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John Ralston Saul delivers last speech as president of PEN International

Thursday 15 October 2015 - 5:44pm

jrsPEN members from across the globe honour Canadian writer John Ralston Saul at the 81st PEN International Congress in Quebec, as he delivers a powerful last speech and steps down after six years as president of the worldwide association of writers. Below is a transcript.

John Ralston Saul
Président International du PEN
Discours d´ouverture/Opening Speech
81e Congrès du PEN
Palais Montcalm
Ville de Québec, Canada
Mercredi, 14 octobre, 2015

Nous sommes ici, à Québec, au cœur de la culture francophone en Amérique. Et PEN est officiellement trilingue dont le français – mais notre famille contient toutes les langues et ce congrès de Québec est profondément multilingue.

 En plus nous sommes sur des terres autochtones – Wendat  – et ce congrès est aussi une grande célébration des cultures autochtones.

Au nom de nous tous je veux dire merci à PEN Québec et à Émile Martel et à son équipe pour ce congrès. Et à Bernard Gilbert et le Festival Québec en Toutes Lettres.

Allow me a moment of history. PEN – 95 years old – created the modern idea of the civil society organisation. We were shaped by the dramas of fascism from the 1920´s on. One defining moment came in 1933 at the Congress in Dubrovnik. PEN was faced by an attack on free expression by Nazis, who had taken over the German PEN centre. Countries everywhere were trying to get along with Hitler. International organizations were prevaricating. The German PEN centre was there. So were the German writers, already in exile, many of them Jewish.  There was a terrible drama.

H. G. Wells, PEN’s President said:

“We must make a definitive choice for one idea or another, then fight for it, or else become nothing but a mutual admiration society.”

PEN chose freedom of expression and literature, and we are still fighting for it.

Jules Romain, our President in 1937 said: “Sometimes we are accused of pushing politics. How naive and how hypocritical! We want nothing better than to leave politics alone, provided that it leaves us alone.” Think about this in the context of the report we released this week on what is happening to free expression in Canada.

Today we are caught in multiple dramas around the world in which freedom of expression and literature are under attack – yes, by religious extremists. But don’t forget. That 3/4 of the 200 writers killed every year and most of the 850 writers in prison or in danger are not the victims of religious extremists. They are the victims of governments, police, soldiers, corporations, organized crime. Or a combination of the above.

And Western governments have seized on the rise of terrorism to introduce law after law reducing the free expression of the citizen, all in the name of security.

But security forces don’t save democracies. Citizens save democracies, engaged citizens. And their strongest weapon is free speech.

These laws have created great insecurity. Writers are censoring themselves. Citizens are being pushed to be ashamed of their right to privacy. We are all being encouraged to be careful. But literature is never the result of being morally or ethically or politically careful.

Heinrich Böll, then PEN President said: “You have to go too far to know how far you can go.”

This is our great truth. Literature is about risk, not comfort.

Arthur Miller, when he was PEN President, put it this way: “You never do any good unless you get into some trouble."

Deux poètes iraniens ont été condamnés aujourd’hui à passer des années en prison. En plus, ils vont recevoir la punition d´être fouettés 99 fois.

On va les défendre comme on défend les autres, comme on défend Raif Badawi. Nous avons choisi. C’est une bataille sans fin mais c´est la bataille pour l´imagination et pour la justice.

PEN is a remarkable phenomenon – an invention of the imagination, yet devoted to the detailed defence of languages, translations, free expression and the profound need for creativity in all civilizations. All of this you could call dignity. Human dignity.

When we – PEN - intervened this year on the refugee crisis, some asked why. The answer is obvious: Because all those elements of human dignity are at stake. Civilizations, if they lie to themselves about dignity and responsibility, throw away the ethical value of that word - civilization - and so destroy themselves. As in 1933, we have decided and we will speak up.

It has been a privilege to serve this cause – the cause of pen. I will now return in the ranks and, like all members, I will continue with them, to serve.

Merci, gracias.