PEN Flanders offers exiled writers a temporary home, and a voice

Summary

One of the most active branches of the international writers’ association, PEN Flanders is currently hosting the refugee Russian writer Maxim Efimov

The cost of speaking out

Is there a more perfect place to meet with a writer than in a city’s landmark bookshop? At the Groene Waterman in Antwerp, shelves are stuffed full of books stacked back to back, each of them a gentle invitation to visitors to browse their pages. And the diversity of work for sale here shows how lush the fruits of free speech can be.

Sven Peeters is a regular at the Groene Waterman. “Literature has always been one of my great loves,” he tells me. “Also, I have always been active as a volunteer in several organisations out of a personal sense of social justice. When I discovered the activities of PEN Flanders, everything came together. Social involvement, meeting other cultures and, of course, literature.”

Peeters helps manage the foreign writers in residence programme at PEN Flanders, which is part of PEN International. Since 1921, PEN International has been defending the right of authors to freely write whatever they want.

“What Amnesty International does for human rights, PEN does for the writers’ rights,” Peeters explains, adding that the word “writers” is intended in the broadest sense. “PEN stands for poets, essayists and novelists, but the association also works for journalists, cartoonists and bloggers. And, as a word and symbol, ‘pen’ sounds very good of course.”

Other, more light-hearted motives also played a part in Peeters’ commitment to PEN Flanders. “Like many others in Antwerp, I’m a chauvinist,” he laughs. “I like to show people around here and let them feel at ease in my city. Everyone is welcome here."

The taste of freedom

The work of PEN is based on two cornerstone philosophies, he says. The first is to promote international understanding and intercultural exchanges between writers around the world. The second is to take a stand against censorship and the curtailing of freedom of expression. 

They find the space here to relax and dedicate themselves to their work

- Sven Peeters of PEN Flanders

“That means that we welcome two kinds of writers here in Antwerp,” he says. “You’ve got foreign authors who have a project in Flanders – a book in which the story takes place here, or the publication of a Dutch translation of their work. The other group are the writers who are persecuted because of the content of their work. They find the space here to relax and dedicate themselves to their work.”

That place is the PEN Flanders writers’ flat, a unique project started 12 years ago. Writers working on a specific project in Flanders usually stay for just a few months; persecuted writers can stay for a longer period. “The writers’ apartment in Antwerp is the only one of its kind in the Dutch-speaking region,” explains Peeters. “We want to open a second flat in Ghent to offer a place to both types of authors simultaneously. But we’re not there yet.”

It’s not always easy for the PEN Flanders team to host exiled writers. “Sometimes we need to keep our guests undercover in order not to put them in danger. Some dictatorial regimes also have their ear to the ground here in Flanders. But I’m always amazed at how such people still have the courage to continue to speak out. Of course, freedom of speech is an important – even vital – issue but, still, the personal risks can be enormous.”

Russian writer, blogger and human rights activist Maxim Efimov is currently staying at the Antwerp flat. The 37-year-old has long had a difficult relationship with the Russian authorities. He finally fled to Estonia after he was convicted for slander against the church in 2012 in relation to a short news item about the Russian Orthodox Church.

“I grew up in the transition after the fall of the Soviet Union,” he says. “This period in the 1990s saw an atmosphere of relative freedom. I was young but worked hard. I was the first conscientious objector in my region.” 

No hope at all

Efimov later founded a volunteer organisation that provided free legal advice, started the human rights magazine Zero Hour and published pamphlets about gay rights and racism. “At the time, you could speak critically on the radio and television. That time has passed entirely."

In Efimov’s view, the following period marked a turning point. “Some people stole everything there was to steal from the crumbling state. And the criminals became politicians. They had the money to come to power and wanted to remain there as long as possible at all costs.”

Their power, he says, was stronger than society’s. “Most Russians did not understand what was happening. People do not conceive of civil rights; they do not know the meaning of freedom and democracy. They have never experienced it. You cannot expect someone to describe the taste of oranges if he has never tasted one.”

As a result of the growing repression in Russia, Efimov (pictured) ended up in court several times. He underwent a series of intimidation attempts, including being attacked by an unknown man at the entrance of his apartment building.

 The newspaper article for which he was convicted could have potentially landed the writer in a psychiatric facility – a tactic also often used during the Soviet era to silence dissidents. Before the trial was over, he made his way to Estonia. He is now on Russia’s state list for wanted terrorists.

“Putin squandered the opportunity to make a prosperous country out of Russia,” Efimov says. “Now he quarrels with the West to seek relief from our national inferiority complexes. Civil society has been broken; ordinary people are just trying to survive the dire economic conditions. I have little hope for Russia.” He pauses. “No, there is no hope at all.”

Opening up

Efimov has been in the Antwerp flat since January and has worked on several books from his temporary home. “One is about my stay here in Antwerp – it’s a collection of notes, interviews and conversations. I hope to reveal something new about the city from my position as an outsider,” he says. “Another work is an English translation of earlier published documents. It was an intense time; I met many interesting people here.”

I hope to reveal something new about the city from my position as an outsider.

- Russian writer Maxim Efimov

The next occupant of Antwerp’s apartment will be South African diplomat and thriller author Quintus van der Merwe; his forthcoming novel takes place in Antwerp. After that, comes Palestinian journalist and author Ghaytan Almadhoun, whose books were recently translated into Dutch.

PEN, clearly, has got a packed agenda. “The Flemish branch of PEN is one of the most active in the world,” Peeters confirms. “For a long time, it was a rather insular organisation, but, under the leadership of the previous president, writer David Van Reybrouck, PEN opened up to the public. We want to reach out to a broader public and raise awareness about the rights of authors.”

Many Flemish authors are also now involved in PEN, he says. “But even non-writers can now join PEN.”

And there’s another new project: a collaboration with refugee authors living in Flanders. “We have been working on this for a few years now,” says Peeters. “Fatena al-Ghorra, a Palestinian poet who fled to Belgium, lived in the writers’ flat for a while. Soon we will present a new series of publications by seven authors who found a new home in Flanders.  We want to give them some public exposure.”

The PEN team could also use assistance from the city, Peeters says. “Now, it is still difficult, because of administrative reasons, to host foreign people for an extended period of time. In some other cities with a PEN apartment, such as in Germany, the mayor provides a personal guarantee to the guests that they will be safe. That would be a nice gesture from Antwerp.”

A project like PEN, he says, is also good for publicity. “Certainly the writers’ flat is an ideal way to show our city’s hospitality. It is a very practical and useful way to support people. It is an initiative that we can organise ourselves and that makes a huge difference to individuals in need.”

Photo by Toon Lambrechts