||An Exchange: In Defence Of Pen
I WAS greatly saddened to read your coverage of the PEN Congress in your December issue.
Although I was pleased that your Montreal reporter, Joel Yanofsky, actually mentioned the Writers in Prison work that for me is PEN Canada's main raison d'etre, it was too bad that he had not a word to spare for the organizational meeting of the global Women Writers' Network. Women writers in many countries face not only censorship and imprisonment, but heavy doses of machismo; and on the international publishing front, they are likely to be overlooked in favour of their male colleagues. This network is a first; there's never been anything like it. If it unfolds as conceived, it will move its location around the world from year to year, although its first year will be spent in New York. Nor will it be open only to members of PEN. Surely it rated a mention?
As for Books in Canada's coverage of the Toronto end, where can one begin? Live in this country long enough and you'll be minged to death. And look out especially if you've tried to work for social change. The minge-balls will fly thick and fast, self-righteousness will abound, and whatever you've done, it won't be good enough.
But let me get two inaccuracies out of the way first: Graeme Gibson did not say "the greatest literary event in the world." And I did not organize the congress. I wasn't even on the executive. It's true that, way back when I was president, I promised that the Canadian PEN Congress would be both bilingual (there was a problem with French at the New York Congress) and would represent women equally. This was a promise honoured, indeed more than honoured, by the Management Committee of Canadian PEN, without a single word of nagging from me: the congress had more than 50 per cent women guests of honour, and the Toronto end was trilingual. The management committee was in fact all-male -- perhaps this is why credit has not been given where credit is due?
Now, on to the major charge: the accusation by Vision 21 that PEN Canada is racist. (By "PEN Canada" is meant the Englishspeaking chapter of PEN located in Toronto -- PEN Quebec is a separate organization. PEN International allows for several chapters in one country, divided according to language or geographical distance.) Your journalist, Carole Corbeil, doesn't say that these racism charges are accurate, although she does quote Vision 21's figures as "fact"; she doesn't say that they are inaccurate either. She does say that it doesn't matter who's right or who's wrong.
I'm sorry, but it does matter. Racism is a very serious charge indeed. At the moment, in the world of nervous white liberals, it ranks right up there along with "child abuser" as a powerful and dreaded witch-word. (I base "witch-word" on my knowledge of the well-known Salem trials.) By "witch-word," I mean that if someone points a finger at you and says the word, you're guilty until proven innocent. I mean that you get the Verdict First, Execution Next, Trial Never treatment. I mean that those who should be interested in the truth of the matter will not defend you; they will run for cover lest they be the next to be accused. And thus the charge will go into the record, and people will accept it without question.
If they're nervous white liberal journalists, they will even rush to help with the finger-pointing, so eager will they be to be on the right side. This is what I think of as the Do It To Julia response. ("Do it to Julia" is what Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984 says at the moment at which he breaks. "Don't do it to me. Do it to Julia.") Carole Corbeil is not alone in this. The accusations of "appalling under-representation" were based on a nose-count by Vision 21, but not one single journalist asked PEN for its own numbers. Not one seems to have sat down with a copy of Statistics Canada and worked out the percentages. Yes, I know; PEN should have hit back fast with a real-number breakdown more extensive and explicit than that in the press release it did issue at the time. Why didn't it hit back?
Fear of offending minority groups by contradicting a lie put about in the name of minority groups? But we've come upon sad times if people feel compelled to suppress the plain truth in the name of anti-racism.
Here are the real numbers, and I'll let PEN speak for itself at last:
In all we formally invited 66 Canadians to participate in various Congress proceedings. Almost a third of them were francophone. We invited fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights, poets, performance artists and writers for children. There were writers from all provinces, and from the North. As it happens, we invited Canadians who were born in Argentina, Barbados, Belgium, China, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Iraq, Poland, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and the United States. Some were Jewish, others Mennonite. Only about 30 per-cent were angIosaxon, celtic, or otherwise hard to define. Fifty-one per-cent were women. just over 12 per-cent were Native, Asian, or Black.
