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Tone Peršak - essay, Bled 50

2018, 50th International Writers' Meeting at Bled: Tone Paršak wrote an essay about Bled meetings in the past.

 

Tone Peršak
Slovene PEN Centre

PEN, A VARIED AND VALUABLE EXPERIENCE

 

 

I became a member of the Slovene PEN Centre relatively early, when I was already quite active, but still a rather young writer of prose and contributions for various publications. Thus, it was not unusual that I expressed my wish to join, and it was kind that my older colleagues, most of whom were involved in social criticism, and a few of my peers who were already members, decided that perhaps I did belong in their esteemed company. Like everyone who wishes to join PEN, I read the PEN international Charter, which emphasises that PEN International, an organisation of poets, essayist and novelists, in short creative writers from the wide field of literature, strives for respect for and the defence of the freedom of expression, advocates the view that literature knows no borders and strives for understanding and mutual respect among nations. Another mission is to defend the equality of all languages and to resist every attempt at limiting freedom of expression and violence against those who have publicly stated their views and opinions. As we know, in those days, i.e. a few years before the Slovenes embraced democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and just before Slovenian independence, this stance was important and not quite self-evident, which is why the Slovene PEN Centre – although after having been re-established in 1962, it had been functioning successfully for over twenty years – in the eyes of the then one-party state still represented a somewhat dubious group of people.

For various reasons, including my active participation in the emerging oppositional politics (prior to 1990), I was initially a rather passive PEN member and did not become truly involved until almost 2000. Then in the autumn of 2001, following an invitation by the then president Veno Taufer, I attended for the first time the PEN international General Assembly in London, where it was convened because of political unrest and conflict in Macedonia, leading to the cancellation of the PEN International congress in Ohrid. This is how my fifteen years of fairly active participation in the Slovene PEN Centre and PEN International began.

With a couple of exceptions, I have attended all the PEN congresses, between 2000 and 2015 as a Slovene PEN Centre delegate and in the last two years as the chair of the Writers for Peace Committee. In my role as president of the Slovene PEN Centre, together with my dedicated colleagues – and here I have to give special thanks to the long-term secretary, Mrs Elza Jereb, who handled everything with great dexterity – I organised one congress (in 2005 in Bled). It took place on the fiftieth anniversary of the congress organised by the Slovene PEN Centre in 1965, soon after its re-establishment, as the first congress of PEN International in one of the countries which, at least in the opinion of the majority of the (political) world, belonged to the “East”. At this congress, in the midst of the Cold War, writers from both the Western and Eastern blocs officially met and talked for the first time, including writers from the Soviet Union and the United States of America. During the 2005 congress, numerous well-known and important authors revisited Slovenia and with its successful organisation and characteristic Slovene hospitality, the Slovene PEN further affirmed its reputation in PEN International.

As a participant in congresses at which I took part until the Quebec congress, I focused particularly on three areas of PEN International’s activities: 1. on emphasising and promoting literature as one of the most important values and drivers of civilisation and, in my opinion, the most important human activity with regard to the shaping and preserving of traditions from the beginning of civilisation until today, i.e. the collective memory of humankind and, at the same time, the most fruitful field for dialogue between different cultures, peoples and nations, as well as within individual cultures/peoples/nations; 2. on equality and the right of all languages to exist and develop, and on the international community’s, particularly the UN’s, duty to defend this right and actively strive for the preservation of languages and their development through support for literature and other forms of art appearing in these languages, including the smallest and the most endangered ones; and 3. as a fairly active member and finally the chair of the PEN International Writers for Peace Committee, following the example of the two previous chairs (Veno Taufer and Dr Edvard Kovač), I supported efforts to establish and preserve dialogue between PEN members from countries or nations that were in conflict or even at war with each other (Israelis – Palestinians, Chinese – Uyghurs, Kurds – Iraqis or Turks, Arabs – Israelis, Arab and African writers – writers from the former colonial powers, Chinese from the People’s Republic – Chinese authors in exile, Chinese – Tibetans, etc.). Considering that within PEN International, Slovenes represent the literature of one of the smallest language communities and are thus more motivated by certain issues, it is probably only logical that I wanted to be active in connection to the first two issues. At the same time, since the Slovene PEN Centre (and our then president Miloš Mikeln) gave the initiative for the foundation of the Writers for Peace Committee and since all its chairs so far have been members of the Slovene PEN Centre (in addition to the already mentioned ones and the current chair Marjan Strojan, there was also Boris A. Novak, the initiator and organiser of the resounding PEN humanitarian campaign during the siege of Sarajevo), I was focused particularly on the work of this Committee. But I also dedicated time to the activities of the committee dealing with translation issues and linguistic rights, and the committee that deals with writers anywhere in the world who find themselves in prison or are subjected to persecution, violence, etc.

