Sun, 13 Jun 2004

Writers union gives voice to free speech around the world

Chisato Hara, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

In a country whose literature is muted, or at best under-read, international acclaim of one of its authors or poets is a precious anomaly.

As Pramoedya Ananta Toer said on June 2 in his acceptance speech for the Norwegian Authors' Union Freedom of Expression Award, "That a country of the North Pole would have ventured to take notice of some writer in a country so very, very far away... I am deeply honored and humbled to receive this recognition."

Founded in 1893, the union has a distinct role in Norway, which can trace its literary tradition to runic inscriptions nearly 2,000 years ago. These past 50 years or so, its writers have been at the forefront of establishing the contemporary tradition of a standardized contract and equality in publishing rights.

One of the union's key missions is to protect and maintain these rights, and its 500-strong membership consists of writers with at least two published books under their literary belts.

Drawing upon the strong socio-democratic mind-set that is prevalent, if not a defining, characteristic of Scandinavian culture, the standard contract sets royalties at 20 percent for all writers, regardless of their prominence. In addition, the Norwegian public library system is committed to purchasing 1,000 copies of each book upon initial publication, among other conditions, to ensure fair literary competition in a country of 4.5 million people.

A union, an association and loosely, a kind of guild, the Norwegian Authors' Union, while focusing on financial and artistic issues concerning the country's literary talent, is also active in global issues, particularly in regard to copyright, intellectual property rights and of course, promoting the written word.

Toward these aims, the union has held a forum on copyright and publishing contracts in Damascus and has established a safe haven for writers in Kabul, -- the Authors' House -- and has also made similar efforts in the Nicaraguan literary community.

Its Freedom of Expression Award falls under this sphere of activity, and was initiated in 1993 upon a 100,000 Norwegian kroner (Rp 125 million) grant from the Norwegian Ministry of Cultural Affairs to commemorate its centenary. The award has been conferred to Norwegian, Turkish, Palestinian and Israeli writers since 1994.

For the award's 10th anniversary, the "North Pole" did indeed come to the tropics and recognized its first Southeast Asian recipient.

Geir Pollen, president of the union and a writer, poet and translator, said he personally knew of no other writer who had suffered -- yet endured -- for his craft as Pramoedya did during the repressive frenzy of the post-Sukarno era.

On Oct. 13, 1965, the military descended upon Pramoedya's residence, arrested him and beat him with rifle butts, causing him to lose his hearing in one of his ears. He was incarcerated for 14 years without trial.

His house and his vast collection of paintings by Indonesian masters was confiscated -- and is still held by "the authorities" to this day -- and his library, including many first editions by various authors, essays and eight unpublished manuscripts, was burned.

But his pen was not stayed: While imprisoned on Buru Island, a notorious facility that held "political dissidents", he continued to write, smuggling his manuscripts to a local Catholic church for safekeeping and later, to be released into the outside world.

During the award ceremony at Taman Ismail Marzuki's Galeri Cipta III, Pollen said: "You have been unwavering in fulfilling your role as a writer and an intellectual, and in shouldering the responsibilities that role entails: You have spoken out on behalf of the common man, giving voice to common man's pain and agony, as well as to his hope and determination to survive."

While this occasion was the first foray of the union here, he hopes that it may mark the beginning of a cooperation with the local literary community toward realizing -- and ensuring -- Indonesian writers' right to free speech.

The timeliness of the award against the backdrop of the current political scene is no coincidence: The union's committee on international issues, which nominates potential recipients, is tasked with selecting candidates who have not only made a historical contribution toward the development of literature in their countries, but those whose work is also relevant within the contemporary national context.

Other criteria are that the work be of high literary craftsmanship, have a universal thematic application and make a vital contribution to freedom of speech.

Today, Pramoedya's work has been translated into 38 languages, with Norway being the 35th country to give voice to his writing in a foreign tongue.

Thus far, the first three volumes of Pramoedya's Buru Quartet have been translated, with the fourth and concluding volume to come early next year. While he is no household name in Norway, Pramoedya is already well-known among the literary and journalistic community, and received critical acclaim in the country's leading daily, Aftenposten.

As Pollen noted, in showing the world the price he paid for free speech, Pramoedya and his work are a testament to the value of freedom of expression.

Freedom of Expression recipients

1994 Izzat Ghazzawi (Palestine)
1995 Ismael Besikci; Akin Birdal, Isan Haklari Dernegi human rights organization (Turkey)
1996 Joar Tranoy, psychiatrist (Norway)
1997 Yasar Kemal (Turkey?), Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
1998 Axel Jensen (Norway)
1999 Yehude Simon Munaro (Peru)
2000 Zemljko Kopanja, editor (Serbia)
2001 Amos Oz (Israel)
2002 Anna Politkovskaja, journalist (Russia)
2003 Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Indonesia)