'Speaking in tongues'; openingsspeech van Jennifer Clement

85th PEN Congress 2019 Manilla

Foto: na afloop van de Assembly



Speaking in Tongues: Literary Freedom and Indigenous Languages


On September 30 to October 3, the 2019 PEN International Congress was hosted by PEN Philippines and held in Manila. It was attended by over 150 writers and PEN members from 65 PEN Centres across the globe, and the first time in the history of PEN International for it to be held in Southeast Asia.

This year’s theme was “Speaking in Tongues: Literary Freedom and Indigenous Languages.” Taking center stage were minority rights as well as indigenous languages, some of which PEN said were in danger of extinction due to globalization and the dominance of a few languages. The theme closely reflects the declaration by the United Nations of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

The extensive public program included events held at the De La Salle University, the Cultural Center of Philippines and the National Museum of Fine Art in Manila.

Prominent keynote speakers including Fernand de Varennes Unit

ed Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, founder of Rappler media, and writers and journalists from more than 65 countries, representing at least 30 languages around the world and 17 Filipino languages.

Elected as Vice Presidents of PEN International during the Congress were Svetlana Alexiévich, who won the Nobel Prize in 2015; Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006; Frankie Sionil José, Elena Poniatowska, and Luisa Valenzuela. All were voted by unanimous decision by the Assembly of Delegates. Francisco Sionil Jose is one of the most acclaimed writers in the Philippines. His novels and short stories, translated into 28 languages, depict the social underpinnings of class struggles and colonialism in Filipino society. He is also founder of the PEN Philippines Center.

During the public events, journalists and writers discussed important themes surrounding the role of women writers in media, crisis in media and hate speech, the free speech crisis in different regions in the world, indigenous language rights, and the role of literature.

As well as other events of the Congress, Public discussions focused on:

  • Indigenous languages under threat
  • Impact of digital media and algorithms in Freedom of Expression.
  • Role of Woman Writers in contemporary media.
  • Hate Speech

As part of its annual routine, PEN International also issued a report on the host country, citing continuing threats to press freedom and literary expression in the Philippines.

Public actions

On 1st of October, PEN members released a statement to demand freedom of expression and assembly in Hong Kong. The statement said:

Alarmed at the events in Hong Kong on the 70th Anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, shortly after the 5th Anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, 72 PEN Centres from all around the world meeting at the 85th PEN International Congress in Manila, Philippines, demand that the Hong Kong government respects the right of free expression of journalists and writers and the right to freedom of assembly. We condemn the excessive use of force by the police, which has accelerated to the point of using live ammunition. On October 1, an eighteen-year-old protestor was shot and five live rounds were fired across different locations.

On October 2, the delegates remembered the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated on 2nd of October 2018 in the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Turkey. All the delegates and writers remembered him with an Empty Chair Memorial.

Jennifer Clement, President of PEN International, Eric Lax, Treasurer of PEN International, Dan Gorman, President of English PEN; Nik Williams of Scottish PEN, and Hayder Alwali, Board Member of PEN Iraq, visited the Saudi Embassy to hand over a letter regarding the murder of Khashoggi, signed by the delegates.

Congress resolutions

The assembly passed a number of resolutions on a number of issues, including situations of freedom of expression, threats to democracy, migration, and displaced writers, and attacks to freedom of expression in places such as Crimea, Iran and, among others.


The Assembly passed a Resolution on the potential abuse of the United States Espionage Act in the demand of extradition of Julian Assange as an attack on freedom of expression"

The assembly also condemned the "suppression of free speech" by China in Hong Kong and Tibet and "human rights violations" in North Korea and Vietnam. Similarly, another resolution condemned the continued "stigmatization of the Belarusian language in Belarus, where the authorities have been seeking to assert the dominance of the Russian language.

In another broad resolution regarding the "threats to freedom of expression and peace in South and East Asia," the assembly condemned "systematic human rights violations" in North Korea and Vietnam.

PEN said it was "deeply concerned" by the "violent persecution of minority groups" such as the Rohingya of Myanmar and the Uyghur of China by "both state and non-state actors."

The assembly passed the PEN Philippines-proposed "Resolution on the promotion of language justice and the protection of the cultural integrity of the indigenous peoples of the Philippines.

The 85th PEN International Congress in Manila in figures and facts:

  • 146 delegates
  • 65 Countries
  • 67 PEN Centres
  • 4 working languages: English, French, Spanish, Filipino


Openingsspeech Jennifer Clement, president International PEN





Dear friends,


This is always a moment of joy for me and I’m deeply grateful to the Philippine PEN Centre for hosting us.

Today I am so honoured to welcome PJ Thum, the renowned Singaporean author, academic and historian as well as Dr Fernand de Varennes, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues.

I’m also happy to welcome the Mayan writer Ruperta Bautista from Chiapas, Mexico.

Four of PEN's Vice-Presidents are also here: Joanne Leedomm-Ackerman, Eugene Schoulgin and Eric Lax (who is also an interim treasurer for a year as Jarkko had to resign for health reasons) and Lucina Kathmann.


I’m also very happy to welcome Marianne Wulfsberg Hovdan from ICORN, which is truly our sister organisation, and Job Degenaar from PEN’s deeply important Emergency Fund.

