‘We give all we can to let the world know that fellow writers are in peril only because they are writing a story’
Interview with Eric Lax. This Story belongs also to the USA West Centre.
By Ginevra Avalle
Pune, 26th September 2018
Eric Lax is an American author. He has been part of PEN since the 1990s, when the president of PEN USA West asked him to become part of the Board of the organisation. He is the Treasurer and Vice President of PEN International from 2019.
G.A. What is PEN International?
E.L. Without PEN International there is no PEN. Because all the Centers are part of PEN International: it is a federation.
I think PEN is working in two different levels. One is a safe place. And I do not mean a place at Congress or at the Assembly, but a safe space where you get to talk with somebody you have very much in common with, even if you are different. The Charter is a very important part of PEN, every member needs to sign it. When you sign the Charter, you agree that Literature knows no boundaries and you commit to work for cooperation and understanding with people that maybe your government does not get along with. That does not stop the writers from finding a way. Because people having a conversation is always better that shooting at each other.
And then there is the larger part: the campaigns. John Ralston Saul, the president before Jennifer Clement, was able to reintroduce something very necessary: the access to governments and people in power. John’s wife was the former Governor General of Canada, the Queen’s representative in Canada, head of the Armed forces and Head of the Government. They knew everybody in this world and all the embassies. If suddenly we had a problem, they would help us get to her. PEN International had two missions in Mexico, where journalists had been murdered in an alarming way. It was not against the federal law to murder journalists. That is why we went down to lobbying. We also went to Colombia, and 20 ambassadors came in. Thanks to Ralston Saul we managed to work through these channels.
The former president of PEN Turkey always had a great line. The writers in Turkey are always in a constant threat. He said: ‘no matter how big or how small your apartment is, somewhere around there, there is the room that is your cell. You are aware that at some point it will be yours’. |If you keep writing knowing that you will end up in jail, you are very courageous. Writers are making peaceful noise about something, they are not breaking storms in the street, but they are using every channel they can. This is also a way of demonstrating.
We write and then we publish. PEN stands for this, appeals for that. There is a way of getting published so that people can read. Even if you do not have any hope for the channels, you just keep writing. We are not throwing stones. We might not agree with the government, but what is wrong with that? We are not threatening anybody; we are just making appeals. It is the same principle as the unknown writer writing in prison who gets 300 pieces of mail. Suddenly, they are wondering what is going on. The ones controlling the jail then think maybe they should treat this writer better or, at least, keep him alive. That is the first thing that gives hope to these writers, and then there is the hope of getting out.
PEN is a network through membership, a network through government, a network through writing. You hope common decency and good writing.
G.A. What is the relationship between PEN and Amnesty International?
E.L. We cooperate. They are two very different organizations. Amnesty International is much more of a classic NGO. PEN is much more related with writers in many things that we do, and it is meant to be for that. For example, when I went to talk to the people at Shell, they said that they have so many people protesting and going there for environment, wars, etc. All those protestors wanted Shell to do a whole bunch of things, including Amnesty International. But we were only asking for one thing: ‘get our writer out from jail. Then we will leave you alone!’. It is very straight forward. They really appreciated this argument and even made them laugh.
There is a letter from the founder of Amnesty International asking for advice, because PEN was the first organization ever to do this kind of work. We have a reputation, even though we are an organization with a small budget, just a couple millions of pounds… PEN is confined in the writer’s world, and it doesn’t have a big bureaucracy. Each Center is kind of responsible for itself. It needs to be a place that is good for the members to come, and for the members to realize that there is something more than just themselves that they can be involved with by being a writer. It is not just a club. And the voice of writers from the over a hundred countries in its 150 Centers is huge. It is a huge organisation that it is grassroots in what it does. Each Center kind of pops up.
G.A. How did it all start?
E.L. It all started with the end of World War I, with the idea that literature should be free. It was a time when the French and the English could not read the German books. They started saying that language is ideas, and writing is ideas. And ideas should not be embargoed. That is what made them start. Then they found that if someone is in jail you need to publicize that, and that way you can get this person out.
G.A. What is the future for PEN International?
