“Imagination has an enormous power if you have nothing else but that”
Interview with Joanne Leedom-Ackerman
By Ginevra Avalle
London-Oxford, 19th March 2019
Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is an American novelist, short story writer and journalist whose fiction includes the regional bestseller The Dark Path to the River, and the short story collection No Marble Angels. She is a Vice President Emeritus of PEN International and has served as the International Secretary of PEN International and Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. She is the author of PEN Journey: Memoir of Literature on the Line.
G.A. Why did you join PEN?
J.L. I lived in Los Angeles as a new writer and went to a dinner meeting of PEN and then later to a meeting at someone’s house where they were writing postcards for Wei Jingsheng, who was a Chinese prisoner at the time. My first reason to engage was to have a community and meet other people. Then when I found out this community helped other writers, I found the organization very compelling. Year later I met Wei Jingsheng and shared a meal with him in Washington, DC.
I went to my first International PEN Congress in 1986, hosted by American PEN in New York City. Our delegation from the West Coast Los Angeles Centre was registered with the foreign delegates. I remember the writers on the panels at that Congress were predominately white males. On one panel, the moderator opened by saying, “In the U.S. since the 19th century rationality has been the sole criteria for citizenship.” In the discussion and question period afterwards, I got up and said, “I beg to differ. Rationality was the sole criteria for citizenship only if you were white and male. But what bothers me today is that I don’t see anything but white males on the panels, and I wonder why.” I sat down and part of me couldn’t believe I had done that, but it turned out many had been questioning the same to themselves and instantly a meeting was called among the women delegates of PEN. We all drafted a statement that Margaret Atwood delivered. The only front-page coverage in the New York Times was about the women’s protest. From there the Women’s Committee launched, first from PEN American Centre and then internationally.
G.A. Can you tell me about the PEN Centres in America?
J.L. At the time PEN had the two Centres: the PEN America Centre in New York and the one that was called PEN Los Angeles Centre, based in Los Angeles, formed in the 1940’s. In 2018 the two centres merged, but for 75 years there were two separate PEN Centres in America. PEN LA wanted to be more independent from New York. The Centre serviced writers West of the Mississippi River, and PEN America serviced all writers in the US. Eventually I was a member of both centres. I was elected President of the PEN Los Angeles Centre in 1988. The prior board had voted to change the name from PEN Los Angeles to PEN Centre USA West, but the name change had to be approved by International PEN’s Assembly of Delegates which met at PEN’s Congress. I attended the 1988 Congress in Seoul, South Korea where we sent in the proposal for the name change. There were protests about the name change from the American Centre led by Susan Sontag, who wanted there to be just one PEN Centre in America and/or for the current Los Angeles Centre to stay as the PEN LA Centre. But because our Centre represented writers throughout the West, we went forward with our proposal and presented our reasoning to the Congress delegates. They passed our proposal almost unanimously. We left the PEN Congress with a new name.
The two American centres continued to work together on issues. The American Centre in New York has always had far more resources, and a few years ago the West coast Centre decided to merge with it. There is now just one PEN America Centre in the U.S., based in New York with an office in Los Angeles.
G.A. When were you president of the Centre in Los Angeles?
J.A. I was elected and served as president 1988-1989. That was the year the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Our centre mobilized and worked with PEN America and with PEN Centres around the world to protest the fatwa. Then in the spring of 1989 Tiananmen Square happened, and again our centre joined with PEN America and PEN Centres worldwide to protest the arrests and violence against the writers involved. That year we doubled our membership. Eventually and for a time PEN Centre USA West was the fourth largest centre in PEN.
The following year I moved to London where International PEN is headquartered. I knew the people from PEN there already because of the PEN’s Congresses. The Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) asked me to head up a development committee to help raise funds for the WiPC. I said I couldn’t do that, but I would help him find someone, and I would work to get charitable status for PEN. That turned out to be a multi-year task, but eventually we set up a separate foundation called the International PEN Foundation. This was 1991 or 92. There was a separate board for the PEN Foundation, including established British writers like Antonia Frasier and A.S. Byatt.