 

In line with these interests, at the level of PEN International and especially in connection with the traditional Bled International Writers’ Conference, I have always supported the view and encouraged endeavours to ensure that our meetings (congresses and regional or thematic conferences, wherever they were held) should always be accompanied by literary events with appearances by the participants, since it would be pointless for tens or hundreds of people, the majority from abroad, to gather anywhere without using the opportunity for at least a few readings or other meetings between writers and readers and lovers of literature. To this end, in my role as the chair of the Slovene PEN Centre I have advocated as an important component of the Bled conferences the organisation of literary evenings in as many places around Slovenia as possible, and in all these years we have managed to establish a tradition of annually organising up to ten literary evenings and, among other things, to present to participants from abroad part of the Slovene contemporary literature, be it a selection of authors from one of our regions or across the border, or some other meaningful selection. In connection with this, I can remember what an impression three authors from Resia made on guests from countries with a population of a hundred million or more, when we told them that this was literature that appears in an independent and unique variant of the Slovene language, spoken by fewer than a thousand people living in one of the valleys across the Slovene-Italian border.

 

On more than ten occasions I have also hosted my colleagues, poets, writers and journalists from around the world in Trzin, and the events never failed to attract attention. Indeed, individual authors often touched the audience and aroused a great deal of interest. This happened with the poet and activist Behrivan Dost, a Kurdish poet from Iraq, when she read her poem about the death of her brother, or to the excellent Albanian poet Entela Kasi, who by reading in Albanian with so much feeling enchanted the audience so much that after the English translation of her poem had been read out, she was asked to read the poem once more in Albanian. A similar reaction was aroused by the young Basque poet Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, when he read his poetry in this language that is so special and unrelated to any other European language so that, with the exception of “Coca-Cola”, it was impossible to guess the meaning of a single word, and yet the poem sounded very meaningful. There was also a poet from Haiti, who later died in the earthquake, a mystically inspired Russian poet, a number of always welcome colleagues from the former Yugoslav republics, poets and writers from America, Asia, Africa, etc., and I can honestly say that the annual literary evening in Trzin has become an eagerly awaited and welcomed cultural event. The same applies to many other locations, e.g. Kamna gorica, Vrba, Kranj, etc. And I believe that these evenings are an important part of the intercultural dialogue, also facilitated by PEN at other levels, within the PEN International committees. A special mention goes to the Writers in Prison Committee, which in countries where writers and poets are still imprisoned because of their books or merely publicly declared viewpoints, campaigns for the release of the incriminated authors or for them to be allowed to emigrate. Here, I must mention the very successful work of one of the chairs of this committee and the later secretary general of PEN International, Eugene Schoulgin, who has become a PEN legend, as he managed to get many writers released from prison and also visited many in prison, where they were being kept in inhumane conditions, particularly in those countries where human rights are still completely overlooked, even though the regimes may have changed.

