The impact of non-governmental writers' organisations on freedom of expression

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Literature, Drama and Creative Writing


Literary writers have often seen their poems, plays, essays and novels censored on grounds of offence, blasphemy, libel, political sedition or obscenity and they have also often been eloquent defenders of the right to free expression. This project investigates the intimate relationship between literature and free speech, but focuses on its particular features in twentieth and twenty-first century history. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, insisted on the 'right to freedom and expression...regardless of frontiers'. But writers had, since the 1920s, been claiming that, literature 'knows no frontiers', as the organisation International PEN put it in 1927 and that the dissemination, readership and future significance of literary works could not be owned by nation states.

The relationship between literature, censorship and free expression has been of considerable and longstanding interest to lawyers and legal scholars, (Thomas [2007], Dhavan [2008]), literary critics (Pease [2000], McDonald [2009]) and intellectual historians, (Collini [2010], Darnton [2014]. Recent histories of human rights, meanwhile, have analysed the cultural battles over what was 'universal' about rights in the lead up to the UDHR, and its subsequent history (Moyn [2010], Mazower [2009, 2012]). The specific relationship between literature and rights, meanwhile, has also been of considerable interest (Hunt [2007], Slaughter [2007], Anker [2012]). This project engages with this wider body of scholarship, but shifts the terms of the debate. It argues that in order to understand the impact of twentieth and twenty-first century writers on understandings of free expression it is necessary to analyse different sites of cultural exchange, looking beyond governments, law and declarations,. This project argues that the non-governmental writers' organisation has also played a crucial role.

It focuses on one writers' organisation, International PEN, but also looks at associated organisations in its three key areas of focus: the UK, South Africa and India. International PEN was founded in London in 1921 but quickly expanded, with centres springing up across Europe and the US in 1922 and 1923, and in China (1924), Canada (1926), South Africa (1927), Argentina (1930), India (1933), Japan and Brazil (1934), amongst many others. Its members have included some of the most prominent writers of the long twentieth century, including Rabindranath Tagore, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie. Many member writers have had their works censored; and many of them have written influential essays, poems, plays or novels reflecting on the boundaries of free expression.

Not only have these writers, and these writers' organisations, engaged intellectually with attacks on free speech; they have also influenced government policies, international charters and legal interpretations through campaigning, educational and translation initiatives. When PEN began in the 1920s its internationalism entailed an expansionist and supposedly apolitical spirit of international 'friendliness' through encounters with writers from other cultures. The organisation's understanding of internationalism, however, soon changed, firstly in its attempt to protect the 'international' rights of exiled and persecuted German and East European writers in the 1930s, and then in the fierce internal disagreements over whether PEN should defend the right to free expression of Nazi and Fascist collaborators such as Ezra Pound and Knut Hamsun. No less controversial was the organisation's securing international financial and legal influence after acquiring consultative status to UNESCO and the UN in the late 1940s and its subsequent role in the cold war when a humanist 'internationalism' became deeply politicised. The project aims to produce a comprehensive account of the organisation in order to understand what international free expression means today.

Planned Impact

This project has been developed with its project partner, International PEN, as well as its centres in South Africa and India. Specifically we will liaise with James Tennant (publishing) and Sarah Clarke (UN liaison) at International P.E.N; Margie Orford, President of South African PEN, Board Member of International PEN and actively linked into the PEN Africa network; and Ranjit Hoskote, Secretary of All-India PEN. The main impact of the research will be on the writers' organisations themselves and their members. The current concerns of PEN centres, in turn, have informed our key research objectives. The histories of Indian PEN and South African P.E.N. are unrecorded. They consider our project to be vital to the preservation of India's and South Africa's literary history.

The further impact of the project resides in its influence on writers, publishers and activists in the areas of translation and free speech activism.
Impact will operate at two broad levels:
1. The use of historical knowledge to understand the present and open up new perspectives on the future:

- Collaboration and intellectual exchange will be important at the level of the archival work itself. Liaising with our project partner we will bring to light and catalogue boxes of unanalysed manuscripts, letters and committee minutes at Theosophy Hall, Mumbai, the South African PEN centre, and the International PEN offices in London.
- Interviews with current activists and writers and publishers will be central to our analysis of recent free expression events and debates; again, the close collaboration of academics, writers and activists in the process of these interviews will embed impact into the project.
- The International Conferences on Free Expression, to be held in London (Free Word Centre), Cape Town (D6 Museum) and Mumbai (PEN offices) will facilitate dialogue between the project's research and the expertise and experience of the project partner, as well as other activists, publishers and writers.
- The Conference proceedings will be published in a co-edited book that will be aimed at a broad, non-academic International readership interested in questions of free expression and literature.

2. The project's three key geo-political areas of study give it three central zones of impact, all with particular concerns to be addressed:

- Orford looks to the project to address the multilingual contexts of free expression issues in South Africa. Global questions around the prosecution of writers for insult and criminal defamation are, in the context of South Africa, also questions of translation, particularly of words such as insult, hatred and free expression.
- In India, writers have been silenced in face of death threats, book burnings, and vandalizing of bookshops. Indian PEN seeks to understand 'the use of India's laws to suppress free speech' , especially Sections 153 and 295A of the Indian Penal Code, inherited from the British Raj, that makes hurting religious or communal sentiments a criminal offense. Our project, by exploring the historical use and misuse of this legislation to curb freedom of expression, will help Indian PEN to formulate a response to the vocabulary of 'hurt' or 'injury' in practices of literary regulation in India.
- The International PEN and the national PEN centres themselves are part of a network of other related or affiliated organisations, so that the knowledge unveiled through the project will have an impact beyond its immediate partners. International PEN is connected to other organisations, such as the UN, and student PEN centres in Oxford and King's College London, as well as to a global network of PEN centres. In South Africa PEN, has strong links with the PEN Africa network, and there is already an established connection between South African PEN and the School of Journalism at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and specifically to the Justice Project.


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