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“We are moving into a more troubled world and PEN needs to be stronger”

Interview with Terry Carlbom

By Ginevra Avalle

London, 8th November 2019

Terry Carlbom is an Anglo-Swedish political scientist. He was a lecturer at University of Uppsala and in Stockholm. He became Cultural attaché to the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in London in 1979-1983. After returning to Sweden he continued at the University as Senior lecturer, became involved in local politics (Liberal), and twice became Lord Mayor of Uppsala. He was elected International Secretary of International PEN in 1998. In 2019 he donated archives from when he was International Secretary to PEN International.

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN and when did you join?

T.C In the late 1960’s I became member of Amnesty, and worked with AI issues in 70’s. My awareness of PEN as the original working model for Amnesty came later, when meeting fellow Swedes Per Wästberg (former Int. President) and Thomas von Vegesack, who was essential for developing the Writers-in-Prison Committee. Peter Benenson and others who created Amnesty wanted a commitment to human rights generally, and for the release of political prisoners, writers or not. A constructive difference, I would say. The world needs both.

Mostly due to my background as publicly active lecturer I was invited to stand for International Secretary of Swedish PEN in the early 90’s. One of my first issues was to tackle an internal crisis in Swedish PEN. It turned out that we had a high-profiled member who claimed that the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident was not reprehensible …

G.A Who said that?

T.C. Jan Myrdal was an old Marxist, and an excellent writer on many socially oriented texts. Our problem was that our PEN statutes were fairly precise on how to become a member, but extremely vague on how to end a membership. And his statement was obviously in contradiction with Charter values. This actually led to Swedish PEN splitting, and half of the good members joined Finnish PEN, Danish PEN, German PEN… Myrdal eventually left PEN himself by not paying his annual dues, and slowly the split healed – and we rewrote the statutes. For me, a very important lesson learnt for the future. And next, we got involved with a publisher who wanted to publish Mein Kampf, and insisted that this was an issue of freedom of speech.

G.A How did you solve this?

T.C. He wanted PEN’s support under freedom of writing because the German government had sued him for breach of copyright because after the Nuremberg trials, when all rights associated with the Nazi Reich were moved over to the German government and it didn’t want Mein Kampf on the market again. We held it was a copyright question, not our issue, so we denied to get involved.

G.A. What was the Picasso Club?

T.C. As international secretary of Swedish PEN, I became more and more involved with International PEN through international conferences. A few words first about the then presiding International Secretary, Alexandre Blokh, who incidentally passed away in 2019. He was a great guy, honest, true to his ideals, very dignified. He co-ordinated extremely well with UNESCO, which provided funds for international conferences etc., but he did represent an old style very much. After twenty important years in office, he seemingly represented an ideal of PEN as a club for ’qualified’ writers only. Definitely concerned with ’Writers-in-Prison’, yes, but with limited funds not really interested in becoming a modern NGO (non-governmental organisation) with core staff and external fund-raising. But changing times pressed for more international involvement. And as said, International PEN is the only legitimate unchallenged world-wide organisation for writers and literature.

In the statutes and regulations at that time you have to offer your resignation every year, and this Alex side-stepped at three consecutive International Congresses. American PEN was the force trying to change matters and this came to a head point in Guadalajara in 1996 because then President Ronnie Harwood wanted to resign as International President. Up came Alex and proposed Ana Blandiana from Romania. She was an acknowledged poet and charming personality but was not going to be accepted by the community of PEN Centres; they did not know her. This became an uncomfortable discussion in the evenings preceding the general sessions, and this is where the Picasso Club comes up. It was a gathering of those who were concerned with reform of International PEN.

G.A. What happened in Guadalajara?

T.C. In Guadalajara, while those most honored had a dinner probably with the mayor of the city, the centers most interested in reforming the club met at a restaurant called Picasso, that’s where the club’s name came from. Afterwards I went to Ana and I explained to her that what was happening was not directed against her personally, but arose from a frustration over the high-handling of the most important office of President. (More about this in the archives). As a result, a disappointed Ana withdrew her candidature. Alexander was furious and even more angry was Ronny because he had to remain another year and he didn’t want to.

