The recent public campaign against the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka – I signed a statement alongside Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Ken Loach and others – was aimed to highlight Colombo’s gross human rights abuses and lack of accountability after the end of the civil war in 2009.
PEN is currently holding a series of events in London over the question of free speech, cultural events and boycotts. South African writer Gilliam Slovo writes in the Guardian over these questions and struggles with the proper response to state repression.
Personally speaking, the success of the Galle statement – like advocacy on Israeli crimes in Palestine – is to raise in the public domain the inherent human rights abuses, often backed by Western media and political power.
Somebody needs to speak about them.
At last weekend’s PEN International conference on writers in prison, a Sri Lankan journalist, Lokeesan Appuththurai, described how, during the Sri Lankan government’s 2009 onslaught against the Tamils, the only safe way to get a report out was to switch on your mobile phone, rapidly type and send – and then, just as rapidly, switch off. And there was one other essential precaution to take if you wanted to stay alive: you had to make sure to keep on the move. If you didn’t, the Sri Lankan military would use your mobile signal to fix your coordinates and bomb you. “We don’t need a writers in prison committee in Sri Lanka,” Appuththurai ended his speech, “because in my country they don’t put writers in prison. They just kill them.”
No wonder then, that Sri Lanka’s Galle literary festival has come under scrutiny. A recent call by the French-based organisation Reporters Sans Frontières to boycott this year’s festival was signed by a list of high-profile names that included Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Tariq Ali. The festival, they said, gave “legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech”.
The festival organisers were quick to rebut this charge. Theirs was a private initiative, they said, privately funded, and, rather than suppressing speech, it provided a forum for discussion. The opening session of this year’s festival, titled After Shock, was a debate about the legacy of civil wars, including Sri Lanka’s. The festival organisers seemed to have won the argument: among the invitees from all over the world, South Africa’s Damon Galgut was the lone boycotter.
Calls for cultural boycotts such as this one pose a special challenge for me. I am, after all, the new president of English PEN, whose work is focused not only on the defence of persecuted writers but also on the expansion of cultural engagement. At the same time I am a product of my South African heritage and of an early political engagement framed by the boycotts that helped to bring down the apartheid regime.
I lived through so many years of boycotting South Africa that I had to train myself out of the habit of rejecting Outspan oranges. And it wasn’t only South African goods we shunned. There was rugby and cricket, with the worldwide Stop the Tour protests that hit sports-mad white South Africa where it really hurt. And there were cultural boycotts that saw actors refusing to play on segregated stages, writers refusing to go on tour, and academics refusing inter-university collaborations. When, at his inauguration as president, Nelson Mandela articulated his country’s relief that it would no longer be the “skunk” of the world, it was a sign that these boycotts had, in their own small way, helped to make the change.
So I was uneasy during a recent Radio 4 Front Row programme, when I was booked to discuss the issue of cultural engagement and boycott with the Sri Lankan writer and artist Roma Tearne. Ours was the most sisterly of debates. We started out on the Galle Festival, with Tearne arguing that, although she wouldn’t stop writers from going, she would never go herself because there would be no space for open discussion. I, who had been to Galle the previous year, countered with my experience of an audience – albeit an elite audience, as is the case for most literary festivals – that was ravenous to talk politics and, in particular, to talk Sri Lankan politics. And then, inevitably, our conversation turned to Ian McEwan.
McEwan had recently been awarded the Jerusalem prize, given to writers whose work deals with themes of individual freedom in society. Like Margaret Atwood, who had previously ignored appeals not to accept the Dan David prize that was given by Tel Aviv University, McEwan refused calls to boycott his prize, choosing instead to weave into his acceptance speech an acknowledgment of the injustice of the evictions, demolitions and purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and to donate money to an organisation that brings together Israeli and Palestinian former fighters.
As we discussed McEwan’s decision, Tearne and I switched sides. She supported McEwan’s decision and I demurred. To my mind, accepting a prize from Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, who has presided over the evictions, demolitions and compulsory purchases that McEwan condemned, risked normalising these policies. McEwan had struck a blow for freedom of expression, and yet, if that expression is used by others to justify the unjustifiable, how free then is it?
Tearne and I are not the only ones to puzzle over the complexities of the issue. As they walked me to the lift, the show’s producers said they’d had trouble finding writers to discuss the subject on air, not only because writers never like criticising other writers, but because many of us find ourselves pulled in conflicting directions. The call for the Galle boycott, for example, gained strength during the Jaipur literary festival. Yet if Galle is to be boycotted because of the Sri Lankan government’s abuse of human rights, then do India’s actions in Kashmir make Jaipur a suitable case for boycott? Does the exploitation of workers in Dubai make its film festival a no-go area? Does Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq mean that England’s many literary events should be shunned? A week tomorrow I will be debating the issue with Rachel Holmes and Romesh Gunesekera during PEN’s Free the Word festival in London.
The South African cultural boycott didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was called for by the African National Congress, which represented the majority of South Africans, and it ran alongside a United Nations condemnation of apartheid, a worldwide protest movement and economic sanctions. That, it seems to me, is the way to go. It is easy enough to embarrass a writer – many of us feel keenly the injustices around us – into making a grand gesture. Better perhaps to campaign effectively for real change . This might include putting pressure on global companies to make it more difficult for a government such as that in Sri Lanka to use mobile phone signals to kill its opponents.