Pour la première fois de son histoire bientôt centenaire (créé en 1921 à Londres...par une femme écrivain, Catherine Amy Dawson Scott) PEN a élu une femme à sa présidence internationale. La romancière américaine Jennifer Clement, présidente internationale de PEN, vit au Mexique où elle n’a de cesse de dénoncer les meurtres de journalistes et les enlèvements de petites écolières. Ainsi, pour dénoncer ce dernier fléau dont l’impunité fait scandale, Jennifer Clement le raconte dans un de ses récents romans poignants : « Prières pour celles qui furent volées »
Jean Jauniaux, Président de Pen Belgique a interviewé Jennifer Clement en marge du Congrès international de PEN qui réunissait sa 82 ème session à Ourense, en Galicie.
L’interview a été enregistrée en anglais, dans un environnement sonore assez bruyant. Cet entretien est accessible sur espace-livres.
La retranscription en anglais est disponible ci-dessous.
Si le témoignage de Jennifer Clement vous incite à en savoir davantage sur PEN et son centre francophone belgePEN Belgique, pourquoi ne pas nous rendre visite sur le site ?
« The indignation is greater than the fear » : interview with the writer Jennifer Clement, President of Pen International
The 82nd Congress of Pen International took place in the Spanish town of Ourense between the 26th of September until the 2nd of October. As the president of the new Belgian francophone center, Jean Jauniaux participated in this Congress. At this same occasion, with an unanimous vote of the General Assembly, the new Pen Belgique was formally integrated in the network of PEN’s national centers. Representation missions of Pen International will be confided to Pen Belgique, including with the European institutions based in Brussels as well as with the International Organisation of La Francophonie (O.I.F.). Pen Belgique also integrated the Linguistic RightsComitee and the Writers for Peace Committee .
Jean Jauniaux took the opportunity of this Congress to interview Jennifer Clement , president of Pen International. In this interview, Jennifer Clement talks about the challenges she faced throughout her work in Pen Mexico, center of which she was President from 2009 to 2012, as well as some of the main issues to which she has been confronted since 2015 as the President of Pen International. Furthermore, she also talks about her work as a writer in which she applies, in a certain way, like in her work for Pen, this statement that sounds like a maxim: “my indignation is greater than my fear”…
Marie Gustot, communication manager PenBelgique
Jean Jauniaux : Jennifer Clement, I’m really happy to meet you, in this atmosphere that is a bit noisy because we’re getting ready for the closing of the 82nd Congress of Pen International of which you are the President. In 2021, Pen International will be celebrating it’s centenary, and it has waited until 2015 to have a woman preside Pen International. However, Pen International was founded by a woman…
Jennifer Clement : This is true, so it’s strange because it was founded by a woman… For me it’s a great honor, I never expected to do this, I was very involved in the problems in Mexico, and in fact as president of [Pen] Mexico I had to concentrate completely on the killing of journalists, I couldn’t do anything literary which is my main thing, but you know we have even just this year already nine journalists killed so… But one of the things that happened even though I had always believed very deeply in Pen and had been already a member of Pen for a long time, and I was in Miami for the creation of the Cuban Pen in exile center, but I really felt the power of Pen because we had a very grave problem in Mexico which was the killing of a journalist which was a state crime and not a federal crime, so very often what you would have is the criminals themselves investigating their own crime. So it was extremely important to change this law, even though we haven’t had any results from the change of the law, symbolically it’s incredibly important. So all these other organizations, like Article 19, or CPG, or Amnesty International, etc. had tried to change the law, what really created the change was because I decided to do a campaign of shame on the government, and the incredible strength of this kind of intellectual worldwide pressure on a government. So immediately I had, you know, all the Nobel prize winners, the presidents of every centers in the world, all the great writers, the members of the Swedish Academy, demanding that the law be changed, and that was the catalyst. So I was able to see, you know, really how Pen can create tremendous changes, and also I’m very moved by this organization, because it’s probably the only organization that has lasted almost a hundred years, where everybody works pro bono, and that is our great fragility, but it’s our great strength.
JJ : Jennifer Clement, you’re also a novelist and a poet. I’d like for us to talk about that aspect of your personality in the literary world. What is the special value of talking, through literature, about an issue like the kidnapping of journalists or little girls in Mexico, topic that you bring up in Prayers for the Stolen… The novel brings a new sensibility to the reader or to the author?
