During my time working for English PEN I’ve often used the phrase ‘literary campaigning’ to describe our particular style of activism. Its a term that probably seems self evident: we use literature to draw attention to the situation of writers at risk. For example, we might read the writing of an imprisoned poet outside an embassy, or stage a world-wide reading at multiple locations around the world.
Its an approach that has value for several reasons. Not only is it non-violent, but it is also not particularly hostile or antagonistic to those who have imprisoned the writer or who are responsible for their persecution. So it has a diplomatic quality.
It also a fantastic act of solidarity for the embattled writer. Where they have been entirely censored through imprisonment (or even death) it is a way to give them a voice and restore to them some sort of expression.
However, my favourite kind of literary campaigning is when the writer-activists who make up PEN’s membership produce new work in response to an injustice. When three members of the punk band Pussy Riot received a ridiculously harsh sentences for their Punk Prayer stunt in Moscow, English PEN published Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, edited by Markie Burnhope, Sarah Crewe and Sophie Mayer. The band’s particular brand of radical feminist music and poetry had obviously been censored by virtue of their prison sentences, but the 101 contributors to the anthology were able to compensate for that by putting new work, in a sympathetic style, back into the world. What’s more, the book won a Saboteur Award for best anthology.
In Wendy Greenhalgh’s creative writing workshops, participants use the work of writers at risk as inspiration for new writing.
Last weekend, SJ Fowler set his ongoing collaborative endeavour The Enemies Project to work for English PEN, curating the the Modern Literature Festival at Rich Mix in London. Thirty UK-based writers were tasked with creating new work with, or about, a writer for whom English PEN has campaigned. The result was thirty performances of new works of literature. Here is the playwright Mark Ravenhill presenting new writing about Mazen Darwish and Yara Bader.
In all these cases, solidarity and awareness is not the only outcome of this writing. The cultural conversation is being advanced too. It’s literary campaigning at its best.