Interviews

The home for interviews by Tim and Tom.

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Blake Morrison, interviewed by Tom

I met up with the writer and literary critic Blake Morrison to talk about his role in the 2010 FREE THE WORD Festival. This year, Blake chaired a deeply revealing conversation with the great American storyteller Richard Ford. On the closing night – a celebration of revolutionary writing – Blake read an electrifying excerpt from his latest novel, The Last Weekend. Blake co-edited the Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry with Andrew Motion. His memoir, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, is a highly acclaimed best seller. Other books include Things That My Mother Never Told Me, and the novel South of the River. Blake is a former Literary Editor of The Observer and The Independent on Sunday, and he is Professor of Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. I began by telling Blake a little about 26, and how we have been working with International PEN.

Tom

“26 is a network of around 300 members who are busy in many areas of the media. We are passionate evangelists for great writing, and help organisations to think more creatively about how they use language. We became involved with International PEN for the first FREE THE WORD festival, and have collaborated on various projects ever since. For 2010 we set up a blog to mark the 50th year of the Writers in Prison Committee. We love bringing diverse groups of communicators together. Why do you work with PEN?”

Blake

“I’ve been a supporter of PEN for a long time. I was on the Executive Committee of English PEN for 10 years, and then Vice President. Of course many other human rights organisations do great work, but no one else makes the contribution that PEN does to freedom of expression. So it’s really important to support that – as a writer – but also as a citizen of the world.”

Tom

“What has been your experience of meeting writers through PEN, and how have you interacted with the organisation?”

Blake

“My interest began almost before PEN when I was working at The Observer. There was a major campaign to release the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya who was imprisoned for her beliefs and writing. Eventually – miraculously – she was set free and I interviewed Irina on her first day in England. Listening to her story and how she secreted notes and wrote on the walls of cells really impressed on me the importance of PEN. To meet someone who just a few days before had been in a Soviet camp was a big moment. More generally, I’ve supported PEN with some degree of usefulness and participated on different campaigns. One of them was to broaden the constituency of the PEN membership. When I joined English PEN you had to be a published writer. I became increasingly aware that a lot of readers interested in literature felt as strongly as PEN did about the issues, so we changed the rules of membership. There was some resistance from older members who liked the idea of a club, but PEN is essentially a writers’ organisation that should be inclusive. So, the work we do with imprisoned writers and freedom of expression is what defines PEN for me.”

Tom

“What is it about PEN’s activities that can cut through entrenched political systems in a way that others can’t?”

Blake

“We articulate through words our deepest thoughts and feelings. When you spend all day working with words, sometimes you can articulate things that others are feeling in a way that a dry political approach cannot. That is the role of the creative writer, the poet, and the novelist. They can engage at the human level, touch people, move people and inspire people to take action.”

Tom

“To mark the Writers in Prison Committee’s 50th year we twinned 50 members of 26 with writers PEN have supported over the decades. I began the 26:50 blog with 1960 and wrote about the Albanian writer Musine Kokalari. I was overwhelmed by the courage of this heroic woman who stood up to the brutality of the post war regime. She was gagged and incarcerated for 30 years. To devote your life to the freedom of expression of others is an incredible sacrifice to make.”

Blake

“Yes, and it becomes even more vital. We have to confront the regimes suppressing free speech, but a second form of oppression has emerged driven by religion and the rise of fundamentalism. I thought that as the world became increasingly secular it would fade away, but that hasn’t happened. It has raised a whole new raft of issues. Writers have to be strong and defend their right to say things that might be unpalatable. They must express their beliefs and convictions, and PEN has actively addressed religious issues. The other key event for me was the Rushdie affair, which I became very involved with. I was at The Observer when the fatwa was announced. Rushdie was in hiding, but we managed to get books through for him to review. Then I moved to The Independent on Sunday and interviewed him for his first long piece about the whole nightmare. The Rushdie affair galvanised things for many writers. We had just assumed people would accept that a novel has playfulness about it. But for it to be read so literally and treated as an insult indicates the depth of sensitivities involved. I think most of us felt very strongly that we had to support Rushdie and his right to publish that novel. There have been these landmark things in my time, which just strengthen my belief in the importance of freedom of expression, and the need to defend fellow writers when governments try to silence them.”

Tom

“We collaborated on a translation project with International PEN last year called 26 Exchanges in which members of 26 were twinned with PEN writers in various countries. My twin was the Colombian poet Rubén Darío Flórez Arcila and he wrote a poem for me. I’m not an academic and don’t speak Spanish, so it was not about achieving a literal translation, but the story of the journey from one language into another. It raised my writing because I had to interpret metaphors and abstract ideas. Studying someone else’s work through the eyes of others from different cultures, broadened my emotional articulation, and I wonder if you have had similar experiences.”

Blake

“I’ve worked with other writers on adaptations and translations more than collaborations. I’ve worked with musicians and artists, and I wrote two librettos for the composer Gavin Bryars. The artist Paula Rego produced some drawings and paintings based on poems of mine, and I took things from her too. Like PEN, I’ve always believed in the exchange through translation. I am not a great linguist, but exposure to other cultures, languages and alternative forms of writing broadens your outlook. I have adapted plays and translated poems very freely from other languages. It’s the importance of exchange between writers and cultures – all the more important in a culture like ours that tends to be insular. We need periods of being at our desks, being alone and thinking. But I have always found it thrilling to work in other media with actors, directors and composers. You feel better for the exchange and new influences invigorate your writing. We are so good at promoting British culture, but we need to embrace, understand and learn from other ideas in other languages.”

Blake rushed off to the National Theatre, and I wandered over Hungerford Bridge, across a River Thames drenched in evening sunshine. One of the most compelling speakers in this year’s FREE THE WORD festival was the Egyptian writer and psychiatrist Nawal El Saadawi who talked about her work at The Writers in Prison Committee 50th Anniversary Celebration at the LSE. Her campaigning for the rights of women and social equality has led to systematic persecution by the Egyptian authorities. Her life has been threatened and Government agencies have even tried to revoke her Egyptian citizenship. Despite her struggles she radiates an irrepressible optimism. The lecture theatre rocked with laughter as she told of an experience in yet another Egyptian jail. Political dissidents were denied privileges and packed into a cell with beggars and vagrants. Nawal had the nerve to ask a guard for pencil and paper, but was told that these were considered to be ‘even more dangerous’ than a gun, and if caught she would be severely punished. Despite this, she managed to procure toilet paper and eyeliner from some prostitutes in the neighbouring cell and wrote a book in secret. Nawal recommended that we all go to jail at least once in our lives, because it’s the place where you find out who you really are.

Tom

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