Award-winning journalist David Aaronovitch was joined in conversation with Irish young adult author Claire Hennessy and Saqi Books publisher Lynn Gaspard. With Ege Dundar reading poems by Moris Farhi and Bidisha reading from her own poetry.
Join Agnes Heller, Elif Shafak and Adam Zagajewski for a discussion about Europe’s changing environment for freedom. (Photos: Agnes Heller, Elif Shafak: Wikipedia; Adam Zagajewski: Frankie Fouganthin via Wikipedia
“The point of the future is that anything can happen.” – Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary
Europe was a bastion of hope for more than a million refugees last year. What brought them? A hunger for safety and security? Dreams of freedom? The draw of liberal democracy with its ideals of free expression, equal opportunity and persecution for none?
But look within our own continent and you will see the cracks. In Hungary, Victor Orban’s administration looks increasingly autocratic. Poland’s new conservative government is making changes to its public media that critics have said amount to a takeover. How can we support neighbours like Turkey in their fight to avoid authoritarianism if we can’t fly the banner for freedom at home?
On the eve of the EU referendum, three major cultural figures from Hungary, Poland and Turkey gather in London to compare their stories and ask: is Europe just a place, or a set of values that are rapidly unravelling?
Agnes Heller was born in 1929 and is one of the leading thinkers to come out of the tradition of critical theory. Her broad intellectual range and publications include ethics, philosophical anthropology, political philosophy and a theory of modernity and its culture. Hungarian by birth, she was one of the best-known dissident Marxists in central Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. She has held visiting lectureships all over the world and has been the Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy at the New School in New York. She now lives in Budapest and is one of the most popular and outspoken critics of the current regime.
Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1971. She is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read woman writer in Turkey. Critics have named her as “one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Turkish and world literature”. Her books have been published in more than 40 countries and she was awarded the honorary distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Elif has published thirteen books, nine of which are novels. She writes fiction in both Turkish and English. Elif blends Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling, bringing out the myriad stories of women, minorities, immigrants, subcultures, youth and global souls. Her work draws on diverse cultures and literary traditions, as well as a deep interest in history, philosophy, Sufism, oral culture, and cultural politics. Elif’s writing breaks down categories, clichés, and cultural ghettoes. She also has a keen eye for black humour.
Adam Zagajewski is an award-winning poet, novelist, translator and essayist. Born in Lwow in 1945, he first became well-known as one of the leading poets of the Generation of ‘68’ or the Polish New Wave (Nowa Fala). His poems and essays have been translated into many languages. Among his honors and awards are a fellowship from the Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, the Kurt Tucholsky Prize, a Prix de la Liberté, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Since 1988, he has served as visiting associate professor of English in the Creative Writing Programme at the University of Houston. In 2010, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Adam is currently co-editor of Zeszyty Literackie (Literary Review). He lives in Krakow.
From left to right: Harvey Tomlinson from MakeDo Publishing, Chen Xiwo and translator, Nicky Harman at English PEN. (Photo: Aimée Hamilton)
Chen Xiwo, described as “one of China’s most outspoken voices on freedom of expression for writers” by Asia Sentinel, has spoken about how he challenged the Chinese government’s decision to censor his latest book ahead of its launch in English.
The Book of Sins is a collection of seven novellas exploring controversial topics including rape, incest and S&M and examine the links between sexual and political deviance.
A heavily censored version of the book was published in China, in which parts of the text, including an entire novella, were removed.
Xiwo launched a case to sue China’s customs agency in an attempt to find out why his book, which was published in full in Taiwan, had been confiscated when it arrived in China in 2007. He was originally told that it was its dark and pornographic nature that had led to it being banned in its complete form.
In an unprecedented move, Xiwo took the customs office to court. He said in the history of the People’s Republic of China, since 1949, there has never been a case of a writer suing for not being allowed to publish a book.
Originally when the court hearings got underway the domestic news outlets were able to report on the progress until the propaganda ministry sent out an order forbidding further coverage.
During a meeting today run by English PEN at the Free Word Centre in London, Xiwo said: “These days these kind of orders are usually just made by phone call, so they won’t send an email where there’ll be a record, they do it by phone.
“This makes it even harder to get to the bottom of who’s banning what and why they’re doing it, because there’s no record.”
Chen Xiwo (Photo: Aimée Hamilton)
Eventually the court ruled that Xiwo’s case was a matter of national security, which ended further questions on the topic. In a blog entry for Free Word, Xiwo writes: “The Book of Sins had been impounded because it was deemed a threat to ‘national security’. In fact, they completely dropped the charge of obscenity. That meant they did not have to divulge any further information, or even say who had made the final decision.”
Xiwo’s book has now been translated into English by prolific translator Nicky Harman, who said: “Chen is a highly moral writer in my view. The sex and the small amount of violence, it’s never gratuitous. He really focuses on feelings, he has a good attitude towards women, he’s not misogynistic.”
One of the most provocative stories within the book, I Love My Mum, is about a disabled man who strikes up an incestuous relationship with his mother which ultimately ends in him murdering her. The novella is metaphorical of Chinese society and remains banned in the country.
When asked if he would challenge the banning of his books again, Xiwo said that it is inevitable future books of his will be banned, but he cannot launch a case for every one of them.
Although Chen Xiwo has written 10 books, he says only six or seven of these have been published in their complete form. The Book of Sins has won an English PEN award. Chen Xiwo will be launching the English translation of the book at Waterstones Piccadilly, tomorrow 7 October, at 7pm.