Footnote to Zamora, news on Ramadan, reckoning with torture

One of the villains in “Public Demons,” the essay by José Rubén Zamora excerpted in PEN America 10: Fear Itself and reprinted in The Utne Reader, was indicted in U.S. federal court on money-laundering charges yesterday. Alfonso Portillo was the president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004. “The day Portillo came to my house,” Zamora writes, “he offered me $600,000 not to send my family out of the country because this—in his words—would affect his image.” The military had just violently raided Zamora’s house, terrorizing his family, after Zamora published unflattering things about the government and the military.

In other legal news, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed orders effectively ending the exclusion of Tariq Ramadan from the United States last week, which should resolve a lawsuit filed by PEN together with the ACLU, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Academy of Religions. (Ramadan is pictured right, appearing via video at the PEN World Voices festival during his exclusion.)

In 2004 Ramadan was prevented from accepting a tenured position at the University of Notre Dame when the Department of Homeland Security refused his visa application. He had been to the U.S. many times before; in 2002 he participated in a conference hosted by former president (and PEN America contributor!) Bill Clinton called “Islam and America in a Global World.” The refusal of Ramadan’s re-entry into the United States was an example of “ideological exclusion,” a Cold War practice that was revived after 9/11.

And speaking of post-9/11 policies: On March 3, PEN and the ACLU will hold another “Reckoning with Torture” event, this time in Washington, D.C. The event we held in New York in October was attended by seven hundred people and presented, I think, a moving and powerful account of what has taken place in the name of the United States over the last eight years (video here).

By the way, PEN’s Freedom to Write director, Larry Siems, is writing an account of U.S. torture policy post-9/11 for the ACLU, and he’s presenting the work online as he writes it, posting his thoughts as he goes (like this take on John Yoo’s recent Daily Show appearance) and getting feedback from experts. Check out The Torture Report.


Another writer detained in China + news from Haiti

Zhao Shiying, whose pen name is Zhao Dagong, was detained earlier this week, after police officers searched his home and took his wife and son in for questioning. Zhao joined the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) in 2004, becoming a board member the following year and the Secretary General this past October.

Zhao’s detention may have resulted from his support for former ICPC President Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas for “inciting subversion of state power.” Zhao is one of the original signers of Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform in China, which was cited in the verdict sentencing Liu.

The day after Zhao was detained, Google announced that the company would reconsider its relationship with China, after detecting “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from” China. Google, according to the announcement, has “evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.”

Microsoft, meanwhile, plans to stay in China, as Peter Foster reports from Beijing for The Daily Telegraph, putting that decision in the context of Zhao Shiying's arrest.

Even sadder news for PEN this week comes of course from Haiti, where Georges Anglade, a writer and activist and the founder of PEN Haiti (he was imprisoned there in 1974), was among the thousands of victims of the country’s worst earthquake in two centuries. His wife Mireille was also killed. The president of International PEN, John Ralston Saul, has written a tribute to Anglade for The Globe and Mail.

Writers Simon Winchester and Edwidge Danticat are working to educate readers about the situation in Haiti, as The Christian Science Monitor reports. Danticat, a native of the country (who wrote about fear for us last year), has spoken about the situation there—and the country’s history and culture—with NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and Democracy Now.

Winchester will speak about the earthquake at Idlewild Books on Tuesday, January 19, along with a relief worker from the United Nations, with suggested donations—and any proceeds from the sale of both Winchester’s books and the books in Idlewild’s section on Haiti—going to relief efforts.


Our contributors elsewhere

Two of my favorite literary conversationalists, Aleksandar Hemon and Colum McCann, talk with each other in this month’s Believer. (McCann used a line from Hemon’s The Lazarus Project as the epigraph for his National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, which was excerpted in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.)

AH: Here is the news, Mr. McCann: novels do not solve problems, though ideally they cause some. And if a Katrina novel would be a noble effort, that does not mean it would be any good—and if it is not good, then the pain and suffering and humiliation would have been misused for a literary tryout. You don’t practice your craft on other people’s tragedy.... published. Literature operates slowly, it is always inching toward bliss, never quite getting there.

CM: But I’ve never even dreamt that novels can solve problems. If they could we’d have no problems, or more likely no novels. And you’re right, the Guantánamo novel will probably take twenty years. But here is the flipside of the news: Stories have to be told over and over again, lest we forget them. Here, I think you make a mistake. You’re assuming once told is always told. Which I fear is the problem of how history is presented.

Hemon’s line about “other people’s tragedy” (and even his specific example of “a Katrina novel”) reminded me of Anya Ulinich’s story “The Nurse and the Novelist,” which appeared in PEN America 9: Checkpoints and prompted considerable discussion. (His remarks elsewhere in the conversation echo his contribution to our latest forum.)

And Colum’s reply called to mind his recent op-ed in The New York Times (where Hemon, too, has occasionally appeared), about the way fiction can shape our ideas about history: “Kennedy and Johnson traipse along feeling the weight of the things they have carried, and Bill Clinton sounds out the saxophone alongside the white noise.”

Fellow PEN America contributor Lydia Davis also showed up on the op-ed page of the Times recently, with a piece called “Everyone Is Invited,” published on Christmas Eve. Davis also conversed publicly not long ago, participating in a live chat on the website of The New Yorker. One reader asked about her story “Jury Duty,” and got this illuminating reply: “I don’t think too much before I plunge in and write the story. I knew I wanted to write about my experience of it, and then I found the form—David Foster Wallace’s question and answer, with the question blank.”

Lastly, a transcript of the recent PEN event honoring Natalia Estemirova is now online at HELO magazine, for those who couldn't be there.

P.S. As another update to the posts below, see this post on The Daily Beast about the New Year’s Eve rally for Liu Xiaobo, featuring a transcript of E.L. Doctorow’s closing remarks about what happens when a nation’s “poets and writers and artists, its thinkers and intellectuals, are muzzled in silence.”