JC : The author… So, it takes a long time to know who you are, actually. I mean, I always think of that wonderful quote who said “Man, it takes a long time to sound like yourself”. It’s only now that I am being able to look back on my work, now that I have several novels and books of poetry, and a memoir, that I’m able to see that I’m always writing about the unprotected, that’s where I always go. So I hadn’t realized that about myself. And the other thing that I found out about myself that I didn’t know either, I didn’t know until I was president of Pen, although my children say they knew it, is that my indignation is greater than my fear.
JJ : That would be a great slogan for Pen International “The indignation is greater than the fear”. How do you build a novel like Prayers for the Stolen? The literature search precedes the invention of the characters like Ladydi, this thirteen years old girl? How do you operate?
JC : I didn’t know I was going to write this book. I knew that I wanted to write a book… I wanted to understand how the violence in Mexico was affecting women. And we have now in Mexico a genre of literature that we call Literatura de narco. Basically a literature that is written by men and the main characters in the stories tend to be just about men. Women tend to be sort of the prostitute, the table-dancing girl, the wife that’s left at home,… the really cliché figures. At first, I interviewed for almost three years women of drug traffickers. They became a very important part of my book. Once I realized what my book would be about, I knew exactly where these girls were taken: the women of drug traffickers told me so much. A dangerous thing happened: when my novel came out, one magazine, which is like the most important newsmagazine in Mexico, published as the news, not in the cultural pages, not in the literary criticism pages or the book pages, but in the actual news! They reproduced word for word my chapters on the ranches in the North of Mexico that belong to drug traffickers. I actually had to leave Mexico. I left for almost two months, because it was very worrisome that my novel be treated as news.
I never imagined that would happen. But I guess you know the editors realized that I knew what I was talking about. The beginning of the research was talking to women of drug traffickers, but then I heard the story, the mother told me actually, about how they were stealing the little girls sort of, you know, pubescent girls, and how these people traffickers, and traffickers in the sex trade, were driving around the countryside looking for little girls to steal, and how, in these very poor areas, what they were doing is that they would dig holes in the ground, and when they saw those men coming and SUV and big trucks looking for girls, they would hide their girls in the ground. So for me immediately it was an image of, on one hand, like a living grave, being buried alive, and on the other hand it was kind of a rabbit warren, rabbits under the ground. I couldn’t sleep for days, and then I knew that that would be my story and then that’s logical for me because those are the most most most unprotected vulnerable people probably in the country. So my book became about them.
JJ : Before going back to your literary activity as a poet, I’d like for us to talk about the Congress that just ended. Among the items in the agenda there was the copyright, the copyright manifesto, and the linguistic rights. I’d like for you to talk about these two aspects that are maybe the less known among the activities of Pen.
JC : For me it’s very important to do things. I’m not interested in being a president and not doing things, at least even if things aren’t changed, they should be talked about. So for me, in fact, in the first meeting I had with my executive director, I said, you know one of the first things I think that as the association of writers, as the oldest and largest in the world, we need to adjust copyright because it’s in a very vulnerable moment, on one hand because we can reproduce, you know, millions of copies and the author would not know about it, but even worse they can be reproduced and censured and not know about it. Your book can be censured and you never knew. And the other thing of course is that these enormous companies like Google or Facebook or Amazon, they are able to pay lobbyers to go to the United States Congress, to the European Union, to the British Parliament, and lobby to weaken copyright. So I felt it was very important, for us, as an organization, to defend copyright and to create a document. The reason why it’s in this format is that it has to be a document that has the gravity where it could be used in a court of law anyplace, and also as advocacy. It would have both these sides to it. I’m extremely happy that it passed, I think it’s a big moment for Pen actually. A lot of people defending copyright are going to be very happy, because often people say the authors don’t care. But we do care. In terms of linguistic rights, it’s a very important part of Pen, because so many languages are being lost, and you know, that’s part of having voice being able to express yourself in your language. But that’s historically been an important part of Pen, but it’s getting stronger and better.
JJ : Your literary activity is also centered on poetry. At what point your sensibility leads you to writing poetry rather than a novel?
