Aj. Dagga Tolar
THE universe is today upon the path of a ‘famished road’. This much was made clear in a specially organised Zoom interactive session with Ben Okri (Booker Prize-winning author of The Famished Road), who has been nominated by the three PEN Centres of Nigeria, UK and the USA to stand for the presidency of PEN International, whose World Congress holds between 20-24 September, 2021.
For those who were in doubt, Okri won all on board, stating all of his experiences, his long relation with PEN, even as an unknown writer, adding his voice and opposition to the travails of Salman Rushdie, being part of activities and protest against the imprisonment and hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. His gained insight from all of his role as a Vice-president of PEN English Centre, membership of boards, both in the Booker Prize, and many others, how all of these impact on him, and will come in handy to allow for a successful tenure as president of PEN International.
Literature and writers are now no different from Azaro, who must now, in the face of emerging difficulties, do everything to keep the heartbeat on, defy Plato’s ban to defend the right to free speech as essential as oxygen for humanity to continue on the quest for a better universe. And indeed PEN International is better placed to do just this, having emerged from the very pitfall of humanity’s darkest period, the First and Second World Wars, and 100 years after, we are still here breathing, and alive and more strongly positioned to survive all of the new challenges confronting writers in both parts of the Northern and Southern hemispheres of the universe.
Okri particularly made reference to Afghanistan, Nigeria and the emergence of regimes with little or no tolerance for the idea of free speech and the looming danger this constitutes for writers and journalists in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There is also the challenge of a post-lockdown-Covid universe and how issues around it are increasingly used in more and more parts of the world as an excuse to infringe on freedom, and restrict movement.
Literacy and access to computers and the internet in the part of the world where millions live on even less than a dollar a day, and the need for PEN to help increase interaction between writers in both parts of the hemispheres. Increasing the need for a shared experience for writers, by enhancing exchange programmes between PEN Centres worldwide, making the best possible use of the existing digital platforms to earn these processes. Making our different Pen Centres’ activities like writers’ festivals more inclusive and borderless, learning from it and impacting positively on the creative writing art, focusing more on young writers and encouraging them to come on board the PEN International’s train.
“Funding and approach to it must also be transformed. All of the lofty programmes so envisioned will not meet the light of day if we don’t assess the necessary funds to support our centres and work, without in anyway letting down our guards or infringing our strict rules of zero tolerance and opposition to corruption or accepting funds from such sources,” Okri said.
A very interesting session it was, with Ben Okri confronting with the unexpected question of what “weakness” he would be coming on board with into the presidency of PEN International. And he responded that he had this penchant to listen to everybody, hear and listen to everything that anyone in particular had to say, how this is very important to appropriate the best approach in resolving any issue on ground.
Would his writing suffer, if elected as president, he answered that PEN like Literature is a CALLING, a call to defend the right and freedom of expression and aim for a better world and universe for us all. It is therefore for him a continuation of the calling that he had heeded long ago to be a writer, and that he would have to find a way around it, find some other means to keep writing, make a change in his writing schedule and timetable and of course learn from the experience of other past presidents of PEN International, who in office continued to write and issued out new titles from their stables.
Ben Okri the creator of the Azaro, the abiku child who weathers through all of the pitfalls, if you like Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard who must journey into the land of the dead, the tapper is no other than the writer… the palm wine is no other than literature and freedom that we must constantly drink to keep our universe healthy and alive. This is the task Ben Okri has taken upon his shoulder on behalf of us all, and there is no denying the fact that he needs all of our support to make a success of this presidential bid at PEN International.
* Aj Dagga Tolar, who recently published DisSick Republic, is the Secretary of PEN Centre Nigeria