G.A. Did you have contact with anyone from the founders’ family?
J.L. No, I never met them though I have since heard from one of Dawson Scott’s relatives. When I moved to London, I also became a member of English PEN and worked with the writers there.
G.A. Were PEN International and English PEN the same organisation up until 1976?
J.L. They had separated before that, I believe, though they were closely aligned. PEN International is the organizing body for the whole organization, and English PEN is one of the centres, the founding centre. Elizabeth Patterson was the Administrative Secretary working with International PEN and with PEN’s International Secretary. She was friends with a woman named Josephine Pullen-Thompson, who was the General Secretary of English PEN. There was a close alignment between English PEN and International PEN, and Josephine and Elizabeth were good friends, who actually lived next door to each other.
Neither organization had charitable status at the time so as International PEN worked through the maze of charitable laws, it also helped English PEN. When I became International Secretary of PEN (2004-2007), the charitable laws had finally changed, and we could get the status for the whole international organization, and English PEN could get separate charitable status too. Before that, for 10 years International PEN had a separate Foundation with a separate board. The Foundation had a board before PEN International had a board. I served as a member of the Foundation board.
G.A. What was your next role in International PEN?
J.L. In 1992/3 International Secretary Alexander Blokh and Writers in Prison Committee Chair Thomas von Vegesak asked if I’d stand for chair of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)when Thomas stepped down. In 1993 at the Santiago de Compostela Congress, the PEN members elected me Writers in Prison Committee chair. Ronald Harwood, the British playwright was elected President of International PEN at that Congress. It was an interesting congress, one of the first times Rushdie appeared from hiding. Rushdie was a friend of Ronnie’s. Only a few knew Rushdie was coming in secret. We were staying at this large hotel, and Rushdie was planning to arrive secretly, but on the day he arrived, there was a huge crowd outside the hotel. The crowd had gathered because Julio Iglesias was also arriving at the hotel. Rushdie eventually slipped in.
G.A. Tell me about a major case during your time as Writers in Prison Committee Chair.
J.L. I was chair of WiPC from 1993 until 1997. It was a period of many major cases, but the most impactful was probably the case of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was also an environmental activist for the Ogoni people and was executed by the government of Sani Abacha. PEN Centres around the world rallied and protested on Ken’s behalf to try to persuade President Abacha to release Ken. During his captivity in 1996, I had moved back to Washington, and I was trying to get an appointment with the Nigerian ambassador there. One morning while I was actually in New York, I received a call that the ambassador would see me. I quickly arranged to get back to Washington. I called PEN America and told Shioban Dowd, their Freedom to Write Director whom I knew, that I’d like to have another writer with me for the meeting so that we could have a bit of a delegation. I had just moved to Washington and didn’t yet know the other PEN members in the city. The writer didn’t need to say anything, I explained, but it would be helpful to have more than one PEN member there. As the meeting was underway, another writer slipped into the room and added ballast to our delegation. That writer was Susan Shreve, one of the founders of the PEN Faulkner Foundation in Washington. Susan and I have been friends ever since. A few weeks later I was standing outside the Nigerian Embassy, along with others protesting, when we heard that Ken Saro-Wiwa had been hung that morning in Port Harcourt. Everybody in the PEN Writers in Prison world can tell you where they were that day. His execution resonated around the world, not just for PEN, but with governments, especially among the Commonwealth countries, which suspended Nigeria for several years.
All the cases in PEN are important, but there are at least three major cases that many of us can remember during our years: the fatwa against Rushdie, the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, and the death of Anna Politkovskaya.
G.A. Where were you when Politkovskaya was killed? Can you tell me about her?
J.L. It was a Saturday morning when I heard the news. Sara Whyatt, the WiPC director, called me from London. I was the International Secretary of PEN then. We all knew Anna. She had visited several PEN Congresses. I remember she and I last met when we had coffee together in the airport in Macedonia and talked about her situation. Sara told me Anna had been shot at her apartment building in Moscow.