E.L. I hope that what we are doing will grow. It is meant to grow, to have a better packing, to have more global funding, etc. Because what PEN does is absolutely necessary. That is why I feel grateful for the young people that come to PEN; I don’t want to see only people like me.
G.A. When did you join PEN International?
E.L. I became a writer in the 1970s, and I wrote about PEN while I was in New York. I hoped that I would become a member, but I did not get in touch with anyone. I went all the way through the 1970s and 1980s. Around 1991 or 1992, when I was working in Los Angeles, a friend who was becoming the president of PEN USA asked me to be part of the Board. He was Roger Simon. I have been involved with PEN ever since. It seemed a useful, valuable organization that did what I thought was necessary for writers. I like the idea of having a community for writers and being able to do something for people in need.
G.A. Could you tell me about a key moment of your life with PEN USA West?
E.L. There are so many… But definitely our negotiations with Shell US and Shell International over the imprisonment and hanging of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa are worth mentioning. The whole case was very moving; we were able to have some success. It was in 1994-95, I think. It was frustrating for us that one of our members was being treated brutally in Nigeria, and that Shell USA was providing more money to Shell Nigeria and to the Nigerian Government. Ken Saro-Wiwa, who did nothing to hurt anybody, was arrested, jailed and condemned to death. They had to hang him three times to get it right. It was a bad deal.
We started with a letter, showing that thousands of writers in Los Angeles were standing for this writer in Nigeria. We sent it to Shell USA, since we thought there was something they could do to help. We needed to be firm, but polite. They sent somebody to talk to us, and we spent a whole day meeting with him. I was with our executive director and some of our prominent writers; we were about eight people. It was very civil. We got to say how we wanted them to engage with us. We wanted a talking gesture: we expected them to say publicly that Shell USA was different from Shell International, that what was done in Nigeria had nothing to do with them, even though they share the name and are part of the same company. We told this man that we understood that there were decisions taken far beyond him, but that if he was that upset with what happened in Nigeria as he said he was, why would he just not import Nigerian cru? We asked him not to buy oil in Nigeria anymore.
I had many more meetings with people and even with the President of Shell USA in Houston, where I was invited to discuss the situation. They claimed that I was the first representative of a protesting group that managed to meet with. They were grateful with us, saying we were civil and organized, not crazy, and that we were very specific on what we wanted and why. They finally came to us saying they would stop importing Nigerian cru, which was only about 3% of Shell USA’s oil, so no that much. I really appreciated this. We were able to get Shell to do a lot in Nigeria as well; they had a terrible Public Relations disaster in their hands. It was an achievement of our PEN Centre. Larry Simms, who was at Freedom for Writers at the time, wrote the appeal which is part of the report. It was a world-wide campaign: all PEN was very involved in it.
G.A. What does PEN represent for you as a writer?
E.L. For me PEN has been the chance that I wouldn’t have had any other way to meet other writers from all around the world, many with not the same ideas that I have. And the chance to do it in a comfortable place. I feel strongly that as a writer I can get up in the morning and write anything I want, and the only thing that matters is that I am satisfied with it. Those are my only worries. For so many of our members it is much worse. PEN means being in solidarity with them. We give all we can to let the world know that fellow writers are in peril, not because of what they have done or because it is done wrong, but because they are writing a story.
I like thinking that the community is helped by our writers and the worldwide voice that we can offer for the people in trouble. Sometimes you hear that somebody very famous is in jail, and everybody knows about them and their case. But there are other cases. For example, I think it was the Nigerian writer Akkim Adesoshkin, who got arrested with the wrong people. They were thought to be a threat to the Government. He disappeared while he was coming back to Nigeria, after having been in the USA for six months. The first think I did was to call Shell, while we were in the middle of a terrible argument. I told them that Akkim Adesoshkin had been caught at the border and been gone for four days. The man stopped arguing and said he would see what they could do. The next day we were informed that he was in the worst prison he could end up in. I called Shell to inform about it. It was a sort of a test for them, and they passed it. Akkim Adesoshkin got released on the exact day they were going to execute him, and this was because of the noise we all made. It has been a long time since I checked on him, but I think he is still living in Nigeria.
