Roslyn Bernstein Explores Jennifer Clement’s Fight for Freedom of Expression

by    /  March 26, 2020  / Comments Off on Roslyn Bernstein Explores Jennifer Clement’s Fight for Freedom of Expression

photo by Omar Meneses

Ciudad de Mexico 22 Julio 2016 Jennifer Clement presidenta del Pen Internacional, sesion de fotos en San Angel. Foto Omar Meneses


When I first met Jennifer Clement, our conversation swirled from nostalgic memories of New York City to the vital work she’s done as president of PEN International. We met this past February in the Lafayette Bakery and Café in the NoHo neighborhood of New York City. She was in town, away from her home in Mexico City, here to spend the semester as the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College, CUNY, a program I founded some 22 years earlier. I was eager to hear about her writing and her humanitarian work — and how both types of work inform one another.

And while Clement and I were ostensibly meeting to talk about PEN (which originally stood for poets, essayists, and novelists), we quickly discovered that we shared several iconic downtown NYC experiences, including personal encounters with David Bowie at the infamous Mudd Club on White Street.

I sat next to him on a banquette talking about my life without realizing who he was, and Jennifer had danced with him. And having just finished re-reading Clement’s book, Widow Basquiat, an account of the wild lives of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his partner Suzanne Mallouk, I recalled how Basquiat, who lived just a few blocks away from me on Crosby Street, had painted his tag “SAMO” on the front of my Wooster Street loft building. Sadly, over the years, the doors have disappeared from our basement storage room. (Who knows what it would have been worth today?)

Prior to becoming president of PEN International in 2015, Clement served as president of PEN Mexico, where she focused her three-year term (2009-2012) on the crisis of the disappearance and killings of Mexican journalists. “At that time, killing journalists was a state, not a federal crime,” she said. Relying on the gravitas of world-wide PEN organization, Clement prevailed on getting the law changed in Mexico. That required all of the presidents of PEN centers, and other organizations like the Swedish Academy, to come together, to have the force to change the law.

“At this point,” Clement conceded, “it still is a symbolic change.” While the number of journalists killed in Mexico declined in 2019, violence against journalists remains a major problem, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) held a press freedom summit in Mexico City last year to seek solutions and to encourage President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to make press freedom a priority.

Clement’s work on behalf of PEN Mexico resulted in her nomination by PEN Sweden and PEN South Africa for the Presidency of PEN International, a position that she holds today. Clement is the first woman to serve as president in the organization’s 100 years. It is a title that she never could have imagined holding and one that has inspired her to devote her second term in office to putting women at the center of the organization.

“It took me two years to change the Charter,” Clement said, referring to PEN’s International Women’s Manifesto. It was an accomplishment she is particularly proud of since it passed unanimously. PEN’s previous charter included language about combating hatred of race, nationality, and class. The 2017 Women’s Manifesto stresses the word “equality,” not just gender equality for women but equality for all — LGBTQ+ people, too. In fact, the language of the manifesto was so strong that it was subsequently adopted by the United Nations and UNESCO. Clement believes that the Manifesto’s success is because “it is a work of sorrow, not a work of anger; sorrow about what is missing, about what did not happen.”

In October 2019, PEN International passed The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto, which Clement wrote after consulting with Eric Lax, Vice President of PEN International, and Per Wästberg, emeritus PEN International president and chair of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Manifesto, which was tweaked at the Congress, recognizes those who cannot tell their own stories.

Clement describes working with PEN as like working at a fire station. “There are always intense fires,” she said. “In Venezuela, Nicaragua, Turkey, Mexico, Russia, China, Hungary, and Poland. It is weird to think of the 1980s and 1990s as the golden age of freedom of expression, but the whole Jamal Khashoggi case has been a wake-up call.”

Things are sadly getting worse. When she became president, there were about 80 to 100 cases of writers who wanted to leave their countries. Today, the number has doubled, and Clement knows why. “During President Jimmy’s Carter’s term in office, human rights was part of foreign policy decisions,” Clement said. “But we’re losing that. We must put human rights back into the foreign policy of all governments.”

