Per Wästberg: Freedom has always been precarious in Turkey, but now it has reached a ‘breaking point.’ Today, remembering Turkey was once a prospective EU member; that moment has passed
Turkey has always had less freedom than one would like to have, but it has come to a critical point, where it might no longer be possible to treat it as a civilized European country, according to Per Wästberg, a Swedish writer who is also President Emeritus of PEN International and Chairman of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee for Literature.
In the first week of February, Wästberg visited Turkey along with the representatives of what was the largest PEN International delegation to ever visit a country in history. The concern that Turkey is leaving the realm of civilization certainly was a reason for that, but the move also highlighted PEN International’s determination to have an impact; a sign that even after a critical threshold has been passed, the rest of the world is not willing to give up on Turkey just yet. Wästberg himself has the same feeling; he said “Probably not for the moment, but everything may not be lost.”
During the delegation’s visit, Wästberg responded to K24's questions in an interview that took place shortly after a press meeting organized by PEN International.
Although a “point of no return” diagnosis for Turkey coming from a man who has closely followed the horrors of our world from the age of McCarthyism to Apartheid as a writer promoting freedom of speech sounds depressingly bleak, Wästberg has a sober view of Turkey and its President. He also has a similarly reserved, almost nonchalant, awareness of the general rise of populism globally. He doesn’t like what’s going on, he is deeply concerned yet he knows that things can change, and at times, very quickly: “I often think if the huge Soviet Union could evaporate, if the colonial British Empire could dissolve into a number of free states-- regardless of how free they really were-- one could think of any development also in Turkey, from the inside or with the pressure of outside countries, can happen. One has to be ready for surprises”
Wästberg has shared his thoughts on Turkey; freedom of speech; his own experiences with censorship and oppression as a writer; the greats of literature, and, of course, the Bob Dylan Nobel Win, with K24 readers. Here are his answers to my questions:
PEN International is active in more than 100 countries, including China, Kenya, Nigeria and Russia, with 150 PEN Centers. And yet, this is the largest PEN International mission ever in its 95 years of history... Why Turkey? Why now?
Because Turkey has become the biggest prison for journalists and intellectuals in the world, I think. Turkey has always been a worrisome country with less freedom that you could demand, but now, things have come to an explosive point. Since Turkey is still regarded as a, let's say, European civilized country, it's all the more worrying. With so many journalists and intellectuals in prison or harrassed, or out of work, or having their lives ruined, PEN International thinks that for the moment this is an exceptional situation that demands an exceptional attention. And thus we are so many here, we are hoping to make some impact.
You said “Turkey is still regarded as a European civilized country.” Do you regard her as such?
Well, historically one could regard her as such or as a bridge between different countries, as a multilingual and a multinational country. But now, having this nationalistic emphasis on “Turkey, Turkey, Turkey” with no regard of Armenians, with no regard of Kurds and whatever, it's no longer a European civilized country. But there is of course a section of intellectuals, academics, people who read and think, people who are really the bridge towards Europe which we think much about and worry about.
What was the breaking point, to your mind?
That's gone up and down for hundreds of years, I think. Freedom has always been so precarious in this country. But of course I think the maneuvours of President Erdoğan now means a breaking point. Because he concentrates power in his own hands, and the judiciary and the parliament do not have much to say. That is a breaking point. Today, thinking that Turkey was once a prospective member of the European Union, which means a guarantee of freedom and democracy, that moment is now passed for the moment.
For many years, you've worked exhaustively with several NGOs, including but not limited to the Amnesty International and PEN International, campaigned against atrocities all around the world. What can one expect from such campaigns, what substantial results can be achieved thus?
It's extraordinarily difficult to say. I noticed that several NGOs have difficulty to impress on the government, they are not received, even Amnesty International and PEN International are not received. But I think PEN International, being a representative of so many writers, of the world's most important writers, may have another impact, because basically that impresses even authotarian regimes. So they may listen, they may. And they may first go into a self- defensive posture, but then they may think again, I don't know. What was not said but what I think I am allowed to say is we met former president Abdullah Gül, had tea with him and, to my mind, his very intelligent three advisors. I can't say really what he said but he received us very amiably, like friends, and not as people against everything and that was enough. It remains to be seen whether he has any influence or power. Probably not for the moment, but everything may not be lost.