We must also mention the secretary generals Terry Carlbom, Joan Leedom-Ackerman and the still active Takeaki Hori., who have done a great deal, particularly with regard to the expansion of PEN International, with the number of national centres growing from around 75 in 2000 to over 150 in 2015. Just as they marked PEN International’s development, so did the presidents, each in his or her own way, such as the renowned Mexican poet Homero Aridjis, the diplomat, writer and former dissident Jiřy Gruša, and the very active president that followed him, the successful writer and essayist John Ralston Saul from Canada, who is also very familiar with the history of Yugoslavia and the countries that appeared in its territory and, finally, the first female president of PEN International, Jennifer Clement.

Of course, I have had the opportunity to meet through PEN many other excellent poets, writers and journalists and, at least with some of them, I later further developed our relationship outside of PEN. This particularly applies to my colleagues from the former Yugoslavia, from all its former republics, including some excellent poets and writers (Vladislav Bajac, Vida Ognjenović, Laslo Blašković, Ferida Duraković, Josip Lešić and Slovenka Nadežda Čačinović, who lives in Zagreb and is a member of the Croatian PEN).

As the president of the Slovene PEN Centre and, later, as a member of the board and the vice-president, I participated for a number of years in the shaping of concepts and in deciding about the themes of the round tables, which have for fifty years been regularly organised by the Slovene PEN Centre as part of its international conferences (initially in Portorož and now for a number of years in Bled), or during the year in Ljubljana. Mostly, I tried to encourage PEN to respond to the issues presented to us by the development of culture under the influence, or rather the dictates, of globalisation and neoliberal ideology that dominates globalisation processes and the resulting concepts of the consumer society, the individualisation and atomisation or demolition of society as a community, the narcissism of modern man, and so on. Thus, I am “responsible” that during the years of my close involvement in the organisation of the international conferences in Bled and the round tables in Ljubljana, the themes of the latter changed to a certain extent and became more specific or directed at fairly specific issues connected with the position of literature and arts as a whole, e.g. within the context of the new technologies, i.e. the “digitalisation of the world”. Prior to this, the themes and titles of round tables were usually somewhat more esoteric or semantically open, so that they facilitated very diverse essayistic contributions by the participating authors. Often, they were also more focused on issues that apply mostly to poets and writers themselves within their creative process or their individual relationship with the world, projected onto the relationship between poetry and everyday reality. This is why during my presidency, when I was able to have a slightly greater influence on the themes, less general and esoteric topics prevailed, such as: “Endangered languages – dying cultures” in 2007, “What is European consciousness?” in 2008 or “The book in the 21st century” and “Globalisation, a ‘brave new world’ or a new form of colonisation?” in 2010, “Are we living in war or in peace?” in 2013 and “Writers in a society that is only a public” in 2014. I feel that this way the round tables, particularly those organised as part of the Bled conferences, became more topical and thus also slightly more attractive to the media, although at the same time some may have felt that because of this they had lost a hint of spiritual sanctification, or eliteness and remoteness from the banality of the everyday discourse. Nevertheless, I was convinced and still am that culture as a whole and literature in particular, as well as theatre, have to reflect on the world and the time in which they appear, and have to strive to know as much as possible and throw light on the processes that we experience (linguistic, cultural, national) as a community and as humanity as a whole, and that this has always been the case from Antiquity until today. This probably applies particularly to genres like essays, as well as novels or plays in all their variations. At its foundation a hundred years ago, PEN stated in its Charter very specific reasons for being founded and the goals for which it was to strive as a movement, and it has never renounced these goals and endeavours. This is why I believe that it is PEN’s duty to constantly and actively reflect on the development of civilisation and the political dimensions of this development, responding on an ongoing basis and trying very actively to influence it. In my opinion, this is in the nature of the activity we call culture, which in fact also means the transformation of the world (nature).

 

I certainly have to say how grateful I am to PEN, for my membership enabled me to meet many important authors and brilliant intellectuals, as well as to visit places that I would otherwise probably never have seen.

 

Prevedla Maja Visenjak Limon