Marian Botsford · PEN International

25 IMG_5178 Marian Botsford


Reflections on the second gathering of Euromaghrebine writers

We are in Tunis at the kind invitation of EU Ambassador, Laura Baeza. At the first meeting of Euromaghrebine writers one year ago, she invited writers to reflect upon our various identities. This year, we’ve been asked to consider the subject of engagement.
It is also a privilege to be in Tunisia with Tunisian writers at this moment in your history. In the midst of chaos and instability elsewhere in the region, Tunisia is calmly steering a democratic course. In January of this year, Tunisians adopted a new Constitution and have already this past month gone to the polls twice to vote in national and presidential elections; the equanimity and fairness of those elections have been remarked upon around the world. We know that there is a final step in this process, and with you, we hope for a result that will support the desire of Tunisians to move forward in peace and harmony.
In his opening remarks, Kamel Gaha, Director General of the National Library of Tunisia, said (I am paraphrasing from the English translation), “At a moment in history when the world is in convulsion, commitment is the duty of intelligence; it represents one of the last chances for humanity, both in the personal and the collective sense.”
Our meeting became a gathering of questions; our very first speaker said it is our role as artists to pose questions, not to provide answers. The discussion took a variety of forms –accounts of individual writers’ own creative journey; analyses of the historical, literary and critical contexts, in which Kafka, Sartre and Tolstoy appeared as recurring characters; exploration of the various roles or masks of a writer; examinations of the interaction between the writer, the text, and the reader. Several poems were read. We heard the story of a mother trapped in silence by illness and illiteracy, the story of the great Russian freedom of expression champion, Anna Politkovskaya, and the testimony of a writer whose very recent exile leaves her unable to write except in short bursts, and her writing is crowded with nightmares and tears –engagement takes its toll.
There were for many of us, particular moments in history, watersheds which marked before and after in the narrative of either their own culture’s history, or their own artistic history; some of those dates were 1236, 1492, 1930, 1968, 1989, 2011.
There were issues that commanded our attention, our engagement and many of them are intertwined, inseparable from one another: war, terrorism, slavery, environmental degradation, freedom of conscience and the tyranny of religion, the insidious tyranny of illiteracy, the role of women, and the role of language –the language we speak, think and dream in, the language we write in; language as the liberator of ideas, and language as a barrier inhibiting communication because writers are neither translated or published outside their own countries and cultures.
Here are some of things I heard us ask ourselves and one another, and some of the ideas placed on the table for consideration, provocation, and inspiration.

Some barriers to writing and engagement

Reading is rare.
The online world of fake identities/avatars is destructive and disorienting. It is where one encounters not genuine readers driven by curiosity and the desire to engage positively with the writer and the text, but those who engage only to destabilize, and destroy.
Illiteracy has been the fate of women in many cultures worldwide. For women who are illiterate, writing and books have been imbued with masculine mystery and power. The act of writing is in itself a form of liberation and catharsis.
Power lies with those who define the meaning of words, those who can co-opt the debate by seizing ownership of the words and defining them. The authority of the publisher is also a form of tyranny, inhibiting communication of ideas.
Discourse has many units –language, name, and signature; you should have the right to show your metadata or to hide it.
Conversely –The denial of a name, the rendering of a human being anonymous, is the most fundamental form of abuse against human rights.
The TRUTH –there are different truths– the truth sought by journalists, told or recreated by historians, revealed in the courts, discovered in fiction.
For many cultures and individuals, the first hard step is disengaging from ideology.
In many cultures, there has not been any introspection. In repressive regimes, there has historically been no discussion of subjects like sexuality, for example, or the meaning of terms like family values. But as newly repressive governments assert themselves through punitive forms of legislation, these ideas are co-opted and defined by those in power. The words themselves are redefined.
History can be a barrier: in societies where to be political, to be engaged has become a bad thing… where an engaged book is a bad book, and only aesthetics are admired.  Young writers are defying this position and finding ways to be political and creative.
In some Arab universities… the critical institutions prefer those writers who are opportunists and militants.
After four decades of repression, we have no institutions. Only a vacuum, only chaos. We have no courts, no legitimate prisons only illegal prisons. Armed groups kill people. This is the era of freedom. After the collapse of the regime, we could express ourselves, but then Libya became a huge military camp.
People can’t use their real names.