Do you think such campaigns and advocacy prove to be fruitful, without imposing certain political sanctions by, say the UN or the EU?
That is extremely hard to know for me. I mean, President Erdoğan is like President Trump; a very narcisistic and vain, he thinks you must praise him first, and then you can get on. I think it's a horrible situation where he has this blackmailing situation with the European Union, all the time threatening to let loose three million or whatever refugees all over at the cost of human lives. Sweden has received per capita more refugees than any other nation, even Germany. But this means a backlash, because the populist movement in Sweden, as in most other countries, react and say paradoxically, "These refugees take our jobs," or at the same breadth, "These refugees will take our wellfare away," this is the argument. It's a populist trend in many countries, more or less, less in Scandinavia, I think but it exists there, compared to Holland, France, more and more compared to Britain. Before EU had some pressure on Turkey about democracy and human rights. Now it's the other way around. Now Turkey has this pressure on EU. It's a worrying situation really.
We are talking about freedom of speech, but what is freedom of speech really? Courts in different countries set varying limitations to freedom of expression. Do you think the scope of freedom of expression is universally agreed upon?
Both for me and PEN International, freedom of speech is the very bottom fundamental base of any other freedom. With freedom of speech, you don't have any other freedom. I think that there may be some inhibitions in the definions of free speech, that is one should define hate speech, not to use this "terrorist" jargon of Turkey. For me, to deny the Holocaust is a form of hate speech. There are other forms of hate speech directed at women, for instance. That is not a problem I am specialized in; I am not on social media. But freedom of speech is so fundamental and the possibility for each country to have a number of newspapaers or media outlets for different opinions is the most important thing in the life of a writer, but also in the life of a reader.
You started writing at 12, and were published as early as when you were 15. Many writers of your generation from Turkey declared “This was not the world I dreamt of,” including Çetin Altan, who rather recently passed away. Was this the world you dreamt of when you started writing?
I don't know. I've written five volumes of memoirs, the fifth volume is coming out next week in Sweden. What I dreamt of when I was 15 and held my first book, which I tought was a miracle? I can't really remember, except that I always hoped to write, to be printed, to be among writers, to meet other writers, to move freely around the world, and well, to be in love. That's how the world looked. I am preety much a boy of the fifties, and this was a very optimistic time, in spite of McCarthyism and the early Korean war. It was on the whole I think a very optimistic outlook, at least in Europe. When came across the 68' the youth revolt and all that, then I began to see it was in waves, radical revolt and succesful capitalism, or Neoliberalism, and so it goes on. Ever since 1959, I followed Africa, decolonization slowly going on, the Apartheid's old horrors, but Apartheid vanquished. I went to the Soviet Union quiet a few times and I saw how the dissident were extremely coureagous, and suddenly, most unexpectedly for most people, the Soviet Union was dead. Now it seems to be rising again in another form. I often think if the huge Soviet Union could evaporate, if the colonial British Empire could dissolve in a number of free states- regardless of how free they really were, one could think of any development also in Turkey, from the inside or with the pressure of outside countries, can happen. One has to be ready for surprises.
You also experienced many atrocities Turkish writers are now facing firsthand. Did it ever drive you to self- censorship?
No, it didn't, I was after all privileged and free. Because of my articles, I got thrown out of Rhodesia, I got prohibited in Mozambique, I was imprisoned in Portugal, even only for a day. Because of my articles and book on South Africa, I was flown out of South Africa under military government, but then I landed in Congo. Now, I've got a South African highest order of what they call the international heroes that made something about and for free South Africa, but I would never regard myself as a hero because I have never, as so many else, risked my life, and other people have done that. So I guess I am just one of many.
You were once quoted as saying “Literature is certainly undervalued these days. There are people who live by the word, but I think it'll shrink.” Do you consider it a threat to literature?
