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PEN – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture with Nawal El Saadawi

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“Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.” Dr. Nawal El Saadawi

Salman Rushdie was expected to make the introductions ... but couldn't attend.

Salman Rushdie was expected to make the introductions ... but couldn't attend.

PEN – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture with Nawal El Saadawi

“Without a culture of intelligent and critical reception, writers cannot find their readers and lies cannot find their refutations.” Kwame Anthony Appiah

PEN, the world renowned organization for writers, translators and editors held its 5th World Voices Festival of International Literature from April 27th through May 3rd. It was a remarkable feast of 160 creative writers from 41 countries examining the concept of evolution/revolution.
The discussions brought to the fore a concern that many writers have about the dangers of exercising the right to defend free expression; vis a vis the freedom to write what one truly thinks without having to deal with some form of internal or external censorship or condemnation. Do you always write what you think?
You might ask: What makes one consider the written word from the perspective of evolution/revolution? The writing process is evolutionary as a writer’s work constantly evolves. The courage to write about difficult subjects without reservations, fear of reprisal or censorship is revolutionary.
Dr. Nawal El Saadawi was the key speaker on the last day of the festival and she spoke passionately about the writing process, the writer’s life and the challenges of oppression and more at Cooper Union on 7th Street in Manhattan.
Nawal is a medical doctor and author from Egypt who has spent over 50 years writing about the oppression and dehumanization of women globally. As a woman of Arabic descent, she has often paid particular attention to women of her ilk, spent time in jail for her views as a writer and has campaigned for years to see an end to female circumcision on the African continent.
Nawal has always been both supremely confident and somewhat controversial; if you have ever read any of her books, “Woman at Point Zero,” for instance, you know that she is both fearless and direct. It was no surprise that Nawal kept the audience riveted in an onstage interview/dialogue with PEN President; Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah (from Princeton University) that lasted 1 ½ hours.

Artist remains vigilant even at Repose: Nawal signing books after the event.

Artist remains vigilant even at Repose: Nawal signing books after the event.

Below are some paraphrased highlights from Nawal’s views during the dialogue: What are your thoughts?
* The ridiculousness of colonial language has, with the stroke of a pen, trivialized populations of people (particularly African and Asian people) for years.
* The term 3rd World is an abhorrent term that dismisses a large percentage of the world’s population as less important by categorizing them into hierarchical groups; 1st, 2nd, 3rd worlds.
* Post Modern and Middle East are terms that make little sense… If we live in the modern world, how can we be post it? If you are in the middle East does that make England the Midwest and US the far west? What is this middle?
* The notion of having the freedom to write is an illusion because censorship exists everywhere; be it peer, self or via authority.
* The pen is powerful especially if used against hypocrisy, oppression and injustice in the world.
* Optimistic people have self confidence because they have self power and hope.
* Local and global dictators are the same because when they hear that a dissident writer has been jailed, they remain silent.
* The ability to write is available to all; many are robbed of this ability in their early years by critics. (Internal and external critics, I presume).
* Religion encourages pragmatism not ethics.
* Female circumcision remains high at 97% in Egypt and possibly as high in other parts if the continent. We must continue to pay attention, write and speak out to encourage an end to this archaic practice.
* Knowledge is irreversible.

Censorship impedes communication; like a podium without a speaker...

Censorship impedes communication; like a podium without a speaker...

Whether we write a blog, a newsletter, a journalistic report or any other type of frequent communication, it is easy to sublimate the fact that there is some form of self censorship going on and, in some cases, external pressures to censor our thoughts. What do you censor and why? I’d like to know…

Until Next Time…
Ask. Believe. Receive. ©
Elizabeth Obih-Frank

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rose Casanova permalink
    07/05/2009 2:01 pm

    My internal censor sometimes are people from my past who are no longer in my life who felt threatened by me writing. I sometimes feel guilty for alluding to them even if the content in no way exposes them. I actually have a private blog to write where I don’t feel that censoring. It is not “politically correct” and I don’t care what I say because no one can see it. I started it as an exercise in allowing myself to write about some of these things that I feel others would find offensive. In reading back it’s actually not very offensive at all. It’s mostly my own fears. Also I am bothered by the trend of being “PC.” If everyone writes to not offend anyone than I feel you don’t take a stand either way. Being “PC” seems to mean staying neutral. Neutrality doesn’t make a big impact. I feel that the “pc” thing can be taken to extreme and is a tool of censoring writers. sorry for the long comment. I love the issue you bring up here. I wish I had attended the festival.

    • 07/05/2009 5:43 pm

      Thank you Rose! I love your comments and have felt similar impulses form time to time too… I agree that often the censorship and fear is from within. I have always loved the fearlessness in Nawal’s writing… not as easy to do. I agree.

  2. Goz permalink
    17/05/2009 7:32 pm

    What an inspiring voice Nawal is.. I think the issue is conviction.. If you’re truly convicted about something then you’re likely to want to communicate it, and passionately at that..passion doesn’t really care about political correctness – it cares about informing, educating, enlightening, empowering etc it appropriates the courage it requires to steam ahead without too much conscious analysis (which in itself creates psychological restraints).. Nawal is passionate about what she writes – not even a jail term & other indignities have been able to deter her.. I dare say that when each one of us happens on that thing that stirs us like no other,igniting a fire deep within, we too, shall write passionately, fearlessly..

    • 20/12/2010 10:43 am

      Thank you Goz… She is a remarkable woman!

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