We all know that some centres were against having our congress here due to the violence, corruption and threats to freedom of expression in this country. The Board respected the dissenting points of view and considered the decision carefully and, in the end, voted unanimously to be here today. I’d also like to echo the words of William Nygaard, from Norwegian PEN, who spoke on this debate at our congress last year in Pune. He said, “I think it’s extremely important that we from a symbolic point of view support countries having difficulties, and are grateful for the courageous invitation, going there and being activists as we should be and understanding that congress is much more than what is happening inside a congress.”


One could argue that a place of grave problems is the place not to go, but many of us feel that it’s exactly the place to go. Once the centre assured us that they had the valour to let PEN speak truth to power in their own land, this is where we wanted to walk, to walk with the “nightshift journalists” those who work for Rappler, those who write for the “Kill List Chronicles” and the poetic protest “Bloodlust”, the generation that created the group WOMEN and Philippine PEN. We also wanted to walk among those who are working to protect endangered languages and walk among the 32 ghosts of the Maguindanao Massacre, considered the single most deadly attack on the press ever recorded. We call on the Philippine government to safeguard freedom of expression as the climate for free expression is severely deteriorated with writers, journalists and social media users finding themselves increasingly under attack, living in fear — and to ask the government to end impunity and the extrajudicial killings of vigilante justice.

Since our time together in India, where we spoke out for the life of Gauri Lankesh, who was shot to death outside her home, and remembered Mahatma Ghandi’s words on peace and 2


non-violence, many writers have lived in peril, been forced into exile, have been jailed unjustly and even been killed. Too many have lost their lives to name here this morning and 2018 was, by far, one of the worst years ever for writers and journalists. In a year that saw the doubling of murders of journalists in retaliation for their reporting, PEN International and its member Centres added their voices to the protest, issuing statements, staging vigils and joining with other free media organisations to call for justice. In my country, Mexico, eleven journalists have been killed this year, which is already greater than the number for 2018.


Among the murders last year, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October, right after our congress, stood out. I cannot imagine that anyone of us can ever forget the video of Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the hopeful steps he took from dreams of marrying the woman he loved toward his brutal murder. In a time where justice and mercy are missing for so many, this brutal, state ordered killing that created little outrage in the world’s leadership, was a moment where the only solace I could find was that I was a part of PEN. I’m sure many of you felt the same.


The International Year of Indigenous Languages, a United Nations observance for 2019, aims to raise awareness of the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages across the world and establish a link between language, development, peace, and reconciliation.

The Philippines, which is actually a land mass made up of islands – approximately 7,500 islands and some of them are still unnamed on global maps, has somewhere between 120 and 175 languages. I have also learned that Filipinos love to send text messages – about 400 million a day, which makes 142 billion texts per year, which is more that then total number of daily text messages sent in the USA and Europe combined.


PEN believes that all languages and literatures have the right to be written, read and heard, whether spoken by millions of people across the world or by just a few. It is important for us to remember our leadership in this regard. In 1996 PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee played a leading role in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, which was eventually adopted by UNESCO. In 2011 the committee drafted the Girona Manifesto for Linguistic Rights, which encapsulates the goals of the Universal Declaration, and summarises PEN’s aim to strengthen linguistic rights and translation worldwide.


Filipino literature is both complex and vital. One poet I’ve grown to read this year, apart from reading the classic and revolutionary Noli Me Tangere by Dr. José Rizal who today would be a PEN Case, is the more contemporary work of José Garcia Villa who was known as the comma poet because of a poetic style he called "comma poems", which not surprisingly were much admired by E.E. Cummings. He also wrote collage poems based on work by others. In poem 205 he echoes Rainer Maria Rilke on reality and miracles with these words:



And then suddenly,

A life on which one could

Stand. Now it carried one and

Was conscious of one while it

Carried. A stillness in which

Reality and miracle

Had become identical –

Stillness of that greatest Stillness.

Like a plant that is to

Become a tree, so was I

Taken out of the little container,

Carefully, while earth


And on the subject of literature, I’d like to remind all of you that among the Resolutions is a document in praise of the imagination.


At a time of fear and division, a time where freedom of expression and both censorship and insidious self-censorship are on the rise, it’s good to remember the place we all go to when we write our novels, stories and poems. Empathy is often born from imagining the lives of others and in PEN we have a unique and important role in speaking to this.


In a recent tweet the writer Rita Housseiny wrote, “When I was in Iran, I had a student who was in love with Henry James’ women. That is how cultures speak to one other – that a young girl in the Islamic Republic can communicate with a man born in America in the 19th Century.”

The constraints on the imagination are as disconcerting as trying to dictate what dreams one can have in sleep. We know that the enigma of creation and discovery – both in the arts and sciences - also belongs to the mystery of the universe.


To end, I’d like to once again state William Nygaard’s words when he said, “congress is much more than what is happening inside a congress.” This is true on many levels as everything that happens here is both the continuation and remembrance of our great almost 100-year story.


Two congresses ago in Lviv we campaigned for Oleg Sentsov and many of us attended the performance of one of his plays. Last congress in Pune we watched a harrowing documentary on his arrest and sentencing. Here, in Manila, we celebrate his freedom.


Thank you.