It's so hard to say because readers, if you think of readers of anything, increase. Literacy is increasing tremendously in the world. The number of books being sold also increases. But, I would say that the very well books are not read as much. There are a rather few titles that go around the whole world, Stephen King or Harry Potter, whatever. So I think the crisis is in the serious, ground- breaking, really creative literature. But I think as long as there is a sensible circle of devoted readers, we should be content. We don't live in the, I am as old so I lived in the pre-television times, and also radio. But I'm thinking of the turn aroun the 1900s; the big writers, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Strinberg, Marcel Proust, they didn't have radio, they hardly had any movies. So literature and debate in newspapers, it was everything, the whole culture. Now this culture of communication across frontiers takes place in so many fronts. That's the big difference. I'd very much like to see a painter, an artist, whatever to reach more, but what to do... I'm so confined to the language as such, and to explore the language, to live in the language, but there is nothing else...
Tim Parks, I believe it was in 2012, in a New Yorker post to which you also responded, claimed that the Nobel Prize for Literature had great limitations as a committee, and that it was rather absurd to ascribe so much prestige to what was essentially a national prize. Can the Nobel Prize for Literature really claim to be a universal prize?
It's very true, the Nobel Prize has, which I'm very glad for, a prestige beyond any other prize. We, in the Nobel Committee and the Swedish government, we feel the responsibility, but also acknowledge the almost impossibility to say that any writer is the best in the world. There are always writers who are sort of dropped beside the road, and we know it, we know who they are. We can't give it more than once a year. When we select five writers out of more than 200 that are coming in at the 1st of February, these five writers on the shortlist are equally good and valuable. We in the committee present these five writers to the rest of the Academy with our analysis for the rest of the Academy to decide, and it's not always what we in the Nobel Committee prioritize. Before my time, if I could sort of reselect writers and give them now, I would immediately give it to, say, Jorge Luis Borges, or to Vladimir Nabokov, who were nominated, or to Virginia Woolf, who wasn't nominated at all, or James Joyce, who wasn't nominated by his country, by his peers, not to talk of Kafka and Proust, because they were posthumous writers. We are also concious of a certain Eurocentricity, which we try to overcome. We have scouts in lots of countries or languages, Georgian, Endonesian, Swahili, whatever and we order, if we think there is a very interesting writer, secret reports and translations of their works. But it doesn't result in anything so far, but I think it should in time.
The archives of the Academy are open to public some 50 years after the prize is awarded. Do you think one could come across many surprises in the archives?
No, I don't think so really. You'll see what people were on the list, you'll not see how we voted, that's still kept as secret. Let's say, to take some example, you would be surprised how Graham Greene, whom I'd have favoured had I been in the Academy, how very close he was. But then there was a part of the Academy who thought he was anyway extremely popular, so he didn't need the prize. Or, rather on the poetic side, W.H. Auden, he was very close as well. There have been those who almost managed. Or, Yaşar Kemal...
Did Yaşar Kemal come really close?
Yes, he came rather close.
Let's talk about Bob Dylan. Some have commented that, had the Academy's decision to award the Nobel to Dylan come in the 70s or 80s, it would have been a groundbreaking move to challenge the general notions about “great literature.” To what extent, do you think, the Swedish Academy, is in tune with the times in its decisions?
I've heard all the arguments. On the whole, this prize was received positively around the world, I think. Well, sometimes I think we are too late, that was the case of Doris Lessing, who should have got it I think in the 80s, but was prevented because she wrote lots of science fiction novels, which nobody liked. Then she came back with a marvelous autobiographic book. In the case of Bob Dylan, I think for me and the Academy, he lives on. He has got the prize for his poetry, for his texts, not for his music, not for his popularity. We have read his collected poetry, and if you take the best of that, you see that, to my mind, that he is truly one of the great poets, even without music. I'd say the great poets of America in the 20th century were Robert Frost, Stevenson and then Bob Dylan. He is coming to Stockholm on 1st of April, he's giving a concert, that was long- decided. But he is so stubborn. He hasn't said anything, but we hope that he'll give a Nobel lecture. If he doesn't, he'll not get the money, so he will miss 1 million euros, but that doesn't matter to him.