(Despite the large group of francophones, and the writers born in such countries as Turkey, Iraq and Poland, despite the Mennonites and the Jews, Vision 21 blindly insists there was "a noticeable dearth of writers or panelists from backgrounds other than the dominant Anglo-Saxon group.")
Of the original 66 invitees, 20 were moderators. This means 46 people were invited specifically as writers. Slightly more than 15 percent of them were Native, Asian, or Black.
According to the 1986 Census, reported in the Canada Year Book for 1990, there were one million, four hundred ninety-six thousand, nine hundred fifty-five Natives, Asians, and Blacks in Canada. This works out to somewhat less than six per-cent of Canada's total population.
This means that the representation of Natives, Asians and Blacks at our Congress was, at worst, twice that of their population percentage, and at best, four times greater.
In light of these numbers, what can we make of Vision 2 I's statement about the "appalling under-representation of writers of colour in the Canadian delegation?"
From the opening day of our Congress these figures have been available for anyone curious enough, or honest enough, to search them out. To our knowledge, despite all that has been written and said about this matter, no-one has bothered to do so.
For your added information: Percentage of PEN Canada executive that would have been Black, Native or Asian had all of those who were invited agreed to take part: 20
Percentage of delegates from the U.S. that would have been Black and female had the first invitations been accepted: 100
First PEN chapter in the world to propose and lobby strongly for a Black writer as International Chair: PEN Canada
In PEN International's Charter, members pledge to "oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, and the distortion of facts for political and personal ends." Maybe a few of the journalists in Canada who've been guilty of repeating the wrong numbers and the racism accusations against PEN Canada, without investigating them, should pay attention to that. "Mendacious publication," anyone?
PEN Canada is not a strong organization, in the sense that governments and "national newspapers" are strong. It has little money, and most of its work is done by volunteers. Its only strength lies in its reputation. Damage its credibility beyond repair and you kill it. You also damage individuals, because racism is not an abstract dragon. When you accuse organizations of it you are accusing the individuals in them, and you run the risk of demolishing their lives. Whatever the general merits of your cause, you should be very sure of the facts before doing this. Otherwise you do the cause itself a disservice. Those who want an excuse for not listening to you can dismiss you as paranoid.
Carole Corbeil regrets that the "racism" accusations were not handled on the floor of the congress. Does she ask why they were not? Did she ask any of the non-white invited guests or delegates whether they agreed with these charges? At the New York PEN Congress, outraged women -- underrepresented by 35 to 40 per cent -- got together, held an organizational meeting, and requested a spot on the agenda of the final session. There were enough non-whites and/or non- WASPs at the Toronto congress to have done this. Why didn't they? Could it be that they didn't agree with the charges? When several (white) women purporting to represent Vision 21 turned up at the train station on the day of departure for Montreal and went around telling the non-white writers that they were tokens, did they have any idea how insulting, how disparaging, how racist they sounded, and why the writers they tackled regarded them with such cold eyes? The implication was that these writers couldn't really write, they were just there because of skin colour. Chinua Achebe, one of the 20th century's greatest novelists? Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize winner? Anita Desai, Nancy Morejon, Nayantara Sahgal, and many many more from Canada and around the world? Give us a break. Betty Friedan's comment to the insulting white women was, "Who hired you? Because you wouldn't be that stupid for nothing."
And while we're at it, why doesn't Corbeil have one word to say about the pre-congress multi-racial interaction on Baffin Island -- or about the travelling exhibition of Native women artists, curated by Shirley Bear and put on in conjunction with the PEN Writers in Prison Committee? This was the first event of its kind ever to be held in Canada. It was a groundbreaking show, not only in that respect but artistically. When asked whether they had attended it, the (white) women who turned up -- presumably from Vision 21 -- to hassle the volunteers at the Writers In Prison table with charges of racism, said "What exhibit?"
