The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, we speak to Ian Buruma, winner of the 2015 PEN Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for his collection Theater of Cruelty: Art, Film, and the Shadows of War (New York Review Books). 

Ian Buruma studied Chinese literature and Japanese cinema. He has lived and worked as a journalist and author in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Berlin, Amsterdam, London, and New York. A frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, his sixteen books include two novels. Buruma teaches at Bard College.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

In my twenties I was a photographer and filmmaker as well. I guess I became a “writer” when I gave those things up. I still like to reserve the option of doing other things.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

I can’t tell. The degree of daringness is really in the eye of the beholder (or the mind of the reader).

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

As far as writing is concerned I am obsessed by clarity, which can be a weakness. Great art must leave room for ambiguity, even mystery. I am not a great artist.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?


What is the responsibility of the writer?

Never to be a bore.

When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?

I support the First Amendment. Censorship is only justified when there is a “clear and present danger” of an evil act being perpetrated. The rest is a question of decorum and good taste, which one may or may not choose to observe.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?


While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

No. The purpose of a public intellectual is to be curious, to think and express oneself clearly, and by doing so help others think more clearly as well.

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

I don’t imagine that leaders who lock up writers will be deterred by a book. But Shakespeare’s Richard III might give them a little pause. If they don’t like reading a play, they might turn to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s magisterial book The Last Days of Hitler.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

When observation becomes a tool of control, it should be called surveillance.