The community of PEN Writers in Prison Committee knows each other. Another sad and memorable case later was that of Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace who died in custody in 2017. After his death, his colleagues, particularly at the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC), put together a memorial collection of writings about him in Chinese: The Memorial Collection of Dr. Liu Xiaobo. They asked me to be the editor-in-chief of an English language version. I had been President of PEN USA West when Liu Xiaobo was first arrested after the Tiananmen Square protests. I chaired the Writers in Prison Committee during his other imprisonments. And I was International Secretary shortly after the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) was formed, and Liu was one of the founding members. He was the second president of ICPC during the years I was International Secretary of PEN. [The English language book The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate was published in 2020 by Potomac Books.]
PEN members are a community worldwide. That is the strength of PEN, writers supporting writers. PEN never lets go of a case until it is done and the writer is released. In the case of Liu Xiaobo where the Chinese government has attempted to expunge his name and writing, PEN will keep it alive. PEN’s work goes on around the world, and there is power in that. Normally you don’t get to meet the people who you worked for or write about. The work is at a global level too because we protest and work through the United Nations. We also advocate for the reform of certain laws.
G.A. Any other particular case that stands out for you?
J.L. One case I remember is of Ma Thida in Myanmar. She is a writer and doctor and was a supporter and secretary to Aung San Suu Kyi. I worked on her case when she was in prison then met her in London when she was finally released and then I was able to help her get a position at Brown University for a year and then she moved to a position at Harvard and wrote her novel. It’s very special when someone gets out of jail and continues working as Thida did. They have courage. Later she was one of the founders of a PEN Centre in Myanmar and was its first President and then served on the Board of PEN International. [In 2021 she was elected the new chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.]
G.A. Ma Thida told me that self-respect helped her and that she was free in thought.
J.L. That’s very true. We see the mental toughness in writers. Before I became Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, one of the tasks I wanted to do was to put together a book of writing of people we’d worked for. The book This Prison Where I Live was published in 1996. Much of the writing is about how no one can take away your freedom of thought unless you let them.
One story not in the book that always impressed me was about writers in the Western Sahara. The guards told them, you have come here to die. One of the writers who got out told how they would memorise each other’s poems and write them with soap on their trousers. He also said they would go to Paris in their minds. Imagination has an enormous power if you have nothing else but that.
G.A. What countries did you particularly work on?
J.A. China and Turkey have occupied the most attention and held the most writers in prison while I’ve been engaged with PEN. PEN has always had dozens, sometimes hundreds of cases in Turkey as well as hundreds of cases around the world.
Before I took on the chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, I set out a few long-term goals. One goal was to convene a conference of all the Writers in Prison Committees around the world because unlike PEN’s other standing committees, we had never met all together except at PEN Congresses, and the delegates there weren’t always those most active in the Writers in Prison Committee work. Danish PEN offered to host the WiPC meeting. The first conference of the Writer in Prison Committee was in Helsingør Denmark in 1996. There we developed strategy for our work around the world.
At our conference a request came to us from a Turkish song writer and activist Şanar Yurdatapan to sign on as publishers for a book he was putting together of banned Turkish writing. The renowned Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal had been charged because of an article he’d written in the German magazine Der Spiegel calling out the government for its human rights abuses, particularly its treatment of the Kurds. Sanar was republishing an abridged version of that article and other banned writing by Turkish authors who were charged or in prison. He was lining up over 1000 Turkish writers, actors, professors and artists to also be publishers, thus challenging the Turkish state to bring charges against everyone. Many of us agreed to sign on.
Şanar then convened a Gathering for Free Expression in Istanbul the following spring. There we held multiple press conferences, went to the prisons to visit writers and publishers and to the courthouse where the demand was made that the courts also recognize the international publishers if they were bringing charges. None of us wanted to go to prison, but the statement was important. We spoke in front of the courthouse with the press. We were also supposed to hold a conference on freedom of expression at the university, but when we got there, it was surrounded by riot police because there was another protest going on. Nobody wanted to talk so only two of us addressed the crowd at the end.