Now we'll get around to what really seems to have interested the journalists: June Callwood swearing. journalists love dogfights, and they love catfights even more; they also love it when Joan of Arc slips on a banana peel. But the interest of Callwood's own paper, the Globe and Mail, went far beyond that. Not only did they run a big story trashing their own columnist, they ran a coy editorial of the only-her-hairdresser-knows-for-sure variety. They didn't do their statistics, any more than any of the other Canadian journalists did, and when I asked Jack Kirchhoff why not, he replied that what made the story news was June Callwood swearing.
The Star and the Sun took a look at PEN's press release and quietly dropped the "racism" story (without, let it be said, refuting it.) Not so the Globe. Has anyone asked why? It's obvious that this story fed right into the Globe's long-time wish to dump June Callwood because it didn't like her "bleeding-heart" liberalism -- because she had repeatedly supported the disadvantaged and those who are discriminated against in this society. Now that Saturday Night has leaked the famous Megarry hitlist memo, we know that June Callwood's name had been on the list for years, and that the editor William Thorsell had been charged with bringing the Callwood head to Megarry on a silver platter. The new, internationally-business-oriented Globe didn't like the kind of columns June Callwood wrote -- you know, gucky stuff like poverty, AIDS, drug-addiction, the homeless, wifebeating, racism. They were waiting for her to make a slip -- any slip. The night June Callwood swore, Megarry and Thorsell must have thought they'd died and gone to heaven.
And why did June Callwood swear? Was it in "a moment of exasperation," as Corbeil puts it? Hardly. It was after years on the front lines, taking mud in the face for her support of causes unpopular with the right. It was during a period of intense humiliation at the Globe, which got at her partly through firing her husband, Trent Frayne, dean of Canadian sportswriters. They had certainly let her know she wasn't wanted. June Callwood was under enormous pressure the evening she was leafleted by Vision 21 -- an evening, incidentally, during which over half the people on the stage were non-white, and white Anglos were represented by one. Being confronted by the screaming headline, PEN Locks Out Writers of Colour -- a charge she knew to be outrageously untrue -- must have been for her like being handed one that said, Callwood Beats Up AIDS Patients. This was the unkindest cut of all! For "fuck off," read "Et tu, Brute?" And, I might add, her response was colour-neutral: she would have said the same thing
to anyone who had hit her like that at such a moment. Of course she shouldn't have sworn, and she has publicly regretted it. But everything has a context, and that is the context of these two fateful words.
June Callwood has resigned from the Globe. Megarry can steep at nights. "Canada's National Newspaper" no longer has a voice that will cause indigestion over the morning tea and muffins. He probably agrees with David Frum of the Sun, who blamed the racial protest on, guess who -June Callwood! -- because she had encouraged all those folks instead of stomping on them. After a lifetime of giving blood to people like Vision 21, June Callwood is out on the street at age 65. At newspapers you don't get tenure.
Well, what the heck, eh? She brought it on herself, she said "fuck off." (Incidentally, the shockand-horror response reeks of sexism. If, for instance, John Crosbie had said it, who would've cared?) The self-righteous white liberal knee-jerkers can hunker down in their rabbit burrows, wiggling their pink noses and secure in their God-given knowledge that she deserves her fate. Do It To Julia.
(As late as December 13, the Globe was repeating the charges of Vision 21, still without doing its math. Couldn't they have borrowed some pocket computers from Report on Business? Nor did they see fit to wait for PEN's own figures, which they knew were on the way. When asked why not, they said they were afraid the Star would get the story first. When the PEN statement did arrive the next day -- the Globe refused to publish it. The reason they gave in their own coverage was that PEN refused to let their statement be "cut," not an impediment to the Star, which published it intact. But the reason they gave to PEN, in a letter from William Thorsell, was that it would not be "appropriate as a Page Seven piece, as it says too much about a dispute of relevance to too few." This, after they'd done seven pieces and an editorial on the dispute and published a very long letter from Marlene Nourbese Philip. This from someone whose own figures -- "seven out of fifty-one" -- not only represents no known count of anything, but yield a percentage of 13.5 of the groups in question, as compared with the Canadian population percentage of six per cent. Has Philip figured out yet that she's being used by the Globe as a stick to beat not only Callwood but a whole bunch of other folks (liberal, civil-rights, and by a huge coincidence, anti-free trade) on the Globe's hit-list?)
