Many of us travelling to the European Writers’ Parliament, convened in Istanbul for that city’s Capital of Culture year, were puzzled. Taking its lineage from previous gatherings of writers (during the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the occasion of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, etc), it seemed to us that this parliament lacked a focus. We would not be called upon to utter a declaration against fascism or to defend a fellow writer against a death sentence, so why were we there at all?
We arrived in a cloudy and damp Istanbul in a cloud of controversy. VS Naipaul, invited as a guest speaker for the opening, had been ‘uninvited’ – or if we are to believe the official story, had voluntarily withdrawn – due to a raging controversy in the Turkish media. The newspapers were quoting the writer and poet Hilmi Yavuz to the effect that Naipaul had no business in Turkey. ‘I don’t have a personal problem with Naipaul,’ Yavuz told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. ‘I have a problem with the mentality. I don’t care what the world thinks about me. As a Turkish intellectual, my mission is to illuminate my own society. He might have received the Nobel prize, but it does not give him the right to insult the Muslim world.’ Cihan Aktash told the Guardian: ‘The disgust he feels for Muslims in his books is appalling. I cannot attend the event given all of this.’ Aktash did, in fact, attend and I sat in commission with her. Her contribution was interesting but gave no indication of her wide reading among the canon of radical European intellectuals, from Negri to Ranciére.
Therefore there were 99 (not 100!) writers from 33 countries, still a substantial gathering covering most of the fields that writers engage in besides the actual work of writing. There were, for example, writers who were also editors, translators, teachers and journalists and many belonged in more than two categories. And the eruption of the Naipaul controversy and its reflection in the Turkish and world press brought home to us the significance of our presence. We were, in fact, called upon to take a position in a radicalized environment. Whereas, in many ways, writers are marginalized, or willingly marginalise themselves, in the West, their utterances largely ignored unless they adopt an extremist position like Naipaul’s, in Turkey and the Islamic world they act as public intellectuals, representing the political in their work, using their profile to engage with political ideas on all sides of the argument. When they do so, they put themselves in very real danger. Our duty was to align ourselves with them, and to defend their freedom of speech – not too difficult for a gathering of people who already believed in these values, and most of whom would be travelling home in a few days to countries where such values prevailed however imperfectly, and for the time being at least, but a matter of some delicacy for the Turkish writers present, who had to negotiate the Turkish Penal Code with its draconian punishments for perfectly reasonable statements. In due course this duty would become central to the Istanbul Declaration. The first paragraph of the declaration would state:
‘The freedom of all types of cultural and literary acts is vital. Every direct or indirect barrier preventing freedom of expression should be abolished. Powerful institutional and civil society support should be mobilized to prevent violence and threats to freedom of expression.’
Even in Ireland a writer exercising her or his freedom in this way might fall foul of the Blasphemy Act, though it’s unlikely, but in Istanbul these words caused considerable heated discussion and editing. The initial weaker draft was withdrawn. In addition, the attempt to insert direct references to Articles 301 and 312 of the Turkish Penal Code (among several that limit freedom of expression) were withdrawn, avowedly because the Turkish Government changed the numbers regularly, but possibly because a reference to them might put the Turkish signatories in danger of prosecution – something we outsiders could not countenance in our name. Turkey is, of course, a secular state, but one in which the Islamic governing party is in constant conflict with old-guard Kemalist forces, among whom, generally, one numbers the Armed Forces. It is important to remember that the prosecutions are not only directed against the writers, editors and translators who have allegedly violated the various articles, but are also strategic or tactical actions in which the accused stands proxy for powerful political and corporate forces. The Pamuk case, for example, in which he was cited for mentioning the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the endless war against the PKK, as well as the Armenian Genocide, was, at the strategic level, an action between the anti-EU old-guard and the pro-EU reformists, the aim being to make an EU application impossible because of the high-profile violation of human rights involved.
So, we European Writers not from Turkey stepped gingerly into a complexity that we could only measure by trying to explain the complexity of our own politics. The Irish ‘bail-out’, for example, was a subject of much enquiry. The complex history of Fianna Fáil, the divisions rooted in the Civil War, the arrival of the ideological Progressive Democrats, and Berlin-to-Bostonism, the tent at the Galway races, the complex decline of the Left and its tentative new beginnings in the present, could only be the tip of the iceberg of explanation. Another subject of interest to the better-informed delegates was our new blasphemy legislation – not the kind of thing Turkey would have on its books, but familiar enough to writers from Islamic states. Attempting to explain ourselves we learn the complexity of others. We remained conscious, or were gently reminded, of the dangers of Orientalism, as defined by Edward Said. We tried to be sensitive while simultaneously lending support. To what extant were we successful? The declaration itself can be the only test. I attach a link at the end of this article.
