If we are going to exalt the role of the writer, then we had better start asking tougher questions of ourselves
TORONTO: The official theme of the 54th International P.E.N. World Congress, organized by PEN Canada, was "Me Writer: Freedom and Power." It was not so much a theme as a liberal catch-phrase, and only one writer, as far as I could make out, bothered to analyse the assumptions behind "liberal" definitions of freedom. At the opening session of the Congress Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian writer, pointed out that the word "freedom" comes shrouded in "18th-century rhetoric." "Me problem is that the original definition was done by the powerful," he said. "Freedom is designed by the powerful, and the powerful are always ready to dehumanize certain sections of the population ... The writer has a responsibility to go beyond hypocrisy. You can't have freedom without justice."
Now that is an interesting question, the relationship of justice to freedom; it happens to lie at the heart of the racism issue that erupted during the congress. But the congress, which was presumably organized to foster dialogue about pressing issues, failed to address this most pressing issue of all. While one can appreciate the work and logistical nightmare that such a massive undertaking entails - the Congress involved two cities and 500 writers - there was something unsettling about the Toronto part of the event.
There were so many agendas at work here that there didn't Seem to be any room for thought. Obviously, there was a public agenda to increase the profile of PEN; a private agenda to get on with the business of protecting jailed writers; an internal agenda to appear as "progressive" as the Norman Mailer congress had been regressive. Finally, there as the typically hyperbolic Toro to agenda of creating the Biggest and Best, or as Graeme Gibson, the outgoing Canada president, put it, "the greatest literary event in the world."
To live in Toronto is to live in a frantic state of festival bulimia, and few seem immune to the binging allure. Nothing is ever digested in this frenzied festival gluttony. In fact, the binge's true function may be to distract us from facing the reality of living here.
Obviously, PEN Canada's aims are admirable, and its bid to become a generous and committed player on the international front can't be faulted. PEN Canada made every effort to counter the elitism of PEN International by getting funding to enable Third World writers to come to the Congress, by opening up to the public, and by setting up panels and readings for so-called "emerging writers" under the title of The Next Generation. Unfortunately, this structural bid for "filling a gap" ended up reinforcing a kind of split. The Next Generation panels and readings were poorly attended by PEN members. The issues raised there had more bite than what was going on in the main proceedings, and needed to be integrated into the puffed-up main event.
Maybe this is not so unfortunate. The Congress blundered into the gap between privilege and those who make privilege possible. It exposed real contradictions, and there's a lot to learn from that, if defensiveness isn't allowed to mushroom in the cracks. What the Congress showed, moreover, was that it's very difficult to play the hostess with the mostest without losing sight of what's going on in the kitchen.
While I found many of the writers to be intelligent and insightful about their ,countries (Achebe, Harold Pinter, Claribel Alegria, Miriam Tlali, and Wole Soyinka were outstanding), and while I found many of the discussions on the role of the writer stimulating, most of the time I had no idea, sitting there in the red velvet coffin of the Premiere Dance Theatre, what country I was in. Sometimes I thought I was in Sweden. Sometimes I thought 1 was in Holt Renfrew. Sometimes I thought I was in congress purgatory, a special circle where panel questions never change, never take the risk of advancing the discussion. I certainly never thought that I was in the Canada I know.
Granted, it's difficult to play hostess and hang your dirty linen for all to see. But there's no point in being on the "world stage" if we erase ourselves, if we don't own up to our problems. The Canada I know is not Sweden, is not sensitive and progressive and wonderful; it's not so much coming apart at the seams as it is being dismantled.
Most Canadian delegates in the main part of the congress, however, led by moderators chosen either for their silkblouse sang-froid or their media patina, projected an image of a smugly privileged Canada that badly needed to get scrambled. The scrambling didn't happen.
It seems to me that if we are going to exalt the role of the writer, then we had better start asking tougher questions of ourselves, like, What does it mean to be a writer in a country that is abdicating nationhood - that is being dismantled for the corporate good? Or what does it mean to live in a country that employs a .multi-cultural, multi-racial" rhetoric for political expediency? Maybe we could own up to the fact that yes, even poor, colonized, mousy Canada has, like most other so-called democracies, dehumanized certain portions of the population while defining itself as free.
It's in this context that I'd like to discuss the protest organized by Marlene Nourbese Philip outside Roy Thomson Hall on the evening of the PEN gala. She accused PEN of being racist, citing the fact that only seven out of 51 Canadian delegates were either native, Asian, or black She handed a pamphlet to incoming EN Canada president June Callwood, who, in a moment of exasperation, told her to fuck off.
Callwood regrets the incident. "I feel terrible about the language," she says, "that's no way to talk to people. But I did it." She says she was flabbergasted by the protest because in her experience this was the most racially integrated PEN congress ever organized. "Anyone who's published two books can join PEN, and we're working on loosening up that criterion. We were desperate to get people to help us. Basically seven people organized all this." Callwood feels that the protesters' wrath is justified when it comes to the vast literary establishment, but that PEN Canada wasn't the best target.
Philip, on the other hand, feels justified in using PEN to make her point. "I don't care about PEN," she says, "I care about racism. This country is like an alcoholic who won't accept that there's a problem. The Congress was funded by all sorts of government bodies, Public funds are being used, and politicians are defining this country as multi-cultural and multi-racial. Organizations that are funded by the government either have to catch up to this official policy, or the government has to stop spouting this rhetoric. We've been going around this racism issue for years, and nothing changes."
It's instructive to look back at the 52nd Congress, organized by Norman Mailer in New York City. There was a protest there as well, but it came from within. There Mailer's testosterone overdrive was openly questioned by women delegates, Margaret Atwood foremost among them. Questions of representation, of bias and sexism dominated the floor; PEN International was made to face its own hypocrisies. In organizing this congress, Atwood made sure that women were adequately represented.
Things, in other words, moved forward because something very "unpleasant" was exposed openly. This time, protest came from without, and it was never integrated into the proceedings. On the surface, it seems like nothing moved forward except defensive positions.
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. 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 to become more aware, rather than as a question of who's right, who's wrong. Racism, like sexism, can't be fought just on the "representation" front. What's important here is who defines reality, who shapes the debates, and how.
PEN Canada may have succumbed to the bulimia mania in its effort to organize this congress, but what it blundered into is the country's hunger for real debate, for a radical re-thinking of community and identity. That's an air-pocket that wasn't on the PEN Canada agenda, but turbulence is always useful. It reminds you of where you are.