Meanwhile, Vision 21 calls for June Callwood's resignation from PEN. They also call for the destruction of PEN Canada. They have sent letters to potential funders, repeating the false charges of appalling under-representation" and detailing the bad behaviour of June Callwood. They also call for a public investigation of racism in the Canadian publishing and literary scene. Well, I'd support that. Let's begin with the newspapers. Anyone done a nose-count at the Globe lately? I'd support even more – because it's needed even more -- an investigation into racism in general -- the disgraceful treatment of the Innu in Labrador by the Canadian government and a surely obsolete NATO airbase, the bull-headed methods used by the Ontario government against the Tene-Augama Anishnabai in Temagami, the inadequacies of the educational system, the inequalities in hiring ... the list goes on. Of course there is racism in Canada! Of course people should be talking about it and dealing with it! Hey, what are the chances of the Globe hiring a Black, activist, female columnist to do just that?
But how would the crippling of PEN Canada further the ends of Vision 21, other than as a demonstration of power? Whose ends would it further? Can we talk about that? When I agreed to head up PEN Canada in 1984 -- when I returned to Toronto to find that the newly separated English-language organization did not exactly exist and certainly had no cash, that it would have to be pulled together from scratch, that I would have to spend several (unpaid, frustrating) years raising the seed money -- I did so because there was not a Canadian writers' organization that was structurally capable of addressing itself to the plight of the many banned, censored, imprisoned, and disappeared writers around the world. I considered that to be the main thrust of all the (unpaid, thankless) labour that ensued.
Writers In Prison work remains the principle focus of PEN Canada. Fifteen writers are currently under its care, in countries from South Africa to Yugoslavia to Viet Nam. Some are in prison; some are tortured; some are held under truly appalling conditions, without charge or trial. PEN works to get them out. Some have been threatened with death squads -- PEN works to speed them out of their countries and into safer ones. Some have been abducted. Some have been sentenced to death. Since PEN Canada began its activities five years ago, eight of its adopted writers have been released, including Martha Kumsa from Ethiopia, a case that was particularly emotional for us since she had been separated from her young children and had been held without charge or trial for 10 years; part of PEN's difficult work was to locate her, since many thought she was dead.
Marlene Nourbese Philip is quoted as saying, "I don't care about PEN, I care about racism." Is it this Writers In Prison work that she doesn't care about? Does she want these unjustly held prisoners to be abandoned by PEN Canada because she's been able to trash its funding and scare away its volunteers? Is she that callous? Surely not. I prefer to believe Philip's "I don't care about PEN" statement -- like Callwood's "fuck off' -- was the sort of thing that slips out in a moment of emotion because one is under immense pressure.
I began by saying that your coverage made me sad. I'm sad because the PEN Congress in Canada was a groundbreaking event. Foy the first time ever, women were fully represented. For the first time ever, writers from 12 countries who had never before been able to send a delegate to a congress because of the expense were given the means to do so. (Nine did.) For the first time ever, there was a Next Generation group which allowed young writers from around the world to participate in an event that has formerly been limited to those from, shall we say, a less young generation. (Incidentally, these people were not chosen for colour. They were chosen for youth and for the originality and vitality of their work, and they were the hit of the event.) Because of the innovations made by this congress, the world's only international writers' organization will never be the same again. The world press and the other delegates recognized that, but did Books in Canada? Nope. just minge-balls.
But my major sadness is for Marlene Nourbese Philip and June Callwood. These women should not be enemies. They are both visible role models: women especially look to them for examples of constructive and informed behaviour. They should be working together, since their aims are the same: to quote Vision 21, "an environment and milieu which is free of racism, sexism, and classism." If women really are better than men at conflictresolution, let's see it happen. Should mutual understanding, good faith and compassion fail to prevail, and should the war between their two organizations escalate, no one will be more delighted than the forces of inertia and repression.