Some questions

Can languages be small?
What am I doing here?
Should a writer be a bystander?
Should we train the reader?
How can we live in a world driven solely by economic considerations?
How can we move away from rigid patterns of thinking?
How can we dissect ideas without being subjected to intellectual violence?
Is there a limit to freedom of expression? Can we say and write everything?
Is Arab literature a form of resistance?
Can an author ever be neutral?
Can literature thrive behind walls, and within boundaries?
What is patriotism?
Is there a literature and language for exile?
Who am I?

Some observations and statements… but not necessarily answers

Power and art should never be in the same boat.
I have always tried to incorporate into my literature a negative critique of how the institutions of power –government, church, mass media– are using language.
I think in Arabic, I write in French because French offers me concepts like democracy and secularism. In French, a secularist is not by definition an infidel.
The church has lost its power in Europe but not in Arab societies.
In Arab cultures at the beginning of the 20th century, during the torrent of emancipation and self-determination that made Egypt and Libya cauldrons of culture and literary production, the simple fact that a woman wrote made her a feminist.
Since the 1970s in Arab literature, we’ve seen the return of the “I” in literature, a perspective that was stifled by patriarchal forces. We’ve seen the disengagement of Arab literature from ideology.
In writing, you are creating both the writer and the reader.
The power of writing is to create a lie and thereby to perceive the truth.
As a journalist, I cannot tell the truth without evidence, but as a novelist, I can say everything.
The true story can only be written as fiction.
Fiction has the virtue of incertitude; it raises doubts in the heads of the reader.
Literature is the voyage to one’s buried speech.
A paradox: on the Internet, everyone has the right to speak, but who gets heard?
The public domain exists, if somewhat arbitrarily shaped by aggregators and algorithms, but the public still has to fight for public access.
“’Tis but thy name…” there is a kind of power, and liberation in anonymity. Everyone should have the right either to show their metadata, or to hide it.
Conversely: to say, never heard of her, or him, or, as in the case of the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2011, to erase the names and the memories of more than 5000 children, is a profound act of censorship.
The roots of the word censor are Roman, referring to public officials in ancient Rome who had two functions, the first was to keep records, counting and assessing citizens, and the second was to supervise their morals.
Censorship is a form of moral/political census; those who are with us, those who are against us, patriots and traitors.
Commitment is a trap.
Non-commitment is a form of commitment that does not spell out its name… it is false, it wreaks havoc.
Commitment is difficult, it takes different shapes, and the consequence is sacrifice.
An illiterate person, in the presence of writing and a text, experiences heartbreaking feelings of pain and impotence…
I claim the absolute right of my freedom to create and think, to write and to exist free and inviolable in my rights and my being.

I’m writing to say no to this.
I’m writing to say no to this.
I’m writing to say no to this. To say that it must change. For the happiness of all.


The subject of exile touched a nerve, it unsettled us.
What has led us, as exiles to think we have a special destiny?
Exiles have many forms, many perceptions of themselves and others.
Exile should not lead us to a romantic reading of the condition of exile.
Exile does not only lead to a literature of sadness.
The exile experience is part of the identity of Spain… it is the invisible part of “us”.
I was born in a country which spent 350 years in a state of Inquisition. We not only saw the exile of those who opposed the dictatorship of Church and King, but we also knew a kind of internal exile, the exclusion of any form of criticism.
The intolerance of hundreds of years of enforced conformity is still there.
The authoritarian spirit is still there.
I’m fed up with patriotism…
Immigration lies at the heart of human experience and the act of discovery. It should not be confused with exile.
The real homeland is the voyage.
Exile is a universal state; how does one reconcile the fact of exile with a present in which there is freedom?
Democracy implies inclusion, but in fact it is exclusion. Democracy is not a panacea; it doesn’t provide miracle solutions.
Literature and exile are synonymous; every writer is an immigrant in the language of hodge-podge daily life.

Are you Moroccan or are you Dutch?
I am a beekeeper.

Suddenly I became an exile, and now I ask questions about the notion of a country.
And what does writing mean when you are not in your country?
We don’t choose to be writers.
We don’t choose to be exiles.
Those who are exiled become The Other. They are banished from the history of their homeland, they are denied memorials there.


The large, powerful and dangerous forces in this world would have us.–as writers from communities and cultures and countries that have fought, destroyed, occupied, divided in the past– see and define one another still or again as The Other.
Instead, we have embraced this opportunity to engage… in a mélange of languages, across diverse lives as writers, poets, teachers, journalists, novelists.
As with the act of reading, in a gathering such as this, much happens in the margins –the sheer coincidences of writer x meeting writer y, the stories exchanged over coffee or a beer. We embrace our differences of opinion. We look at our own views through the prism of another’s experience and ideas.
We create together a narrative of engagement.

Tunis, November, 2014