the block - with my hands frozen - up to the tobacco shop
and on returning I thought so that's the way they used

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John Ralston Saul: Opening speech at the 78th PEN International Congress

This is a remarkable city.  I have been coming to Gyeongju for fifteen years.  It is a city not only of history but of ideas; a city built on the idea of a humanist civilization, both Buddhist and Confucian.  I think often, wherever I am in the world, of The Divine Bell of the Great King Seong Deok from the 8th Century, which sits a short distance from here.  It is covered in script: the philosophy of the day.  “The Absolute Truth”, it says, “embraces all of creation, here and beyond.  We cannot see its real form, nor can we trace the path to its origin”.  Here is a profoundly anti-ideological idea; an idea of doubt and of creativity, which writers can embrace today.  And then this line: “The people [of the Silla Kingdom] admired literature and art over gold and jade”.

Here is an idea which would mystify many of those who control policy around the world today – the belief that the imagination needs to trump mere self interest.

PEN is stronger in its 91st year than is has ever been. Why?  Because  we function on the fundamental principle of the Divine Bell.  Creativity, imagination, language may be forbidden, battered, turned into propaganda in the short term.  But creativity, the imagination, prevail.

I say this even if over 800 of our colleagues are in prison or in danger.  We prevail because we recover from all blows, even as the lives of writers – our colleagues – our members - are lost or ruined.  Autocrats have their moment, but as Ko Un put it:

                                                      “That dog that'll die tomorrow,
                                                       doesn't know it's going to die.
                                                       It's barking fiercely”.

There is a central point about literature and its freedom of expression that must be continually reiterated.  These words may contain beauty, be transformative, or offer pleasure or innocent thrills or anything else.

But there is nothing inherently respectable about us or about literature or about freedom of expression.  Literature is not designed to reassure or to make people comfortable.  That is the role of propaganda in all its forms.

Literature is thousands of years of making people uncomfortable, of encouraging uncertainty – whether in public or private lives.    That is its strength.  Literature is not about smoothness or agreement.  We may cause discomfort or shock in any number of ways, whether in love or families, politics or religion.  Civilizations at their best are built with the consciousness of discomfort.  As for us, in Wole Soyinka's words - “I -we- have failed in [our] ambition to grow old gracefully”.

I am insisting on this because today we see three young women -Pussy Riot - imprisoned for long terms in Russia.  What for?  For disturbing the peace.  Nothing more.  Our member and former Centre President, Liu Xiaobo, remains unjustly in prison in China, along with many others, for disturbing the status quo.  Treason laws are proliferating around the world and being used to silence and jail writers who are saying less than what I am saying here today.

This is the fundamental and eternal challenge to literature which comes from power; what Jean-Marie Le Clézio describes as “la destruction des mythes par un désir de puissance”.

The result is that many of our thousands of members, here in this room and around the world, famous and unknown, must begin each day asking, as Lee Gil-won asks:

                                “Are we not those who have nothing more to lose?
                                When the plowed earth shows its inner flesh.
                                Let us at least plant some scallion roots”.

These scallion roots, these words, are our force.  Yes, of course, PEN excels in diplomacy.  We struggle to keep writers alive, to free them – whether they are Nobel Laureates or teenage bloggers.  Some of those bloggers who changed the regime in Tunisia are now rebuilding our PEN Centre there.  Others, formal writers or bloggers, are on the line of greatest danger in Syria.  We work endlessly to convince governments that they are capable of acting better – I will admit, a tiring business.  We work for dialogue – words, more words – because that is the road away from conflict, towards peace.  We defend languages in trouble through The Girona Manifesto.  We work for a growth in translations because this is central to free expression – to understanding across linguistic barriers.  What we do assumes the value of minority opinions and of cultures which find themselves in a minority.

At this Congress we will try to adopt an historic declaration on Digital Rights in order to establish ethical parameters in this new world of communications.  We will be asked to create a new Centre for North Korean writers in exile.  We will continue strengthening our work with literature in schools, especially in Africa; developing free expression summer schools, beginning in Bishkek in Central Asia.

Our 144 Centres in over 100 countries mean that we can be an Asian centered organization.  Today the centre of PEN International is here in Gyeongju.  On another day we could be centered anywhere else in the world.