Carole Corbeil replies:
MARGARET ATWOOD'S passionate commitment to PEN Canada and to her friends is admirable. I wish, however, that she had been able to state her case without deliberately misreading what I wrote, or without burning me up as fuel.
First let me say that I find it a bit disingenuous of Atwood to stomp on Books in Canada, while making sure she accords her final respect to Marlene Nourbese Philip, the real source of her anger. Atwood may have good cause to be angry, just as she may have good cause to be furious (not saddened) at me for being critical of the party PEN threw. But mixing everybody and everything up in a blast of rhetorical overkill won't help anybody resolve anything. I don't know if women can resolve conflicts better than men, but I do know that honesty helps, no matter what gender you are.
While I don't mind being called a middle-class liberal by a middle-class liberal, although I sometimes wish I had the income to prove it, I do mind being portrayed as callous and vengeful towards June Callwood. Nothing I wrote warrants such an interpretation. I have always admired and respected Callwood. By forcing her to resign, the Globe and Mail has surgically removed the only heart it had left. And I will say this for Callwood: her "fuck off' response now strikes me as luminously honest compared with everything else that's followed.
Atwood is right in saying that the Books in Canada article reported Nourbese Philip's figures as fact. According to my program, and my count, 51 Canadian delegates (moderators and
writers) participated in the congress. At the time, I counted seven people who were either Native, Asian, or Black. (Four of these were in the Next Generation panels; one took part in a children's symposium; and two, Jeannette Armstrong and Austin Clarke, took part in an all-Canadian panel discussion on the subject of "neo-colonialism" in Canada.) There were no Canadian writers of colour on any of the international panels of the main event.
Now, PEN Canada gives us the numbers of writers invited, as opposed to the numbers of people who attended, which is fair enough. But according to those figures, no matter how you cut it, seven writers of colour were invited. Twelve per cent of 66 people (moderators and writers) is 7.92 people. (I hope Adrienne Clarkson forgives PEN Canada this absurd version of herself, but she must be the .92.) And 15 per cent of 46 writers is 6.90 people.
I don't know why we've all been accused of being totally wrong and totally mendacious. Nourbese Philip's numbers are correct in terms of who attended the congress. What PEN has to say is relatively simple. In terms of invitations, the correct figures are: Out of 66 (writers plus moderators) invited to the congress, eight were either Native, Black, or Asian, or, out of 46 writers invited to the congress, seven were either Native, Black, or Asian.
It seems to me that PEN Canada could have been and could be a little bit more straightforward: its "numbers" press conference did not offer much. (They stated that eight Canadians of colour were attending the conference.) Strange as it may seem, it is possible to defend oneself without being defensive.
The question, then, is whether eight out of 66, or seven out of 46, is adequate representation. I thought seven out of 51 was adequate representation when I wrote my article, even though I wasn't aware of the percentage of the Canadian population that is Native or Asian or Black.
I reported Nourbese Philip's charge, and let Callwood, as incoming president of PEN, reply to the accusation. Callwood replied that this was the most racially integrated PEN congress in her experience, and that PEN Canada wasn't the best target for protesting racism. Although she did say that she was "exasperated that these people were being impossible to move with any kind of logic," Callwood did not offer numbers. I didn't press for them. I nevertheless echoed her reply in concluding with "there's a strategic problem with using an organization that is technically open to reform as a platform for protesting racism, especially when the event targeted is more representative than most cultural institutions in this country."
I feel forced to repeat this: more representative. The "strategic problem" statement is directed at Nourbese Philip's methods, as is the reference to what happens when protests occur outside organizations as opposed to what happens when they occur from within. I made this point on the telephone to Nourbese Philip when I talked to her. It was, in fact, precisely my questioning of her strategy that prompted her statement, "I don't care about PEN Canada."
I also did not say that it doesn't matter who is right or wrong on the "nose-count" charge. What I wrote was, "And yet in the long term, it may not matter whether the protest came from within or without, if it is seen as an opportunity of becoming More aware, rather than as a question of who's right, who's wrong."
