From the 4th to the 6th June 2014, several European houses of literature came together at the Free Word Centre in London to discuss their ongoing roles in the world. During this meeting of minds, two public debates took place: The role of literature houses in protecting the space for free expression and The changing relationship between writers and audiences. At Time to Talk we shall mainly look at the first debate on the space for free expression (full recording below), but you can also access a recording of the second debate on the relationship between authors and their audiences at the bottom of this page.
The role of literature houses in protecting the space for free expression
In discussing the role of literature houses in asserting the space for free expression, the Free Word Centre had an embarrassment of riches to call upon, with representatives of prominent institutions in Hungary, Bulgaria, Norway and the UK.
Moderated by ex-Virago publicist and former Index on Censorship editor-in-chief Ursula Owen, this debate focussed on the different free speech challenges, approaches and achievements of literature houses in Europe and further abroad.
Ursula first asked the participants to introduce themselves and we found out about the work that each institute carries out and the different ways in which they look to ensure, consolidate and make use of their rights to free expression.
English PEN editor Jo Glanville spoke for example about the expanded role of literary organisations in recent years and the legal battles with which English PEN is currently involved, including taking the British government to court for their infringements of personal privacy and the association’s efforts to support Glenn Greenwald and his partner in the difficulties they have faced following the Snowden revelations.
Julia Lazar, however, started the evening off by introducing the work of the Hungarian Translators’ House on the banks of Lake Balaton and speaking of the difficulties of making oneself heard in a minority language. Additionally, she sketched out the present political situation in Hungary, mentioning, for example, how the Hungarian constitution has now been changed six times without consultation since 2010 and how recent changes hamper journalistic freedom and restrict the media.
Dessy Gavrilova of Sofia’s Red House then pressed the case for inclusivity, speaking passionately about the importance of involving groups and positions contrary to one’s own stance and citing the efforts of her own organisation in involving and engaging with far right elements in Bulgaria. Dessy Gavrilova stated how important it is to understand why such groups behave like they do and how she and The Red House therefore strongly believe in dialogue with all disgruntled elements of society, be they of widely differing socio-political outlooks or not.
Indeed, the question of circumventing one’s own political opinions was one, which hit a nerve with all of the attending speakers and was subsequently discussed to some significant extent.
Julia Lazar from Hungary spoke of her experience of having to occasionally – due to the status of the translators’ house as a state body – accommodate extremist groups in Hungary, the concerns that these groups caused her and her colleagues and the ways in which they have attempted to negotiate the many issues and concerns, which such encounters raise for them.
Asla Sira Myre from Norway’s Litteraturhuset meanwhile said how he was fortunate to not have the same difficulties in Norway and mentioned how Norway’s laws actually even block the public expression of positions commonly considered to be obnoxious or hateful. Although this automatically rules out certain extremes of expression, he spoke nonetheless of how efforts to maintain a real diversity in the discussions at Litteraturhuset have been approached and of the system, which has ultimately been developed for achieving such.
The evening concluded with a round of questions from the audience and when challenged by an individual disgruntled by his understanding of their previous statements, Ursula Owen, Julia Lazar and Asla Sira Myre also then discussed the dangers of what they called an absolutist approach to democratic expression. Julia Lazar in particular mentioned the very open legislation, which had previously existed in Hungary and how this had ended badly, in terms of the individuals who had made use of it to achieve prominence. At the same time, she was careful to raise the spectre of the dangers of avoiding and not properly getting to grips with new societal elements, referencing the late twentieth century refusal of the Hungarian intelligentsia to speak with members of the now-prominent new right and how this permitted them to proceed unchallenged.
Ursula Owen came to prominence with the publishing house, Virago Press, since then she has worked as a cultural advisor for the Labour Party and as an editor and chief executive at the Index on Censorship. Nowadays, she remains one of the founding trustees of the Free Word Centre and is on the board of both the South Bank Centre and the English Touring Opera.
Dessislava Gavrilova is the founder-director of The Red House Centre for Culture and Debate in Sofia. In 2005, Dessislava Gavrilova also became the director of the Centre for Arts and Culture at the Central European University in Budapest. Previously, she established and ran the Open Society Institute’s Budapest Performing Arts Network [1997-2000], stimulating independent, artistic work and innovation across Central, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. She has conducted research into British cultural policy at the University of Oxford, UK and also holds an M.A. in Theatre Studies from the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts, Sofia.
Jo Glanville is the present editor of English PEN, having previously worked as the editor of Index on Censorship from 2006-2012. She has also worked as a current affairs producer for the BBC and is a regular feature in media discussions on culture and freedom of expression.
Julia Lazar is the founder of the Hungarian organisation Uncalled for and a trustee of the Hungarian Translators’ House near Lake Balaton. Outside of the associations she currently works for, Julia is also a published poet, an accomplished translator and a former teacher of English Literature.
Aslak Sira Myhre is an ex-politician (the former party leader of the Red Electoral Alliance) and director of Europe’s largest literature house, the Norwegian Literatturhuset. He is also an author and holder of the Eckbos legaters Kulturpreis.
The changing relationship between writers and audiences
The meeting of European houses of literature was funded by Fritt Ord and the Arts Council England, with support from the British Council and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.