Posing for the final photograph
The Parliament was unusual for gatherings of writers, poets, translators and editors, in that almost all the participants had been invited because they were intellectually and politically engaged in one way or another in their home countries. Lunch-time conversations centred around cultural, literary and political ideas. The breath of the cultural field was impressive. Hari Kunzru, representing England (or possibly the UK?), an Indian born, left-wing novelist, speaking at the opening ceremony, set the tone by attacking Turkish censorship, questioning our assumptions about identity and multiculturalism and the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’. Vikram Seth challenged the very idea of Europe. Cultural boundaries were transgressed in ever more delightful ways as friendships were made around tables and on tours around Istanbul organised by our solicitous hosts. Rui Zink, the Portuguese novelist, children’s writer, journalist and author of brilliant graphic novels whose anarchist father and grandfather were imprisoned by the Salazar regime. Fatima Sharafeddine, a children’s author, Lebanese born, representing Belgium, where she lives, writing in Classical Arabic, one of whose books (Neilín agus an Cat) has been translated for the Irish publisher Futa Fata. Mehmet Yashin, born in Nicosia, Cyprus, writing in Turkish and living in Cambridge. Eva Moreda, from Spain, writing in Galician and teaching at the Open University in London. Kaya Genç, from Turkey, writing his dissertation on Oscar Wilde and Conrad. And so on. Outside our commissions, conversation took fascinating and complex turns.
The idea for the European Writers’ Parliament grew out of a proposal by the late José Saramago and Orhan Pamuk. Saramago was to have given the guest of honour speech at the Opening Ceremony. Pamuk wasn’t there, I never heard why. Undoubtedly, had Saramago given the key-note address things would have been different, but it is difficult to imagine what Naipaul could have said that would not have provoked a riot. In any case, I regret those three absences, Saramago above all.
Prior to departure from Ireland we three ‘delegates’ (nobody knows how or why we were chosen) – Jamie O’Neill, Glenn Meade and myself – were, like everyone else, asked to opt for particular ‘commissions’. I opted for ‘Literature In The Digital Age’. In the event, it was probably the most focused group of the four – we were divided, for debate purposes, into four commissions: Industrialism, Mass Culture and Literature; Reconceptualizing the Boundaries of European Literature; Literature in the Digital Age; and Literary Landscapes. How, we wondered, could it all be brought together in the end?
The Digital Age commission divided between what I would characterize as ‘the futurists’ and a small group of critics or sceptics. The futurists were either entirely for or entirely against everything digital, but in either case they saw it as the complete disappearance of all barriers, boundaries between literary forms and genres, the disintegration of literature as we know it and the development of something entirely new. Sometimes this was expressed in the vaguest possible terms (‘Some day we will write novels on clouds’, as one writer suggested), and at other times in quite precise form. One writer suggested that some day young people (they tend to envisage ‘young people’ doing these things) will read texts in which key words are hyperlinked to images, cartoons, animations or games that will enhance the experience of reading the text. It didn’t take long for a anti-digital futurist to point out that this would over-determine the text and abolish imagination. All of the futurists were quite clear that the internet represented freedom of expression and was the future repository of all information and the death of the printed text, regardless of whether they thought it a good or bad thing. They tended also to be concerned with author’s rights, and copyright in particular, which they saw going the same way as musicians’ rights (an unmitigated bad thing in their view).