G.A What’s one of the most important cases for you?
J.L. I think probably the fatwa. People were afraid at the time. They didn’t know what a fatwa was or what it meant. But the idea that a head of state could call for the murder of a writer wherever he was in the world was stunning. In PEN we understood a threshold had been crossed. It was about finding the voice and courage to say we have to stand up in our turf wherever that is. It was complicated. There were charges against Rushdie. Individuals were assaulted and even killed who supported him, but PEN spoke with a firm voice opposing the threat and these attacks.
G.A. I wanted to ask you about solidarity with writers. Are writers-at-risk PEN’s core work?
J.L. Not for everybody. For a lot of people, it’s language in translation, to make sure literature gets out into the bloodstream of other languages. After WWI, the thought was that writers from other countries could meet each other and break down nationalism. After WWII they realised that they had to stand in solidarity for freedom of expression. That became a theme. The Writers in Prison Committee wasn’t officially formed as a standing committee of PEN until 1961. When Amnesty was formed, which was after PEN, they came to us to see how PEN worked. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, I’m told one of the documents they looked at was the PEN Charter.
At the core of PEN are literature, the community, and the defence of freedom of expression. Every PEN Centre has its focus. To be a Centre you have to endorse the Charter. That’s what binds us all together. But the Charter is not simple. I remember when I was International Secretary the case of the Danish Muhammad cartoons and the challenge to free expression versus respect for individuals came up. The Charter of PEN endorses both free expression and respect for other cultures and individuals. You can have competing points of view that need to be respected. The cultures of countries are different. We also have had hate speech debates. What’s the limit of hate speech and free expression? As Americans, we are committed to our first amendment, but we don’t have the same history that Europe has with the consequences of hate speech.
G.A. How did you deal with this?
J.L. We act case by case. My predecessor as chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, Thomas von Vegesak, said he didn’t like principles. By that, he meant “don’t get locked into abstractions.” Situations are often fluid. We don’t support people being put in prison because of what they write though we also don’t support the spreading of lies and defamation but there are civil remedies. People have the right to protest the lies told about them, but these should not be criminal cases. It should be a civil issue and usually not a political issue.
G.A. How does PEN take the decision whether to follow a case or not?
J.L. PEN International doesn’t entirely make that decision. The role of the international office is to gather the information, confirm the facts that the individual is being persecuted for nonviolent activity, suggest ideas for advocacy, gather the information on who to contact, how to engage, and whether the individual is a main case for PEN, then the PEN centres take up the work. PEN International engages advocacy on an international level with institutions such as the United Nations Human Rights Commission and UNESCO.
G.A. How could you check the facts in some cases where the country doesn’t make it easy?
J.L. You put down what you know. In my time, without social media, it was different. It was mainly through faxes and phone calls. Nowadays people have so many ways of getting information that I don’t know if the impact is quite the same.
GA. Can you explain the changes that were going on in PEN’s governance during these years?
J.L. There had been a Congress in Dubrovnik during the Balkan War in 1993, and many PEN members were opposed to having a congress there, but the International Secretary and President decided to hold it for a number of reasons. The Writers in Prison Committee chose not to go. Out of that situation momentum grew to have a broader decision-making structure for International PEN. At the time PEN essentially had an International Secretary and a President and a Treasurer with decisions made by them between the semi-annual Congresses. Outside of the Assembly of Delegates at the congresses, there was no functioning way for Centres to express their opinion so it was not very democratic.
Up until 1994PEN had held two congresses a year, but because of declining UNESCO funding and costs, PEN moved to an annual Congress. Along with that decision there were members who began working to change PEN’s governing structure. At the 1996 Guadalajara Congress many of these members who felt PEN needed to change its structure gathered to consider what it would look like for PEN to have a governing board with elected representatives from the centres. The shaping of that board happened later at the 1998 Helsinki Congress where it was decided that the election for an Executive Committee (later called the Board) would take place the following year at the 1999 Congress in Warsaw. In the meantime, an Ad Hoc Committee which had been elected at the 1997 Edinburgh Congress operated and also served as a Selection Committee to find candidates.