Clement looks to PEN’s history as a guiding light in our aspirations towards progress. “PEN was not founded as a dinner club,” she said. “PEN was founded after WWI with real self-examination as to how writers helped create conditions for xenophobia. In fact, PEN’s first political act was to expel Germany from the Pen Center in 1933.”

Over the years, political issues, especially defending writers, many of whom were imprisoned or facing imprisonment, became a larger part of PEN’s work. At the moment, Clement is engaged in a dispute with Mario Varga Llosa, a Nobel laureate and former president of PEN. When Clement visited prisoners in Catalonia, Llosa objected, saying that PEN International was showing support for the Catalan independence movement. As a result of the visit, Llosa quit PEN.

Today, Clement is hard at work planning the PEN Centennial celebration, which will be held at Oxford University in 2021. The ceremony will feature testimonies of many writers, but perhaps novelist Orhan Pamuk and his defense of the Armenians in the face of their Turkish oppressors best epitomizes the continued urgency of the PEN mission and the forthcoming celebration. In 2005, Pamuk gave an interview to a Swiss news magazine Das Magazin, saying: “One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and no one but me dares talk about it.” Death threats ensued and Pamuk fled Turkey.  When returned to the country, he was charged with the “public denigration of Turkish identity” and a trial was set. PEN, together with other human rights groups, condemned the prosecution, and the charges were dropped even though the law under which Pamuk was charged was never repudiated.

Fast forward to the present day, and we see the trickle-down effect that happens when writers stand in solidarity. Today, Pamuk can be heard defending Turkish writer Aslı Erdoğan, who is living in exile in Germany and faced over nine years in prison for her writing. After considerable pressure on the government, this February Erdogan was finally acquitted of charges that she disrupted the unity of the state and was a member of an armed terror organization.

Pamuk’s story, like that of so many other writers who will be featured at the PEN International Centennial, speaks to the danger writers face around the globe, to the need for continued vigilance by PEN International and to the valuable work of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), one of PEN’s partners. ICORN is an organization that provides shelter to writers and artists at risk. Clement praises their work: “The Protection team at PEN International’s headquarters in London collaborates closely with ICORN on their work with writers applying to join the program,” she said, “and many of our centers support and help to host their local guest writer.”

Over the past three years, when I was out in Pittsburgh reporting several arts and culture stories, I saw ICORN’s work first-hand through the many activities of City of Asylum (COA). While COA is not a member of PEN International, it shares PEN’s concern for endangered writers. “Our goal,” said COA’s Co-Founder and President Henry Reese, is “to expand the ambition and impact of our mission in Pittsburgh and grow more cities of asylum in the United States.”

Clement’s activism goes beyond her work for PEN International. She believes that literature can have a profound effect on social change and speaks of classics that have changed the world: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, which led to child labor laws in England as the result of its vivid description of life in workhouses, and the novels of Jane Austin and Charlotte Brontë, which called attention to society’s denial of property rights for women. “It is interesting,” Clement said, “that one can remember the novels but not the journalism written at the time, which means that literature is able to create empathy and perhaps a stronger story. “

A stronger story — that is what Clement has written in her most recent novel, Gun Love, the first section of which was written while Clement was a resident at COA. Set in a trailer park in Florida, where Margot and her daughter Pearl live in a car with flat tires — Pearl’s bedroom being the front seat of the car — the book is about the social effects of gun violence in the USA. It is a subject that Clement has researched deeply. She spouts frightening statistics. “There are over 65,000 gun dealerships in the US, which is more than supermarkets, McDonald’s and Starbucks all put together,” she said.

Gun Love deals with how guns get to Mexico and Central America and provoke violence there. Its narrative is very much aligned with Clement’s activism. Exiles and immigrants — of writers and non-writers — are always on her mind: “The illegal gun trade,” she said, “is helping to create the violence and insecurity fueling the migrant crisis.”

Roslyn Bernstein is a professor emerita of journalism and creative writing at Baruch College of the City University of New York (CUNY) where she was the founding director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program. An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huffington Post, and Tablet etc, she is the author of Boardwalk Stories and the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.

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