Happy Release Day to me: the Golden One–Deceit is out
Early reviews for Deceit are very encouraging.
‘Tis time again. A new book drops at midnight PST, which is about an hour from now. I feel pretty good about this book because the reception by readers has been very positive. Yet still, despite all of this, I can’t entirely shake that nervousness that always beleaguers a writer on release day. Which is odd, right? ARCs have been out for weeks, people have been reading the book, it’s been on sale for a month and we have an idea of how it does. Still. Nervous. Even though it’s my umpteenth release day.
A lesson in philosophy dressed as action-packed fantasy
What’s Deceit, or indeed the Golden One, about? On the surface, it’s “young adult” (read: teen literature) fantasy, a shapeshifter story. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a discourse about humanity’s treatment of Earth, how we treat the one home we have, the very fact that we are literally defecating our own living room, our bedrooms, not to mention our kitchen. If an individual were to do that, we’d commit them to psychiatric care, provide them with all the help and assistance they need. But on a planetary scale, we simply shrug and say “at least he shat in the corner!” or worse, we pretend it didn’t happen.
Another encouraging review.
The way the climate is changing all around us reminds me of the old folktale of the frog and boiling water. Have you heard it? Throw a frog in boiling water and it’ll jump out immediately, but put a frog in cool water and heat it gradually and you’ll have a nicely cooked frog before you know it. Mind you, this story is a fable and not true, but maybe that’s because frogs are smarter than humans?
The Golden One is a mirror of how we treat our planet, and it seems to me, as an adult, that the young generation is the one we need to turn to because my own, and the ones who came before me are utterly unable (or unwilling) to tackle the challenges we face. To hear that Greta Thunberg was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is a great symbolic step. She and the kids fighting for the planet are the real heroes out there.
No, it’s anything but boring…
Think this sounds rather dull? Don’t worry. The Golden One is action-packed, exciting and there is always something going on. Who is “good”, who is “evil”? Just that question will keep you busy during the second installment of The Golden One. Jason and his friends struggle with this question and they don’t really know the answer. Not even at the end. And what is driving people to do what they do?
Even though from my husband, but this is the reaction I wish all readers had…
Deceit is also a reflection of adult life vs that of children, the different perspectives we have, and what drives us. Without the burden of grown-up responsibilities, children are able to view the world differently. They have the luxury to see patterns that transcend our adult ability which is clouded by having to earn a living, making sure that we (and our progeny) have clothes to wear, a roof over our heads and food on the table. Kids take that for granted, at least in most of the world today.
Release day, so what?
Yes, it’s release day today. For the rest of the almost ten billion people of the planet, it’s just another Thursday, another day to go to work, another school day. Sunny in some places, rainy in others. A handful of people look forward to Deceit. I am very happy about that, of course, and I nurture a dream that more and more will discover the story of Jason and his four valiant friends. This is certainly a story worth any attention it gets. I say that in all humility.
Tonight, I’ll be celebrating the release of Deceit with a few friends and we’ll look at the final cover for the series, for the third book, Reckoning, which will release in September. Another release day, waiting for me…
The documentary “Leaving Neverland” highlights an age-old conundrum
I haven’t seen the documentary yet. So no comments on its merits, artistically or in terms of assignment of guilt. I am a staunch believer in our justice system and the basic tenant of “innocent until proven guilty”. This post isn’t about who said what or who did what, nor about Michael Jackson specifically. As a survivor of sexual assault as a child by a grown-up, I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it either. Some things need not be remembered needlessly. But the discussions that have followed in the wake of its screening around the globe have led me to think about the topic as such, and how we, as consumers of art, can deal with instances when an artist we enjoy/love/adore turns out to be less perfect than we would like them to be.
Through history, artists have always been human…
Stating the obvious first. Artists (writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, filmmakers etc.) have always been humans. And as such, they’re all deeply flawed. Some even claim that it takes a highly flawed person to create great art. Wasn’t me, but I can see how that might be true. In order to create art that touches people emotionally, art that annoys, makes happy, saddens, etc., any artistic product must appeal to our emotions and in order to achieve that effect, whoever creates it, must be able to access deeply rooted feelings and emotions, good and bad.