At the 1999 Warsaw Congress, the first Executive Committee was elected, and an independent Search Committee was also elected to assist in finding qualified candidates. At the Helsinki Congress the year before a new International Secretary had been elected for a set term, and terms were also set for the President and new board members. The new International Secretary Terry Carlbom took on the challenging task, along with the Executive Committee/Board, to reshape all the documents and bylaws.
G.A. Why did you get to that decision?
J.L. It wasn’t only me. I was friends with those who wanted a more democratic PEN. But I was also chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, and I wanted that work to stay out of internal politics so I wasn’t intricately involved. I also stayed friends with the International Secretary. He realised he held on to the position too long. It was just time for PEN to change. Terry Carlbom became International Secretary in 1998. In 2003 Terry finished his second term, and we needed another International Secretary. We all wanted Carles Torner but he got a job in Catalonia so he couldn’t do it. He asked me to do it, and I said I couldn’t. It wasn’t the best time for me. Michael Roberts, who was the executive director of the PEN American Centre, also asked me. Michael was committed to the international body being strong because he felt that would help all the Centres be strong, including PEN America. We both had been involved in the strategic planning process and understood steps that needed to take place to modernize PEN as an organization. Eventually I said yes, I would stand for International Secretary. I was elected in 2004 until 2007.
G.A. Did your background help in the job of International Secretary?
J.L. I think it was useful to have someone with experience with larger nongovernmental organizations. I had sat on a number of boards of global NGOs like Human Rights Watch, Save the Children and the International Crisis Group. PEN in 2004 still didn’t have an overall budget. The Writers in Prison Committee had a budget, but the larger organization didn’t. It was somewhat project by project, on pieces of paper written down. There was a group of committed people working very hard but without the structures needed. If we were going to be a competitive international charity, we had to take steps to be one. Our funders were telling us the same. For the first time we were asked to do an evaluation by one of our major funders.
G.A What happened with fundraising? Were you doing it all yourself?
J.L. At first, we would go out for a grant, but we didn’t have an organizational budget. What you had in PEN was goodwill. We had to get the whole system in place. In order to attract the talent we wanted for an executive director, we needed to do that. Jane Spender, the administrative director, was entirely overworked. It was impossible to stop and rethink how to change the system while you’re in the middle of it. Jane and I worked closely together. We hired an interim executive director while we began the search for an executive director, a position the strategic planning process had recommended and funders were urging. The charitable laws had changed so we also needed a new lawyer to help us dissolve the International PEN Foundation and transfer the charitable status to the whole PEN International organization. Finally we hired an executive director; we got a budget; we set up employment policies and received charitable status for the whole organisation. It was a challenging, but also fun time. We all worked together. In 2005 we presented the overall organizational budget and introduced our first executive director to the Assembly of Delegates at the Congress in Bled.
G.A. What is PEN International for you?
J.L. For me personally it’s a community of writers, some of whom I’ve known for 30 years, who have been united by an ideal and a vision that the world would be much better if we had free expression and a sense of community and the freedom of imagination. It’s an organization where you’re working on behalf of somebody other than yourself. And it is a community of friends.
G.A. Where do you see PEN going?
J.L. I don’t know where the world is going. I hope PEN stays robust. It is important that it has a professional Secretariat. It needs to be run like a professional NGO or it won’t get funding and it won’t survive. If PEN has a substantial hub, it can be there for people to plug into. That’s the challenge and genius, that every PEN Centre is autonomous. The Centres have to stay tolerant to the different dynamics of the other centres. International PEN helps even the strongest Centres.
G.A. What can the PEN Centenary Archive Collection do to support the Centres?
J.L. For every Centre it will be different. For the smaller Centres, it will be a platform where they can show they are part of this family that will help give them voice and status. For the larger established Centres that have their own websites, an archive might be less important at the moment but useful when they apply to grants to show their history and connection to the larger PEN universe. The real challenge is that not every Centre knows the international as well, but some of these centres are very professional, and they do the work of PEN even if they don’t necessarily see how this work connects to other centres.
