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“You cannot have a free world without free intellectual exchange”

Interview with Zoë Rodriguez. This Story belongs also to the Sydney Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

London, March 26th 2019

Zoë Rodriguez is a lawyer at the Arts Law Centre of Australia. She is currently the Chair of PEN International’s Search Committee which runs PEN’s electoral processes, and a member of PEN International’s Lawyers’ Circle providing specialist advice on copyright. She is on the Board of Sydney Non-Objective – a visual arts cooperative, and a Board consultant to Boomalli – the Indigenous visual arts cooperative in NSW.

G.A. When did you first hear about PEN International?

Z.R. My mum was involved from the 80’s, she and my stepfather used to host PEN Melbourne meeting at their house. My mum was at the PEN International Congress in NY which was the base for the Women Writer’s Committee.

G.A. What can you tell me about your new position as Search Committee Chair?

Z.R. I became Chair last year in Pune. And funnily enough one of my mum’s earliest stories takes place in New York, she went to represent PEN Melbourne. Stuff was brewing about women on the panels and then Betty Friedan, a great American feminist, said “this started on Monday and you haven’t got to me in until Thursday?” That’s how the Women Writer’s Committee came about. And then it took five years to get acknowledged by the membership.

I want to see that Committee going to places where women writers are in trouble. I would like it to travel outside of Europe, go to Latin America, Asia. Where there are women journalists murdered or women writers being imprisoned. Simona from the Translation and Linguistics Rights Committee said she’d like to join us, that it’s often the women who are holding together the endangered languages. They preserve them.

G.A. What can you tell me about the Search Committee?

Z.R. It’s very different from the others. It’s a standing committee that is contained in the governing documents of PEN and its role is to run elections for PEN International for all the official roles. It is tasked with finding delegates that represent the diversity of PEN in terms of geography, language, gender… Firstly the Search Committee works at trying to identify people from around the world that would be good to fill the role in PEN, persuading them to run elections and once all that is done, then at the actual congresses the Search Committee is responsible for overseeing that the elections are fair and democratic with no bias. It has five members that are always elected at the same date and amongst them they select the Chair with the actual Search Committee. I think it’s important that the Search Committee in itself is representative of PEN. And unlike the other committees which are elected within their committee and approved by the congress, the whole Search Committee is elected by the whole membership of PEN, and in a sense, it reports to the whole of the membership instead of the Board and it’s structural to ensure it’s democratic.

G.A. Has it always been there?

Z.R It hasn’t always been there because in the beginning it was more of a dinner club. That changed when the members of the PEN club saw they needed to run democratic elections. And I’m sure the wider PEN’s geographic reach, the more necessary a formalised Search Committee would have become.

G.A. Do you have an archive regarding the Search Committee?

Z.R No, but I have all of my mum’s records. As you can imagine, there would have been some very personal conversations saved because another thing the Search Committee has increasingly had to worry about is ensuring that candidates don’t have anything to do with corruption or fraud that could bring PEN into disrepute.

G.A. What is the work of the Search Committee?

Z.R. The Search Committee has to find suitable candidates that reflect the diversity of PEN. The candidates then run at Congress. At the actual Congress, the Search Committee is tasked with ensuring the ballot papers are handed out per Centre and submitted per Centre; then they count them. The membership has to believe the Search Committee is doing this fairly impartially.

G.A. How do you present your candidacy for the Search Committee?

Z.R. At the Congress when I was elected in 2015 there were seven candidates and five roles. You had to have a written statement to read out loud. Then the membership votes and the people who get top five form the Search Committee and then they decide who the Chair is. Practice is that the person who gets most votes becomes the Chair, but it doesn’t have to be.

G.A Can anyone present their candidacy to become a Search Committee member?

Z.R. Anyone. The thing with the Search Committee is that you really need to know some PEN people, you can’t go without network.

G.A. It’s important that people learn how the Search Committee really works and its history.

Z.R. Yes, it’s important for the strategic direction of PEN because that strategy comes from the Board and Chairs of Committees and there is a very administrative side to the Search Committee; and my proudest point is that I had observed the voting at the 2014 elections and it was chaos because they had all on white paper, and I thought we needed coloured boxes and papers.

G.A. There is not a website on the Search Committee, is this because it is just an internal Committee?