A bust from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples depicts Julius Caesar, whose popularity skyrocketed after his conquest of Gaul, threatening the power of Rome’s nobility.
Photograph by De Agostini
I remember reading the works of Julius Caesar in school, in the original Latin. He was a brilliant writer, his storytelling unique, yet as a statesman, he was also quite ruthless and brutal. Hardly the ideal human being, and I remember our teacher telling us that we had to see his stories as what they were: a victor’s account of historical events. Hardly objective. And there are many instances through the eons of artists we may treasure, but who fell short on the human front. Here are a couple of my favorites: Richard Wagner, one of my favorite classical composers, yet an asshole (pardon my French) as a human being, not to mention an Anti-Semite of the worst kind. Knut Hamsun, one of my favorite Norwegian writers, brilliant stories. He even won a Nobel Prize, but yeah, he was a staunch supporter of the Nazis and German occupation of Norway. Fast forward to someone like Woody Allen, and the many movies of his I adore, particularly “What you always wanted to know…” but on a human front? Yeah. Then there are Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly, Kevin Spacey and countless others. And we’ve already mentioned the King of Pop whose musical legacy is astonishing, but who leaves many wondering: can I still listen to his music after these allegations?
Boycott or no boycott?
In the wake of the Jackson documentary, several radio stations have stopped playing his music. That is, of course, their prerogative. However, I’m not sure that is the right way to go because it derives us, the audience of the possibility to come to that determination on our own. If I am disgusted by the allegations, I should be able to come to that conclusion on my own and change the station or turn it off. However, if I want to continue to listen, I should be allowed to do so as well.
I don’t like it very much when other people make decisions on my behalf, but that’s just me. If I don’t want to attend a concert by an artist because they’ve been accused of something horrific, that should be my choice, and the same should be true for reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie.
I have one caveat though: be open-minded, and educate yourself. Often enough it is very difficult to assess whether someone really is a bad person, or not. And posthumously? There is no defense possible, and in the case of Michael Jackson, there are no criminal convictions. Which isn’t to say he didn’t do it. Legally, though, and that is our common framework, he’s to be seen as innocent. And that is true for most artists, particularly deceased ones. They can no longer defend themselves, or explain their thoughts or why (or why not) they chose to do this or believe that.
My personal principles with regards to artists
I try to tackle this with a two-pronged approach: a) separate artist from the person and b) don’t be a putz! Educate yourself.
Richard Wagner in 1971
I will always love Wagner’s music, even though I know he was a racist and Anti-Semite. How do I reconcile the two? I have always maintained that the art, the work, is more important than the artist. It is separate from them and should be judged on its own merits. Allow me a short excursion into HR, where many organizations these days use anonymized resumes to make sure applicants have an equal opportunity. We know that hiring managers will sort people by name, gender, race etc. long before digging into the actual competencies of someone. Remove that information and they will be forced to view the actual competencies without knowing if it is a man/woman, someone white/black/Asian, etc. who’s behind a resume.
If you heard pieces from e.g. the Ring without knowing who wrote the score, would you deem it less valuable? As a writer, this is particularly important to me, as I find my works should be judged as they are, not based on who I am. Having studied literature in college, I know that we tend to look to the author’s life to explain this or that in their writing. I’ve always found this rather “offensive”, particularly since I’ve begun to write myself. Yes, I may find inspiration for my writing in my life (duh!) but the end result is never a reflection of me, never something that can be used as a basis for psychoanalysis of me and those near me. I’ve written about this in the past.
It’s easier said than done not to be a putz when it comes to our darlings. We tend to see our idols through stars in our eyes. That is quite normal. And even if you feel that your idol has been falsely accused, and you feel strongly about that, which is fine as long as they have not been convicted in a court of law, educate yourself about the crime/behavior they have been accused of. Not the specific case, but learn about e.g. sexual assault, and how frequent it is, who the victims are, the perpetrators, circumstances it happens and the powerplay involved. Learn about child abuse, the causes, and who victims and predators normally are.
Let’s face it, you can’t really judge anyone unless you know a hell of a lot more about the alleged crime. Just because someone sings a lovely song, writes a great book or is an incredibly talented actor says absolutely nothing about their potential lives. Nothing.