G.A. PEN International is apolitical, but you’re working with political subjects such as freedom of expression; it must be difficult.
J.L. It’s not really difficult because you’re not taking a partisan position. You’re not telling a country who their leader should be. You’re saying, “These are the guidelines of how free societies operate, and if you’re not operating that way, we’re going to be on your case.” You can see a country is going in the wrong direction if they’re persecuting writers.
People come together from different points of views. In certain cultures, some statements might put our members in jeopardy. PEN has to shape its statements in a way that can be embraced to allow an umbrella to be broad and encompass people.
G.A. Is it a real challenge to defend the freedom of expression of the LGBTQA+ community?
J.L. I think it is in certain cultures where it’s harder for people and where some things are still illegal. I think we have to be defending the right of human beings to say, feel and be who they are, no matter what. If we frame it in that way, we can have our voice heard. Humans have a right to feel what they feel as long as they’re not harming anyone, worship what they want, or not. They should not be harmed, imprisoned or tortured because of that. It’s a complicated message for some people but it’s really not that complicated.
G.A. In a Western world it’s not, but what about in some countries like China?
J.L. That’s why the way we frame the message is very important. We step back and focus on the larger message that can’t be misinterpreted.
G.A. For the Women’s Manifesto, how do you start writing? Do you get in touch with all the Centres? Do you need a lawyer?
J.L. All of the above. I wasn’t involved, but I think you need a lawyer; members on the committee drafted it and then sent the ideas to the Centres. It was an example of going forward and realising what the consequences were for all Centres and finding a way for it to be a statement not divisive but inclusive. Each Centre will take it and use it however it will.
G.A. What if a woman isn’t allowed to write because of her gender?
J.L. You may not be allowed to publish but you can write. Try not to let those restrictions from the outside enter your imagination. If it’s not written, it can’t be published so don’t pre-censor yourself. Just write and then try to deal with the rest later. PEN I hope can help.
G.A Can you tell me more about the freedom of expression in America today?
J.L. Right now the world has changed so much in terms of what comes at us. We have more sources of information than ever. Everybody talks about everything. And I find that discouraging. The leadership right now in our country is problematic but it’s spurring more defence of freedom of expression than ever before, and people are more alert. The challenge is that we get put into partisan political corners, and I don’t think that’s healthy, moving into the right or left and not compromising with each other.
G.A. Do you think that in Europe there are freedom of expression problems?
J.L. I think we all have to be very alert; there is a push back. I think the challenge is that a partisan position divides; it keeps people from talking to each other. You’re allowed to not have the same opinion as me, but we should be able to talk to each other and have discussion and dialogue. PEN is very important in that. That’s what I’d hate for us to see moved into a corner. Gender politics can be problematic if we only define ourselves by our gender or race or religion and move out of our common humanity. If you allow yourself to have an identity mode that restricts others, it can be problematic, although identity needs to be defended too. I want to be more than a white American woman. You close down the world for yourself and the whole point of imagination is opening up to the world with empathy, and empathy is thinking outside of our physical box.
G.A. Let’s talk about you. How did you get involved in human rights work?
I grew up in the American South. From a young age I was in a state of protest over civil rights. I also felt a ceiling above my head of what could be expected of me as a woman. When I was young, I knew I didn’t want to live in a place where I needed to protest all the time so I left Texas. My mother raised me to know the world is out there and to take all travel opportunities I could. She put the world in my heart, and I wanted to break down the barriers that I had seen and felt. That was a natural segue for me when PEN came around, connecting the two and connecting writers, so it was a nice confluence of passions and interest in a community.
G.A. When did you start writing?