Z.R. Well the other committees are very outward facing roles, whereas the Search Committee is about the internal running of PEN; it’s very internal and not sure what it could say on a website apart from the tasks and members. I think the archive would be very good especially when you’re trying to nominate candidates for this committee, because people would understand what it does and its impact.

G.A. How would you describe the sense of belonging to PEN?

Z.R. To my mum it was a very important central important movement. And it probably became increasingly important to her especially with the asylum seeker issue. I think for people who belong to PEN it matters, and they believe in freedom of expression.

G.A. What can you tell me about your mother, Judith Rodriguez?

Z.R. She was born 1936 in Perth; she knew from when she was eight she wanted to be a poet. She grew up in a very racist Australia. She had a realisation and said, “if that girl over there is Indian with dark skin God surely loves her as much as he loves me”. That was the beginning of justice. I think she was a very logical person and saw that was a human being. People from school said she has a fierce commitment to justice. That is very PEN. She was Search Committee Chair; she’d been a Board member for two terms before becoming Chair. She took it incredibly seriously and she had a group that worked to democratise the running of elections. She told me there were some issues people were concerned with. Candidates from wealthy Centres would reach out to every Centre and get them to nominate them so then those Centres couldn’t dominate other people. So, they decided they had to have rules to make it equal for different people to nominate. That’s why there’s a limit on the number of Centres that can nominate a candidate. And it’s also why they put a word limit because some of the Centres would submit epic length nominations. She worked in these ways to make the process fairer across the Board and more open to Centres wherever they came from. I think that would be in the 2000’s when that change was enacted. It was very important, and I kept it up.

G.A. What’s your role for PEN Sydney?

Z.R. I am currently vice-president. I stepped down from President, which I’d been for four years before that.

G.A. What can you tell me about PEN Sydney? How many members do you have?

Z.R. At the moment we have 200 but when Chip Rolley was running it, he had managed to get the membership up to 600. He ran the Search Committee before my mum. He set up the PEN Poetry Relay, it was about the idea that you have a poem that travels the world in translation.

G.A. What are some key moments of PEN Sydney?

Z.R. One of the most significant contributions PEN Sydney has made are these two anthologies about asylum seekers and asylum seeker policy in Australia. Those anthologies were the ideas of an important PEN Sydney member who died recently, Rosie Scott. The second one was inherited from one of our leading Australian authors Tom Keneally.

Other than that, each year our biggest public event is the PEN Sydney Free Voices lectures that we host at the Sydney Writers’ Festivals. It’s a very popular lecture and works as a fundraiser for PEN Sydney.  That’s how we got to a lot of people we shouldn’t otherwise get to. As soon as we’re in the program for Sydney we have a ready-made audience.

G.A. What is the average age of the members of your Centre?

Z.R. 70 or 60. We are working on getting younger people in. The person who will replace me as President is in his 30’s, Mark.

G.A. Is it a good thing that it’s volunteer-based?

Z.R. Many of these Centres that aren’t volunteer based get significant funding from their government, then it makes it difficult for them to criticise their government. At PEN Sydney, especially with our current government, we cannot apply for government funding because we would be silenced on commenting on policies that seek to silence people and go against the mission of PEN. But it seems to me that some of my European colleagues don’t have the same concern. We do get support front the University of Technology Sydney in the form of an office right in the centre of Sydney, access to printing, to the spaces, to the mail centre.

G.A. Do you think PEN is Euro-central?

Z.R. From the Australian point of view, yes. And when I hear suggested that the Committee could be held in Rotterdam or Norway, I just say that nobody from Australia or the Asia Pacific would come. Actually, everybody in PEN international speaks about the global South. I’ve started to think of PEN as the global North everything happens up here because it’s convenient for the people who founded PEN. I thought India was fabulous. I think the more PEN travel outside north America and Europe, the better. Manila is good this year.

G.A. Where do you see PEN international going as a movement?

Z.R Well you look at the Centres as they become more representative of the globe, hopefully. There is a desperate need for more Centres in the Asia Pacific, I hope that happens. In the Arab-speaking countries, there is great repression and yet with the internet people are aware of things and they need organisations like PEN who can speak out, so geography is very important.

G.A. What are the challenges?