But through all of this work we must constantly remind ourselves that our cause is literature.  Literature and freedom of expression are neither a nicety nor a legal technicality.  They are a way of imagining  the relationship between peoples.  Between people.  People who may disagree or dislike each other or, in fact, know nothing about each other.

What is PEN?  Why do we exist?  Because literature and freedom of expression are a way of imagining civilization.  How do we live together?  Through words.

Nadine Gordimer describes South African education system as a 'wreck'

In the South African news this morning, as reported by the SA Press Association:

Nobel literature prize winner Nadine Gordimer poured scorn on South Africa's education system on Tuesday as "a wreck" over the failure to deliver textbooks to thousands of public schools.

The scandal has caused a national furore after leaving more than 5,000 rural schools without textbooks for more than six months of the academic year in a damning measure of South Africa's schooling 18 years into democracy.

"Our education system is a wreck. It's a shamble. I can't believe that three-quarters of the year have gone by and so many of our schools, especially in the rural areas, have been without textbooks," said Gordimer, 88, on SAFM public radio news.

"It is the (education) minister's responsibility to see that the books are ordered in time and delivered. How can you teach people to read if there are no books to read from?"

President Jacob Zuma is facing increasing calls to fire Education Minister Angie Motshekga. On Monday, he said he was waiting for a final report from a team he appointed to investigate the debacle.

The education department was found to have violated students' rights to education after being taken to court and was ordered to remedy the situation.

But a probe revealed that 22 percent of schools in the northern Limpopo region were still without learning materials earlier this month despite a scramble by authorities to get the missing books to schools.

The criticism by Gordimer, who had several works banned by the apartheid regime, comes after peace laureate Desmond Tutu said democratic icon Nelson Mandela would be reduced to tears if he knew the poor state of public schools.

Education is South Africa's single biggest budget item, but schools are hobbled by poor management and low standards. - SAPA

Literary evening: Zineb el Rhazoui and Erika Johnson Debeljak

The Maribor Literature House hosted a Slovene-American wrtiter Erika Johnson Debeljak and a Morrocan writer and journalist living in Ljubljana Zineb El Rhazoui.

You can watch the video of the evening here.

Adopted at the 79th World PEN Congress in Reykjavik, September 2013
Bled Manifesto of the Writers for Peace Committee
PEN International,the world’s leading association of writers, promotes a culture of peace based on freedom of expression, dialogue, and exchange. PEN is dedicated to linguistic and cultural diversity and to the vibrancy of languages and their cultures whether spoken by many or few.  PEN International’s Writers for Peace Committee has therefore approved this Manifesto calling for the universal right to peace, based on the Lugano Declaration for Peace and Freedom (1987), on the  Appeal of Linz Protesting Against the Degradation of the Environment (2009)  and on the Belgrade Declaration of the Writers for Peace Committee, approved at the 77th Congress of PEN International (September 2011).1. All individuals and peoples have a right to peace and this right should be recognised by the United Nations as a universal human right. 2. PEN promotes discussion and dialogue between writers from countries in conflict and across regions of the world where wounds are open and political will is unable to address tensions. 3. PEN seeks to bring together people from around the world through literature and discussion amongst writers and with the broad public. 4. PEN considers one of the world’s greatest challenges to be the transition from violence to debate, discussion and dialogue. We aim to be active participants in this progress promoting where necessary the principles of international law. 5. In order to achieve the conditions for peace, freedom of expression and creativity in all its forms must be respected and protected as a fundamental right so long as it respects all other basic human rights in accordance with the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.6. PEN acknowledges that it is of primary importance to be permanently committed to creating conditions that can lead to ending conflicts of all kinds. There is neither freedom without peace, nor peace without freedom; social and political justice is inaccessible without peace and freedom. 7. In order to achieve sustainable conditions for peace, PEN calls for the respect of the environment in conformity with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992). We condemn the excesses of technology and financial speculation that contribute to the impoverishment of a large part of the world’s population.  8.  PEN respects and defends the dignity of all human beings. PEN opposes injustice and violence wherever they are found, including oppression, colonisation, illegal occupation and terrorism.  9. In accordance with the principles of freedom of expression and justice, every individual or group involved in conflict has the right to demand non-violent solutions to conflict and should be free to petition and appeal to  international institutions and government authorities. 10. All children have the right to receive a comprehensive peace and human rights education.  PEN promotes the implementation of this right.
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