The Blessing and The Curse

Over at the Observer, Jonathan Haywood, director of the English chapter of PEN, writes about the responsibility and difficulty that writers face when they speak about repressive regimes.

When Orhan Pamuk was charged last year over remarks he made about the numbers of Kurds and Armenians killed in Turkey in the last century, he said that at least he could now hold his head up among his more inflammatory colleagues.

Having decided early on to concentrate on writing rather than go looking for trouble, Pamuk was a stranger to the legal system and his trial last December for ‘denigrating the Turkish state’ caught the attention of the world’s media. This attention, and the support of free-speech advocates, may have helped Pamuk get off, but it played into the hands of ultra-nationalists who claim that liberal writers are in the pay of outside forces.

The tall, bespectacled Pamuk has a donnish, distracted air. When I track him down to the kind of literary cafe that British writers can only dream of – hidden up three, tall flights of stairs in a seedy apartment block behind a locked door; walls of caricatures wreathed in the smoke of a thousand Turkish cigarettes – he is genial, but unwilling to talk of his recent experiences. Pamuk has told friends that he is caught between two poles. On the one hand, it his duty to write. On the other, he believes that authors must engage with the society around them.

I’m endlessly fascinated by this double-duty that writers in repressive states face. (In the immortal words of Tahar Djaout: “Silence is death. If you speak, you die. If you are silent, you die. So, speak and die!”) They have to create art and they have to be engagé. The rules of “engagement,” though, are not theirs to set. Some stances can earn them respect, and others can get them scorn, depending on the when and where of their actions, as both Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak have found. Read it all here.