JC : Ever since I was a little girl, I always wrote poetry and I’ve always been passionate about poetry. I always say that poetry is my religion, I mean it’s the place where I find the answer to the mystery of everything, of why we’re here, it’s what I really love. I always try, even in my novels, to enter through the door of poetry. I mean the criticism of my work is always… the literary criticism, is always that my work has concentration on a poetic intention.
JJ : You have a double culture : American, since you were born in the United Stated, but as a child you moved very early to Mexico, you followed your family, your father worked there. What did it bring you, to be culturally mixed, in the writing and in your commitment?
JC : I moved to Mexico when I was six months old, and as you say, of American parents. And at that time, Mexico didn’t really have a proper education system, it was still very backward in that sense. Everybody would try to either go to the Swiss school, or to the French school, or to the British school, or the American school, or the German school. I went to the British school, so I had a very very strict British education. For example the children of Gabriel García Márquez went to that school and they also had a very strict British education. It’s interesting to note that DBC Pierre, who’s probably the only English author who has won all the prizes, - the book of the Common Wealth, the Joyce, and I don’t know, some other one… He was my great friend, we grew up together in Mexico, and he also went to the British school, so it’s a real testament to the school, what a perfect British education we had. So I didn’t really have a Spanish speaking education. Now my children went to that same school, but it’s a bilingual school now. And then I went to New York University, and lived in New York, and that’s when later I wrote the memoir Widow Basquiat which is about those years in New York, and in fact that book just came out in France.
JJ : Widow Basquiat… a novel dedicated to the painter Basquiat. The last question I’d like to ask you is about your next novel Gun Love. When can we expect it and what is the theme of this novel?
JC : I’ve written journalistic pieces, about guns. For the first piece I wrote, I had gone to the National Rifle Association headquarters and visited the museum that’s there as well. I wrote my first piece on guns in 2009, so it’s been something I’ve been following really closely. And this novel is a diptych to Prayers for the Stolen. In my novel, guns are present. There’s a character that they talk about that stops in one of the villages. They all say how she’s a young, American girl, so it’s her story. It’s a diptych, but it’s about gun running to Mexico, and how gun violence affects a mother and a daughter in the United States. For me, that could be my advocacy side, because I’m against guns, but in terms of the writer, the literary part of me, it was a huge challenge to figure out how do I write about guns with poetry. That was what was really interesting for me. So I hope I’ve done it.
JJ: I’m sure… In 1921, Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, an English poet, founded Pen Club International. In 2021, a woman, great writer, American-Mexican, will be the President who will celebrate the centenary. How do you see that celebration? How can we use it to make it a new instrument for the promotion of Pen and its ideals?
JC : In the world what people don’t realize, which I don’t think we’ve been able enough to get the message across, are maybe three things. One, is that PEN is not like any other NGO. People need to understand that this is a group of people that have worked for almost a hundred years because they have a vocation, and that is very unusual, you know, in this world, we’re so materialistic to think that you could have 140 centers, which for a hundred years have been working because they believe in what they’re working for. This is extraordinary. That makes it so unique. And I don’t think people realize that, people are always asking me “you’re the president, are you well paid?” and I say “I’m not paid anything” and they get shocked you know, “why would you do it?” they say. But if you have a vocation, that’s a different thing. The other thing is sadly, very sadly, that freedom of expression is facing a really difficult time, and what we’re all struggling to find a balance between freedom of expression and hate speak. So maybe yes we can have hate speak, yes we can insult each other but maybe we can harm each other, you can call on other people to harm other people… It’s a difficult time to define what to do about these issues. So I think Pen is an important part of this discussion in the world. It’s an interesting time for Pen.
JJ : I’d like to make a wish now, to close this interview, and my wish is that you keep writing and that Pen don’t eat up that part of your work that is writing. When you write, you also give us an extraordinary testimony of what solidarity, empathy, and care can do, especially care, in your case, for the victims of the systems in which they were born. The literature is probably that third point to which you were referring… Thank you Jennifer Clement, it was a pleasure to meet you this week at the Congress, and to meet you now.
JC : Thank you so much. Literature was indeed the third point …
Interview Jean Jauniaux, President of PEN Belgique
Transcription & Translation: Marie Gustot, Communication manager, PEN Belgique