PEN vs. Sword, by Ayad AkhtarAndrey KurkovPatrice NganangSalman RushdieYiyun Li

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From remarks delivered at the PEN America Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers, which was held in May at the United Nations.

ayad akhtar: The gravity of this moment is of course not news as war rages in Ukraine, disinformation runs rampant, hard-won freedoms are under attack, and criminals are increasingly in power everywhere—including the United States.

But perhaps most germanely to this body, the very space of thought appears to be under attack. And not just by those in power, but also by the systemic collapse between the private sphere and the public arena of exchange. Endless digital surveillance and the attendant monetization of our speech has corroded the distinction between emotional response and considered reflection, incentivized speaking over listening, and driven us to trust outrage, self-promotion, and the urge to vilify as legitimate instances of critical thought. All of this is tied to a growing dehumanization figured in the technology that has transformed us into virtual presences as opposed to actual ones.

This is part of why we felt it so important, so timely, to convene in person today, to think and speak and listen together, body to body, voice to voice, idea to idea. To partake in thinking as a result of living encounter, that social enterprise which is the root of all true politics. Today’s program will be organized around two fundamentally linked questions. One: Amid cascading crises, which threats most warrant our concentrated focus? And two: What is the role of the writer in responding?

Ayad Akhtar is a novelist and playwright, and has been the president of PEN America since 2021. His most recent book is Homeland Elegies.

andrey kurkov: The Russian aggression against Ukraine will bring not only demographic, political, and economic consequences, but dire environmental consequences. In fact, they are already evident. Millions of tons of rubble—the remains of apartment blocks and houses—together with a vast quantity of metal from shelled plants and factories are sinking into the earth. The soil is being poisoned by the rain of explosive substances. With the endless Russian bombardments, the whole planet will soon be breathing air poisoned by gunpowder and TNT. War both worsens the ecological situation and prevents the world from taking action. It’s a lose-lose situation.

When someone has a toothache, they find it hard to think of anything but their own pain. They may not empathize with the pain of another person with toothache. Thus acute pain disconnects people. But we must learn to feel the pain of others through our own pain and to empathize. For three months now I have been filled with pain for my country. But I feel pain for Sri Lanka, and for Palestine, and for Kerala—a state in India where some forces try to provoke negative attitudes toward local Muslims—and for Mali, and for the Central African Republic, and for Myanmar. I follow world news. I try to understand and to care.

Andrey Kurkov is a novelist and screenwriter. He has been the president of PEN Ukraine since 2018. His most recent novel is Grey Bees.

patrice nganang: We are speaking in the chamber of the Trusteeship Council, where Ruben Um Nyobè, one of the leaders of the Cameroonian independence movement, gave a historic speech in 1952 articulating the will of the Cameroonian people to be free. He then went home to take up arms against the colonial government. In 1958 he was murdered in the bush of Boumnyébel by the colonial soldiers of Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle knew well about armed resistance. Having defected from France’s army, he had come in 1940 to Cameroon to rally his first battalions. Among them were tens of thousands of Cameroonian and other African soldiers. De Gaulle became a hero after the liberation of France. Um Nyobè had a different fate: he was not only killed but deemed a terrorist by the French, his body profaned and displayed on the street. He was buried in concrete.

For all Cameroonians, this room resonates with Um Nyobè’s sandy voice, and I wish my voice to be wrapped in his when I ask these five questions.

First: Why are African countries not sanctioning Russia?

Second: Why are African countries not giving weapons to Ukraine?

Third: Why are African countries not providing soldiers to defend Ukraine?

Fourth: Why haven’t African countries given Volodymyr Zelensky a platform to make his case to the African Union, as he has in many Western political bodies, including the U.S. Congress?

Fifth: Should African writers be ashamed of our continent’s refusal to involve itself in a war that has so effectively mobilized the West?

There is writing on the wall. Writing in blood, writing done by Africans. It is the African voice, the black voice, that is not heard. Today we see decisions about Ukraine being made at NATO and E.U. gatherings, not here at the United Nations. Like Um Nyobè back then, most Africans prefer to come to the United Nations to have their voices heard. When decisions are made in a world that has NATO and the E.U. at its center, a unipolar world, they are never to our benefit. For Africans, for black people, a unipolar world is hell on earth. Slavery was only possible in a unipolar world. Colonialism was only possible in a unipolar world. Though Russia was among the countries that gathered in Berlin in 1884 to divide Africa, it never had colonies. In fact, the Soviet Union was instrumental in making possible the independence of many African nations, by providing logistics, money, and training.