The critics adopted a more nuanced position. Ola Larsmo from Sweden, and representing Swedish PEN, noted firstly that technologies do not replace earlier technologies – he called it the x+1 theory and contrasted it with the Dinosaur Theory (digitisation would make books disappear). TV didn’t replace radio, for example. The book would continue to exist but would have to share readership with the eBook. He cautioned against the dangers of censorship, and proposed that writers do not need the level of copyright that exists for corporations (pointing out that he could not even draw a pair of mouse-ears without infringing Disney’s rights) and that we should campaign to have copyright rolled back to where it was in the 1970s, rather than striving for ever more stringent copyright law. Larsmo’s voice carried weight because Sweden is one of the least censored societies in the world. Kaya Genç, from Turkey, objected to what he regarded as the obsessive concern for copyright. He called for a commons of literature, literature as a liberatory and resistant action. He cited the WWII resistance magazine Combat as the model. In Combat all work was anonymous, an idea attractive to him, perhaps, because it could provide an avenue for defeating the Penal Code. I objected to the idea that the internet was in any way free, given that we knew it was subject to total government and corporate surveillance, a form of censorship that was relatively invisible by comparison with censorship of the book, and suggested that the eventual declaration should include our opposition to all forms of digital censorship. Pat Kane (Scotland) deepened our understanding of such censorship but kept a foot in both camps by maintaining that the internet was a potential neo-communist vehicle for sharing information. Kane, a radical thinker, activist and musician (and writer to boot!) was one of the few members of the commission who had actually written directly about the internet. His website Thoughtland, is stimulating reading. (I provide links to each of these writers at the end of this article.) Underlying everyone’s contribution were certain fears, among which the question of censorship and the writer’s freedom to carry on stating what she regarded as the truth. How would the commercial imperatives of the web impact on literature? Would the market destroy existing forms and genres – we all had plenty of experience with the publishing house marketeers and their tendency to only do the popular. Was instant access to knowledge a good thing? Should books be free? How can a writer make a living in a world where anything can be copied? And so on.
While convinced that we had divided in such a way that a true summary of our commission’s discussion could never be included in the Declaration, we were shocked to discover, on emerging from the first session, that the other groups were even more divided. The Naipaul issue, for example, had provoked furious debate in the Boundaries and Literary Landscape commissions, opening up into debates on multiculturalism and cultural hegemony. The question of the ‘boundaries of European literature’, first addressed by Vikram Seth at the opening ceremony, had provoked wide-ranging argument which would eventually find its way into the first draft as the simple expression ‘There is no Europe’! Needless to say it was eliminated in revision, however the debate would be reflected in almost every paragraph of the declaration, in such sentences as: ‘Political, ethnic, religious and national boundaries should not present an obstacle to the writer. We support cultural diversity and exchange.’
Rui Zink (Portugal); Fatima Sharafeddine (Belgium); Ola Larsmo (Sweden); William Wall (Ireland)
What did the Parliament achieve? Inevitably such a heterogeneous gathering of writers from so many cultures would bring a wide range of private and public concerns to the table. But it was surprising how much agreement developed. Take the idea of ‘multiculturalism’, which cropped up again and again. Most delegates were agreed that it was originally well-intentioned but had been largely hijacked by corporations and governments and used to ghettoise minorities and their rights. Most of us favoured a more positive interaction between cultures that would allow a two-way learning process between minority and majority cultures. The term ‘hybridisation’ was proposed as an alternative but was rejected as too technical (it’s a term in cultural theory). We were concerned that whatever we declare should emphasise the extent of shared ground, that we rejected the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, that we rejected boundaries. In particular we claimed ‘the republic of letters’ as our common land and opposed all attempts to limit its scope by government or corporation. We defined the role of the writer in opposition to repression, censorship and the hegemony (the word itself was deleted and ‘standardisation of expression’ substituted – an example of the kind of compromise that seems to always develop in these situations) of any one culture; and in support of biblio-diversity, minority forms and languages, free thought and speech and the protection of new and existing literary genres.
Inevitably too, much of what we said could have been said, and much of it was said, at any gathering of writers from the Enlightenment onwards (‘the republic of letters’ is a term used to describe the enlightenment). There’s nothing much that is new in the declaration. Nevertheless, in the highly charged atmosphere following the Naipaul case, a gathering of writers from Europe and its neighbours reasserted the traditional ground of free thought. That in itself was a valuable action, particularly for those countries where that freedom is restricted or endangered, but also for countries like Ireland where ‘sleeping dog’ legislation, such as the Blasphemy Act may eventually be used against us.
The Istanbul 2010 Declaration was passed with only one dissenting vote – that of Cihan Aktash, the left-wing, feminist, Hijab-wearing Muslim novelist and short story-writer. I attach a link below to an article for a Bulgarian newspaper (in English) that helps to explain something of her rationale. It will be clear from that article that the argument is, as always, a complex one. By attempting to explain ourselves we learn the complexity of others.
Links to writers I’ve mentioned
Pat Kane’s Thoughtland
Ola Larsmo on ‘The Temptations of Dinosaur Theory‘
Kaya Genç’s Musée Des Beaux Arts
Hari Kunzru’s blog
Jamie O’Neill’s website
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