Z.R Resources, money. People can volunteer but when you want to start running programs and playing a real role in advocacy you need the money to back people up.

The other thing is arising repressive governments throughout the world that want to shut down free speech around the world.  The more repressive the government becomes; the more writers are keen to the idea that they need an organisation like PEN.

G.A. What about your country?

Z.R. In Australia we have serious issues with freedom of expressions. More recently especially about asylum seeker laws, our government has set up pretty much prison camps offshore and tried to silence journalists and anyone who comments on it. Nobody would have imagined that possible 20 years ago. Then, with the rise of terrorism, our government has entered into surveillance laws and some of those seek to silence journalists and others and survey the community. This began with 9/11. There are writers who are now more committed to PEN than ever because of this erosion on freedom of expression. Our membership should be growing because of this.

G.A. How do you attract the younger generation to PEN?

Z.R. The new President of PEN Sydney will bring young witters with him. But also, holding events like Skype group calls with Behrouz Boochani; the government doesn’t want us to know what’s happening in the prison camps but thanks to the internet we can speak directly to him and those events are amazing. Students are interested and concerned

PEN Sydney is also about partnering with like-minded organisations so we have Settlement Services International which works with asylums seekers, and runs partnerships with Sydney Writer’s festivals where there will be young authors in the audience

G.A Is there a partnership between Centres in Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney?

Z.R. In PEN Sydney we pay an intellectual to give the Free Voices lecture, we have three per year and we share them, we tried to send that writer to Melbourne for the lecture. We are looking to partnerships with PEN Perth. Recently they cooperated with PEN Melbourne in celebrating my mum’s birthday.

G.A. What can you tell me about PEN Copyright Manifesto?

Z.R. I am actually a copyright lawyer. I wrote the copyright principles for PEN. Before I was anything official in PEN International, John Ralston was the President and he asked me to join their PEN lawyer circle. The first task was to draft principles on copyright. We shied away from this debate for many years because we see ourselves as freedom of expression workers and copyright as an economic right, but the more I think about it, the more I realise economic freedom for freedom for writers is part copyright and its central to freedom of expression. I drafted them. These drafts principles were then sent to the Committee.  I was asked to put a piece in about traditional folklore to say there would be no copyright because they are stories of the world. I said this is a very contentious issue. My reason for being concerned came up at congress; the Canadians said what about indigenous cultural property? and I said this is exactly the reason I don’t think that’s particular principle should be in this document. It’s a very difficult issue, it’s one that countries all around the world are trying to come to terms with, the World’s Intellectual Property Office has an intergovernmental Committee discussing this right now.

Jennifer was then elected President of PEN International and she turned those principles into a manifesto. It marked a coming off age of PEN and reimagined its position with writers, that freedom of expression has many manifestations and one of them is economic.

G.A. Is there another manifesto needed for PEN?

Z.R. I think the Women’s Manifesto is very important. Also, for the rights of the LGBTQI+ community, I think that’s going to be something the Charter will contemplate. And I think the discussion of hate speech too. PEN International has to have some document on it. On the PEN Charter when it says we are for free exchange of ideas it also says that our role is to dispel hatred, so that’s where this tension comes up about hate speech, what are the limits, etc. Our membership and some of our key author members are divided on this topic.

G.A. What would you like to see achieved with this Exhibition?

Z.R. We would like people to know about PEN Sydney. I know that PEN Melbourne and PEN Sydney both have wanted to play a greater role in mentoring writers in the Asia Pacific, to set up PEN Centres where there don’t exist. We looked at Indonesia a country of about 200 million people, it’s an obvious place for a PEN Centre. We’re not like some European Centres, we don’t get funding, it’s a volunteer movement in Australia. 

I also would love it if people saw those anthologies published, also a newsletter which contains the text of the Free Voices lectures that we commissioned. They’re very serious pieces on freedom of expression with a particular slant in Australia and the issues we face as a country in the Asia Pacific but with roots with the English-speaking world.

G.A. What message would you leave for the posterity?

Z.R. Intellectual property has been my professional life. I think for a writer to be fully free firstly they can’t be in prison obviously, and they need to be able to write about whatever they want, they need economic freedom. Economic and writing freedom is important for the world because you cannot have a free world without free intellectual exchange.