After Guadalajara, the message became crystal clear that the position of President-elect had to be open to proposed candidates, and a general understanding was reached that Homero Aridjis, Mexico, was to be proposed as President on the understanding that Alexander resigned. Then in Edinburg 1997, it dawned on everybody that we also had to be looking for a candidate as International Secretary.

Not everyone wanted to be International Secretary of an international movement that didn’t even have funds for a salary. You got an annual allowance that was expected to be used for travel, not living. Never a great problem with Alex, living in Paris. A bit more for me, living near Stockholm. So, there was very little to offer the incoming International Secretary. I think it was in Guadalajara that Carles [Torner] said that he couldn’t be International Secretary because he has his life and commitments in Barcelona. Looking around and there were not many others available. I was senior lecturer at Uppsala University. A job as a university professor at least brings in a pension. At that time, it was possible to take early retirement and still retain your ordinary pension scheme, so I told Monica Nagler, president of Swedish PEN, that if I take early retirement, I would be able to serve. I believe I was 63 at the time… She sounded it out with other Nordic countries and I imagine also with the American PEN centres, and they said they would support my candidature.

G.A. Regarding Guadalajara, Edinburg, Bellagio… It was a process of trying to transform a membership organisation of a club into an NGO. Was everybody happy with it?

T.C. Those who did not like it at the time liked it later. I think it became clear that American PEN was a goodwill factor being used to make PEN stand on its own feet.

G.A. Was it a process of change or something happened?

T.C. It was very much the time for change. Alex was a very good representative for PEN with the best intentions, but if don’t to move with the times you tend to get into self-centered routines. But, as I say this, are we not all reminded that a younger generation always seems to regard their Elders as being in the way of reform?

G.A. Is PEN an NGO today without any trace of the old times?

T. C. That would mean that we really have changed our identity, and we haven’t. The key is identity and Charter values. We have not changed; we have only changed with the times. A nice contradiction. It’s an International PEN as an NGO. NGO is the structure. The goals and ideas are PEN Charter values.

G.A. What is the relationship with UNESCO today?

T.C.  UNESCO has been a reliable supporter i.e. of our strategy of those days to support existing and emerging African PEN Centres, from Algeria to Africa south of Sahara. Apart from single Centre visits, two extensive round trips were made around Africa, made possible by UNESCO support. Also, a round trip to Tokyo, Perth, Melbourne, Canberra, Auckland, San Francisco and New York. Jane Spender, our Chief of Staff at that time, was invariably a pillar of support. She coordinated with every PEN Centre in those days with whatever methods we had. Remember, communications were mostly by fax, computers were new, and internet still very basic. She was tremendous in making things happen. And nurtured relations with UNESCO that resulted in support, just like Alex. Today, I can only hope this kind of relationship continues.

G.A. What do you see as challenges for PEN today?

T.C. The challenges are the times of a changing world. The strained sometimes collapsing situation of liberal democracy. The pressure starting from the outskirts and then moving Centre as majority populism but not democratic responsibility. The kind of populism always wants to change the legal structure of society and it also always wants to rule the media. We are moving into a more troubled world and PEN needs to be stronger, it must keep establishing itself as a powerful voice for the ideals of freedom of speech. Not freedom of speech above the law, but freedom of speech to defend the law. Because, in history, there has been no democracy that has established itself except where there has been a Rule of Law as it’s setting, and it is through changing due procedure in law that we have achieved the liberal democracy in the broader sense that has moved us forward into freer and fairer societies. And, to some extent, harnessed nationalism.

G.A. Do you think PEN is strong enough today?

T.C. The thing is how you assemble energies to keep on fighting for a better world. You’re never strong enough. It’s about how many can be inspired to continue the struggle. But there is an internal perspective too: enhancing the philosophy of human communication, the necessity of linguistic pluralism, the urge for identity, and the ethics of choice and tolerance.

G.A. I suppose it also depends on the strategy?

T.C As an academic will suggest: may the best arguments win; this is a question of arguments. And let them be heard strongly. Strongly and forcefully. You have to speak up.  Make people THINK. And I’m to the core impressed by all the Centres and Writers-in Prison-Committees who are linked to this. PEN as a resilient network making itself heard for freer and fairer societies. Vivat!