The unipolar world has produced unilateral wars, all of them waged in countries like my own. The unipolar world has produced unilateral sanctions, and a quick look at the website of the UN Sanctions Committee will show you that Africa has had the highest number of targeted countries since the sanctions began. The unipolar world has produced a unilateral justice that mostly targets black people.

Africans know this. We also know that, from the black slaves who fought for the British during the American Revolution because they were promised freedom, to those who gained their emancipation when America was divided by the Civil War, to those who populated the streets of Alabama and Georgia with chants of liberation at the very moment when the Cold War was waging from Cuba to Algeria, and to the Black Panthers who were inspired by Ho Chi Minh’s armed struggle, the multipolar world is the ferment of black freedom.

There is writing on the wall that only Africans can see. And that is the cornerstone of our decision on Ukraine.

Patrice Nganang is a novelist and professor of Africana studies at Stony Brook University. His most recent book is A Trail of Crab Tracks.

salman rushdie: We are engaged in a war of narratives, of incompatible versions of reality, and we need to learn how to fight it. A tyrant has arisen in Russia and brutality engulfs Ukraine, whose people, led by a satirist turned hero, offer heroic resistance and are already creating a legend of freedom. The tyrant creates false narratives to justify his assault—the Ukrainians are Nazis and Russia is menaced by Western conspiracies. He seeks to brainwash his own citizens with such lies.

Meanwhile America is sliding back toward the Middle Ages, as white supremacy exerts itself not only over black bodies, but women’s bodies too. False narratives rooted in antiquated religiosity and bigoted ideas from centuries ago are used to justify this, and find willing audiences.

In India, religious sectarianism and political authoritarianism go hand in hand, and violence grows as democracy dies. Once again false narratives of Indian history are at play, narratives that privilege the majority and oppress minorities, and these narratives, let it be said, are popular, just as the Russian tyrant’s lies are believed.

This is the ugly dailiness of the world. How should we respond? It has been said, I have said it myself, that the powerful may own the present but writers own the future, for it is through our work—or the best of it, at least, the work that endures—that the present misdeeds of the powerful will be judged. But how can we think of the future when the present screams for our attention, and if we turn away from posterity and pay attention to this dreadful moment, what can we usefully or effectively do? A poem will not stop a bullet. A novel cannot defuse a bomb. Not all satirists are heroes.

But we are not helpless. Even after Orpheus was torn to pieces, his severed head, floating down the river Hebrus, went on singing, reminding us that song is stronger than death. We can sing the truth and name the liars. We can stand in solidarity with our fellows on the front lines and magnify their voices by adding our own.

Above all we must understand that stories are at the heart of what’s happening, and the dishonest narratives of oppressors have attracted many. So we must work to overturn the false narratives of tyrants, populists, and fools by telling better stories than they do, stories in which people want to live.

The battle is not only on the battlefield. The stories we live in are also contested territories. Perhaps we can seek to emulate Joyce’s Dedalus, who sought to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race. We can emulate Orpheus and sing on in the face of horror, and not stop singing until the tide turns, and a better day begins.

Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist. His most recent book is Quichotte.

yiyun li: I have two stories I want to tell. One is: when I was eighteen and in the Chinese army, I was a superb propaganda writer. It was not difficult to write propaganda as long as you knew the key words and how to weave them together. I hated writing propaganda, but I always did it because my squad leader said, “Either you write this week’s propaganda or you have to clean the toilet, or you have to clean the pigsty.” I always chose to write propaganda because it felt easier than cleaning the toilet. That’s the first story.

I came to America and started writing in English. I was thinking, it’s a good thing I don’t have to write propaganda anymore. But a few years ago I was driving two children aged thirteen and fourteen, my son and his friend. I was overhearing their conversation. Both of them were poets, young poets. And my son asked the girl, “Why are you not participating in this year’s contest?”—they have a school contest—and the girl said, “Have you seen the winners lately? You really have to have the key words in your poetry to win those awards.” She gave a few key words. One was “injustice,” one was “police brutality.” She said, “You really have to have those words.” And then she said, “I wonder why we cannot write about flowers anymore,” and my son said, “Right, do we still have space for Emily Dickinson today?” I thought it was a fabulous question. What’s the writer’s role, or educator’s role, or parent’s role? I think it is just to make sure our kids know that they don’t have to write the key words as I did when I was in China.

Yiyun Li is an author, a contributing editor of A Public Space, and a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. Her new novel is The Book of Goose.


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