J.L. I started writing when I was young, but I started writing seriously in graduate school. I was newspaper editor at my high school. When I went to college, I was the editor of the newspaper there too and worked each summer on a newspaper during college. Then I went to Johns Hopkins University, which has a program in writing, and I got a master’s degree there and submitted a thesis that had short stories, poetry and drama. I was a newspaper reporter for several years at The Christian Science Monitor. It was at the Monitor where I got great training as a journalist because they have high standards. I learned to write fast. I also realised the limits of daily journalism as a writer so I went back to graduate school to Brown University to write my first novel. The Monitor gave me a leave of absence and kept giving me a leave of absence for four years until I realised I wasn’t going back.
I started working and writing fiction and teaching when I lived in New York. I taught writing at New York University in the journalism department, news and feature and critical writing. I had my first child. NYU offered me a full-time position, but I was moving to Los Angeles where I kept writing short stories and my first novel. I taught freshman English essay writing at Occidental College for two years. It turns out that Barack Obama was a student there at that same time so there is a possibility I had him in my freshman English class, but I don’t recall and don’t have the class rosters. Then I taught novel writing at UCLA’s Writing Program at the Extension for several years. In 1990 I moved to London where I kept writing every day, fiction, publishing essays, books, and anthologies. I moved back to the States, to Washington, DC at the end of 1995.
G.A. How was working in LA and then coming to London?
J.L. We came to London in 1990 when the Berlin wall had fallen… it was a very exciting time to be in Europe. I took my children to Berlin and we knocked down parts of the wall ourselves and still have chunks of the concrete. Nobody spoke English in East Berlin where we stayed, and they didn’t know what credit cards were. The world was changing.
At the American School in London my older son started wrestling and had tournaments in Europe. My younger son skateboarded all over London. My older son got dual citizenship and later wrestled for Great Britain in tournaments in Eastern Europe. At university he studied mathematics, and he also wrestled. His wrestling coach was the former Soviet Olympic coach so we spent time at tournaments in Eastern European capitals with him. We saw history unfolding. I would go watch my son in wrestling matches and then as Writers in Prison chair I would try to get writers out of prison, more than once in Turkey. The Turks love wrestling and so I could usually get an appointment. At one World Championship in Ankara, I remember meeting with the justice minister and then going to watch my son wrestle the Chinese champion. On the field of sports and literature, politics takes a backseat.
G.A. What about your original family?
J.L. My father was a businessman; he was also in the state senate in Texas. He was a conservative Republican, and I didn’t agree with many of his ideas so we had many political clashes. My parents were divorced. My family said I was the only child that my father would argue with. He lifted my game of thinking and reasoning, and I helped him too because I definitely dragged him into the 20th century on issues of women’s right and civil rights and other issues. For me, the real issue was civil rights. It wasn’t until I got to college, that I recognised the intellectual connection and the historical connection between the civil rights movement and the women’s movement.
G.A. And then you travelled?
J.L. I had the opportunity to travel to the Midwest for college and then went East for graduate school and first jobs, then to Los Angeles and then London. The world opened up for me. My children were raised for 6 years in the UK. When my sons went back to the US, they realised they were part of the world and they wanted to continue to be. My oldest son is a British citizen.
G.A. What’s the process of your writing?
J.L. As a novelist I try to write every day. When I was a working daily journalist, I used to get up at 4 AM to write fiction until 7 AM but I was exhausted. I finally left the newspaper and went to fiction. My youngest son, the one who was a skateboarder in London, studied international relations and literature and history at university and graduate school then was an officer in the Marines. He had five tours of duty in in Iraq and Afghanistan and won a Silver Star, Bronze Star for Valor and Purple Heart. He is a now a well-acclaimed novelist and journalist; his second novel was a finalist for the U.S. National Book Award. He has published three novels. [Now six novels, all with international settings or context, two in Turkey.] My mother used to say, your children leap off your shoulders. He has certainly leapt. He and his brother and I wrote a children’s book together when we first moved to Europe. I was writing and telling stories to them all the time. Stories were part of their childhood
G.A. What’s your favorite book?
J.L. War and Peace. It’s a brilliant book. What I love about it is that Tolstoy takes a political complex story and imagines the life of people in it.