But time has proved me wrong. For some naive reason I thought this conflict had the potential of resolving itself before the article appeared. And it now strikes me that the press's treatment of Nourbese Philip's protest obscured what did occur within PEN. Writers on the Next Generation panels ended up with a manifesto. They asked that their program be integrated into the main event at future congresses; that PEN take notice of the language rights of indigenous people; that PEN encourage publishers to seek out writing from minority writers; and that future congresses establish what amounts to an affirmative-action program. PEN Canada has to be given credit for setting the stage for such challenges to be made to the old guard in PEN International.
When I wrote that racism can't just be fought on the representation front, and that what's important is who defines reality, who shapes the debates, and how, I was referring to the responsibilities of all those who profess to care about racism. It seems to me that racism in the arts, like racism elsewhere, is a structural problem requiring various collaborative approaches. It is true that when somebody like Nourbese Philip does a sniper routine from the outside things get polarized and the dialogue has no chance to grow. But PEN Canada, on the other hand, didn't seem to be very aware of the debates that have been going on in this country in the last couple of years, nor of the people who have contributed to those debates. Lack of awareness is not racism, but it is frustrating to witness.
Obviously I should have been more explicit in my arguments, I should have worked out the percentages, I should have done all sorts of things -- but the fact of the matter is that I didn't give much space to the racism skirmish in my article because my problem with the Congress had nothing to do with racism and everything to do with the apolitical elitism of the Canadian contingent at the congress.
I have nothing but praise for the work that PEN Canada does on behalf of writers in prison, and for the work Atwood and others have done to revive PEN Canada. But Atwood needs to regain a sense of perspective here. At the time that I wrote my piece, the press coverage of the congress rivalled that given the Pope's visit in depth, breadth, and reverence. There were daily articles in the political and cultural sections of major newspapers, as well as cover stories in Toronto's weeklies, not to mention lengthy items on radio and television. Ali of them praised the work of PEN Canada and PEN International.
My assignment, as I saw it, was to cover a public event organized by PEN Canada. Given the coverage that the congress had already had, and given the word count of my assignment (1,500 words) I decided to concentrate on the Canadian aspect of the event. I found the representation of Canadian reality at this public event to be without much political or social bite, and the debates to have been shaped without much thought. That's what my article would have been about, whether Nourbese Philip had picketed delegates at Roy Thomson Hall or not. It might be minge-balls to Atwood, but being true to what one sees and hears is the responsibility of writers, whether they are PEN members or not.
I also found the "world-class" rhetoric used to promote the event to be symptomatic of what ails this city. "World-class" pseudo-events, whether they're organized by corporate crusaders or can-do nationalists often end up devaluing what actually happens here. And this "world- class" fixation can lead to sillyputty thought. It wasn't, for example, up to delegates from around the world to address Nourbese Philip's protest, as Atwood insists, nor was it up to Canadian delegates of colour. It was up to the organizers. Hindsight is cheap, but I do think that if PEN Canada had disrupted the structure of its congress to add a panel on the subject, had invited Nourbese Philip in, and had fought out the issue publicly, we might all be further ahead today.
Racism in the arts is an important issue, and as such desperately needs to be shaken out of the tiny context of "Vision 21 Wrestles PEN Canada In The Megarry Corporate Newsletter." We have an incredible opportunity here in Canada to invent a culture that reflects and respects diversity.
In recent corporate newsletter reports, Nourbese Philip is quoted as saying that she doesn't believe "for one minute that these (the PEN executive) are bad people or that they are not concerned with racism." Why continue to target them, then? Why alienate potential and real allies when so many real targets are available? Why devalue the currency of the word "racism" by using it as a rhetorical weapon?
It is disingenuous for Nourbese Philip to say that "her intention is not to undermine PEN," but simply to bring attention to the issue of racism. The material she is sending to PEN sponsors calls for the resignation of Callwood, who has apologized for her expletive. And Vision 2 I's material continues to discredit PEN on the representation front.
At some point these people are going to have to meet face to face and challenge each other directly. The press always has its own agenda: it has never been and never will be a good courier service.