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Salman Rushdie Takes Over Chairmanship of American PEN Chapter - 2004-05-22


In his new role as chairman of the American chapter of PEN, a private international writer's organization, Salman Rushdie is trying show his appreciation to the organization that stood by him during the years when he feared he would be killed because of a book he wrote. Mr. Rushdie spoke with VOA's Katyoun Beglari about his relationship with the writers' group, and the goals of his tenure.

It is a relationship that has come full circle. When author Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding in 1989, after publishing his controversial book The Satanic Verses PEN was a leading supporter of the writer. The organization worked tirelessly, criticizing Iran and its leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had condemned the book as blasphemy against Islam and issued a death sentence on the author.

Fifteen years later, the Indian-born and British-educated author now heads that organization. Mr. Rushdie says this is his way of saying thank you to the association.

"In those bad old days, PEN American center was incredibly supportive at the time, so I felt the need to somehow repay that, to kind of put something back in," he said. "I think it's a kind of American generosity that they allow a non-American to be president of the American writers organization."

One of the first goals of his two-year term is reach out to younger members. Mr. Rushdie says this is vital in ensuring the organization remains vibrant.

"There are certain things I want to do inside the organization, particularly to bring in a new generation of writers and people interested in literature, because you don't want it to become an old people's club," he said. "You have to get the kids in and in order to do that you have to be running programs that they feel to be relevant and interesting."

The author, whose books include Midnight's Children and Step Across This Line, is also eager to continue PEN's mission of promoting freedom of expression. In April, the PEN American Center issued "Freedom to Write" awards to two authors: Nasser Zarafshan, an Iranian writer and attorney serving a five-year prison term in Iran, and Le Chi Quang, who is serving a four-year jail term for writing critical essays about the Vietnamese government. PEN estimates about 1,100 writers and journalists around the world are currently threatened or in prison.

Mr. Rushdie, who now lives in New York, says PEN will continue to advocate on behalf of authors abroad. But he also says that, during his term as chairman of the association, he will look at freedom of expression issues in the United States as well.

PEN has always been fantastic at looking at the persecution of writers and censorship, and human rights issues around the world," said Salman Rushdie. "And one of the things that we now feel is that there is a reason to look inside the United States in problems that have begun to develop here."

Mr. Rushdie explains he finds it is increasingly difficult for people with dissenting opinions to be heard by mainstream media. In addition, he says new security measures implemented after September 11, 2001, are making it tougher for foreign artists to enter the United States.

Mr. Rushdie says an organization like PEN can play an important role in engaging Americans with the world.

"It's very important not to shut down the lines of communication between America and the world, and it's the thing that a writers organization can naturally do - to say we need to keep that dialogue open, and if possible, increase it, make it louder, because you get the feeling that there's a desire in some parts to shut down that dialogue at the moment and we want to somewhat counteract that," he said.

To promote this cross-border dialogue, PEN is inviting writers from around the world to come to the United States and speak one-on-one with American writers.

This free exchange of ideas and opinions is a concept close to Mr. Rushdie's heart. After living under strict security for years, he is now frequently seen in public and says he travels freely. Several years ago, Iran's foreign minister said his country would not enforce the religious ruling that called for Mr. Rushdie's death.

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