For fifteen years, Salman Rushdie had to hide for having written what some refused to read. These days, he wishes to denounce another form of censorship in his adopted country, the United States. To do this, PEN, the organization of writers that he heads, organized an evening reading in New York last Wednesday with the suggestive title “State of Emergency.” About fifteen writers – among them some big names, such as Paul Auster, Ariel Dorfman, Don DeLillo, and Russell Banks – came to read from texts that were not their own; nonetheless, phrases from these passages, even those written in other times, echoed the current political situation. In front of an American flag, they read one after another, without grandiloquence, to warn but also to reassure an audience long-stifled by the fear of terrorism.


“People come to the United States because they admire freedom of expression. It’s what attracted me here. It’s a tragedy to think that that has been threatened.” Before arriving on stage, Salman Rushdie denounced the Bush administration’s increased control over the media. “For 82 years, PEN has fought for this freedom in other countries. It is important not to ignore the problem when it arrives at our doorstep. We have launched a campaign to amend the Patriot Act, which allows intelligence-gathering agencies to keep watch over the electronic correspondence and reading lists of potential terrorists.” The campaign also attacks a little-known law which gives the Treasury Department the ability to penalize the editors of books coming from so-called “enemy” countries, such as Iran and North Korea.

“There has rarely been a moment when public discourse and truth were so far apart. When people are afraid, they do not question a lie,” commented another famous exile, Ariel Dorfman. The writer, who fled from Chile at the beginning of Pinochet’s dictatorship, read a passage from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in English and in Spanish, to prove that language is powerful, and that no language should be deemed suspect, not even Arabic or Farsi.

The participants did not want to appear as impetuous “liberals,” but rather as alert citizens. “We know that terrorism exists, we are not trying to ignore it, it should be combated. But our greater task consists in asking ‘how.’ If we become like our enemies, we will have truly failed,” concluded Salman Rushdie.


The auditorium was packed, and many people lined up at the entrance an hour before it opened. Their presence was all the more meaningful due to symbolic nature of the location, Cooper Union. It is there that Lincoln delivered one of his most famous speeches, before being nominated as the Republican candidate in the 1860 presidential election. In 2004, three months from another presidential election, it was not the politicians who spoke at Cooper Union, but rather the writers. “I want to hear what they have to say about politics,” confided one New York actress. “The artists are here to redefine what it is to be American.” More and more artistic associations are looking to get a pre-election dialogue geared up. Before the Democratic convention, a number of them organized a collection of considerable funds. “In my opinion, it’s the first time that art is so involved in an election,” believes George Abdelnour, a professor of literature at Williams College.

“It is important that everyone make their opposition public. We do not demand that writers get involved, but there are moments in history when it becomes necessary.” The timid Don DeLillo, who usually balks at political involvement, made an exception. He read an excerpt from Zbigniew Herbet’s “Report From The Besieged City,” a description of Warsaw which can be applied, according to him, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and to New York. “I haven’t felt like this since the Vietnam War. The country is in crisis. It is our duty to examine ourselves and to talk,” believes Paul Auster as well. He recalled that writers do not have much influence in the United States. Nonetheless, for him, the actual mobilization resembles that of 1968, even if the protests are more dispersed.


Among the evening’s participants, there was also a new generation, one that does not remember 1968. The representatives of this new generation are less romantic, but are quite virulent and perhaps more pragmatic. They urge not being afraid and holding George W. Bush accountable for his actions. Over the course of the evening, the texts read spoke of “truth,” “corrupted democracy,” “problems with authority,” and “rage” provoked by “injustice.” The public lies in wait for voices that give form to their discontent.

Translated by Matthew Murchison, PEN Staff

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