There are many other stories. Somebody disappears into a prison and is treated like nobody. We have this program through which writers from all around the world send letters to imprisoned writers. Jailers see these letters coming in for this guy they think is a no-one. They start wondering who he is, why is he being written from places like New York, London or Singapore. It often does not get them out, but sometimes it improves their circumstances. Every case is different, of course, and the most exciting part is when a writer gets released. But that often means that someone else takes their place.
G.A. Let’s talk about your cultural background. Who influenced your writing?
E.L. I appreciated writing because of reading American humorists, like Mark Twain or James Thurber. When I discovered James Joyce at College it was such a finding. I would like his style. There are other writers whose style I like, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Edith Grossman, his translator. How she brought all this poetic, beautiful and lyrical words into English.
G.A. Could you tell me about an experience that changed your life?
E.L. I was in the program of the US Peace Corps, started by J.F. Kennedy around 1963. It took college graduates to go for two years to other countries. I went to an area called Miconesia, in the Pacific, in an island called Chuuk. I was there from 1966 to 1968. It made me a completely different person. I had the idea of being a writer but wasn’t writing yet. I taught in the school; I did community development; I helped find money to run projects. I did everything I could do. I went from living a normal American life to living on an island of about 185 people, no electricity, no roads, and no transportation. You could walk around the island in half an hour. I had to learn the language that the remaining people speak, the Chuukese. I had a three months training and then I learned it very quickly, moving around. I learned the basics, some pronunciation and grammar.
G.A. Are you still in touch with them?
E.L. Yes, I went there last year. I do not speak the language anymore. I stayed in touch for the first 20 years and then I lost contact with them, but went back a year ago.
G.A. What about Woody Allen? You have interviewed him many times.
E.L. Yes. He is one of the smartest people I have ever met. He talks in full paragraphs, he is interesting to be around, he is very funny but without ever trying to be. He might be serious for a while and then he will make a self-defacing joke about himself. He is the opposite of his character. Things are always happening to his character, but Woody controls his life, everything he is doing is because he wants to do it. He has full control of his script, his casting… nobody has editing. He has been able to create this world that he can disappear into, for a year at a time, and then there is another world. Reality is not that much funny: we get sick, we get old, we die. Lately there have been all these charges accusing him of abusing of his adopted daughter. It is very unfortunate.
G.A. How is freedom of expression today in the USA?
E.L. You can still say whatever you want without ending up in jail, although Trump would certainly do his best to imprison you or accuse you of. In less than one year, we have given away, we have trashed, thrown away, burnt, any small moral standing that we could take to the world. Whether we failed or not, we proclaimed to stand for certain things. And now, we call the press the enemy of the people, we say human rights are not that important, we deal with the Saudi Arabians, etc. We have worked so hard for centuries, but all it takes is Trump to say: ‘No, America doesn’t stand for that’. We need to win that back, and we need a government that doesn’t say that the press is the enemy, that doesn’t call facts fake news, that doesn’t say there are alternatives to facts, and doesn’t say that ‘America first, America first’. We are in this together. We get to have things to protect us, and get to do things in our best interest, but we need to acknowledge that the rest of the world is there. It is just appalling. It is a nightmare. And if there is an impeachment, the guy who comes next is worst: Pence, the vice president. Because he has an idea of what he wants. Pence actually believes this stuff. Trump will do anything for its own power. We have an unresponsive leadership in Congress who has fallen behind him. And we have terrible instructions to the institutions. We have a President who is belittling. We have a Department of Justice, that gives a pardon to a sheriff in Arizona who was found to be violating human rights.
But PEN can’t be a political organization.
G.A. What about other organizations of human rights in America?
E.L. They are all screaming. In his best, Trump has 40% of the people behind him, 60% aren’t. As he is the President, people pay attention to what he says. But let’s see what happens in the next elections. The first amendment still stands. As long as people continue to speak up when Trump says false things, there will be freedom of expression.
It is scary. It is a scary time to be standing for the values of PEN. But I am positive, at least, since I do not like the alternative. I think we will pull back on this. I think there are more sensitive people in America than there are talking. And eventually that kind of decency will take over.