John Ralston Saul Becomes First Canadian to Head Mighty PEN

By Vit Wagner, The Toronto Star, 22 October 2009

"This year’s honouree is newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007."

John Ralston Saul has been elected to head rights organization International PEN.

Toronto author John Ralston Saul is vowing to shine a spotlight on disappearing languages in his new role as the president of International PEN,
one of the world’s oldest human rights organizations and a global champion of freedom of expression.

Saul, elected Wednesday at the annual International PEN conference in Linz, Austria, is the first Canadian to hold the office, which carries a three-year term. The husband of former governor general Adrienne Clarkson succeeds former Czech dissident author Jiri Grusa.

By Vit Wagner, The Toronto Star, 22 October 2009

"This year’s honouree is newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007."

John Ralston Saul has been elected to head rights organization International PEN.

Toronto author John Ralston Saul is vowing to shine a spotlight on disappearing languages in his new role as the president of International PEN,
one of the world’s oldest human rights organizations and a global champion of freedom of expression.

Saul, elected Wednesday at the annual International PEN conference in Linz, Austria, is the first Canadian to hold the office, which carries a three-year term. The husband of former governor general Adrienne Clarkson succeeds former Czech dissident author Jiri Grusa.

Past presidents of the organization, founded in 1921, include such literary heavyweights as John Galsworthy, Arthur Miller, Heinrich Böll and Mario Vargas Llosa.

"It’s exciting. It’s a real commitment," said Saul, 62, on the line from Austria. "And it’s very moving to stand up in a room full of writers and intellectuals from around the world, knowing that you’re in an astonishing line of people. That carries with it a real responsibility.

"One of the things I laid out was the importance of minority languages. There are hundreds of languages that are disappearing, mainly aboriginal indigenous languages, a lot of them in Canada. The ultimate removal of freedom of expression is to have your language disappear and, in a sense,
to have your culture disappear."

International PEN, based in London, has 144 chapters globally, representing 18,000 writers around the world. Its responsibilities include lobbying for the release of writers who have been imprisoned or exiled for their views.

"This means that Canada will play a bigger role in International PEN," said Toronto Star columnist and past PEN Canada president Haroon Siddiqui, who had a hand in nominating Saul for the position.

"PEN Canada is one of the most successful PEN centres in the world. This is partially a recognition of that and also a recognition that John would
make a very good president."

Over the years, PEN Canada has lobbied on behalf of several celebrated dissidents, including former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Turkish Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk. In 2002, the organization helped secure the release of Jose Francisco Gallardo, a Mexican brigadier-general sentenced to 28 years for writing an article urging his country to appoint a military ombudsman.

Saul is the author of several fiction and non-fiction titles, including The Collapse of Globalism and A Fair Country. He is a past president of PEN Canada, which he joined in the 1980s.

As president, Saul will be in a position to influence the priorities of the organization. He expects to work out of both Toronto and London, besides "spending a lot of time on airplanes" – all without having to give up his day job.

"I’ve become very good at doing more than one thing at once," he said.

"In this case, it’s essential. I don’t think it would be very healthy for a writer, as the president of the most important writers’ association, to stop writing."

The 30th International Festival of Authors (IFOA) opened Wednesday night at Harbourfront Centre with the annual PEN Canada benefit, featuring an onstage conversation between U.K. publishing legend Diana Athill and internationally acclaimed Canadian author Alice Munro.

The audience applauded and hooted when the announcement of Saul’s election was made from the stage Wednesday night.

All IFOA events include the placement of an empty chair onstage, representing a persecuted writer. This year’s honouree is newspaper editor Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in Istanbul in 2007.

2 comments
  1. A Fair Country : Truths about Canada

    John Ralston Saul’s latest tome, ‘A Fair Country : Truths about Canada’ suggests some new ways of looking at our history that I find really interesting. 

    If you care about Canada, this provides some key insights to understanding what has happened and where we are going. 

  2. Esperanto and disappearing languages

    Concerning the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, can I point to the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO’s campaign.

    The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations’ Geneva HQ in September.

    youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related

    Your readers may be interested in

    youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU 

    Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

Comments are closed.

You May Also Like