I can listen to Michael Jackson, at least the songs I like and will continue to do so. However, if he were still alive, I’d not allow my son to spend time near him. Ever. Better to be safe than sorry. I can still watch a movie by Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allan, but I wouldn’t have coffee with them. I can still enjoy a novel by Knut Hamsun, but I’m mindful of his views expressed, and I look forward to “The Valkyries” at my opera house this fall, and to learning more about Wagner’s life and the despicable views held by him, his late wife Cosima and many in his family for generations, still infecting the Bayreuth festival every year.
That’s my take on it. What is yours?
We are three days away from the launch of my next book in the Golden One series, Deceit. And while I’m far from being a perfect human being, the worst I’ve done is getting speeding tickets and running a stop sign. LOL So don’t judge me too harshly. But more importantly, judge my books on their own merits, not by what you think of me, my views or my actions. You can learn more about Deceit right here, complete with purchase links to get your own copy.
Gender equality is critical, not just to elevate women, but to free men as well
I always feel conflicted on this day. It’s such an important opportunity to talk about all the work we still have ahead of us, in terms of gender equality, women’s rights etc. all around the world. Just this morning I heard a story on the news about how a new right-wing party wants to tear up the current abortion legislation in Spain, turn back the dial some forty years. So sad, and so very sad that many women support these policies. No one should ever be allowed to make any kind of decision about your own body than the person themself. Alas, women’s bodies still seem to be the property of someone or something else.
My mother feeding me. 1967. Photo: private
It’s not about vaginas v penises, not really…
Gender equality isn’t really about our sexual organs or biology. Yes, undoubtedly, biology plays a role and has played a role in the past. Today though, it’s more about values. We have men with vaginas and women with penises (and people who do not fit on the binary scale), so we can forego the “biological” part, because unless you know the person in front of you is trans, you’ll treat them according to how you perceive them, not what they may or may not have between their legs, what hormonal levels they exhibit in a blood test or even how they perceive themselves…
The real difference is in how we value that which is considered “male” and that which is considered “female”. Sadly, female attributes are considered less valuable, less desirable, than male traits. As a gay man, someone who’s often been described with female attributes in order to be ridiculed, derided and diminished, I know a little bit about it. My community has made the most of this, taking these so-called undesirable traits, elevating and celebrating them. #Drag When we call each other “bitch!” it’s a compliment, not a slur. We’re fierce, strong!
Unfortunately, for society, this skewed value attribution is detrimental. Boys are still (sadly) raised to oppress whatever traits that might be considered female: show emotions, cry, care etc. Instead, they’re pushed to compete, struggle, fight and overcome adversity, to “be a man”. Mind you, these traits are not “bad” per se, but unless they are balanced by empathy and caring, they become dangerous. A man who fights and competes to advance is potentially dangerous if he doesn’t feel empathy for those around him or care for those he competes with. A woman, similarly, is a walking target for abuse if she doesn’t compete or fight for her place if all she does is feel empathy and make excuses.
Ying and Yang. Only together can male and female attributes form a complete human being, regardless of how we identify.
Male and female traits, in a way, are like Ying and Yang. Only together do they make us whole as human beings.
Equality isn’t women’s struggle. It’s a human struggle
I often look to my own parents to see how gender inequality can destroy lives and affect people across time and even generations. My mother was raised in a conservative Catholic home (they all were back in the 1940s.) When she got married, she’d advanced to a purchaser for a local clothing store and had a (potentially) rewarding professional career ahead of her. She had an amazing sense of fashion and was always dressed meticulously. My dad, a carpenter, wanted to move away and she gave it all up, for him (of course.) When they got married, my mother knew nothing (sic!) about sex. Nothing. Imagine the shock.
She raised me and my brother to be different than what my dad had been raised to be. Not that my father is a bad person. Quite the contrary. But just as my mom was a victim of societal expectations (and she played her role well), so was (is) my dad. He worked very hard, built a very successful business, providing for us, and became a person of great influence in town. We often jokingly refer to him as the “King of Samedan” because of that. Part of that image was also to be successful in sexual matters, and affairs with several women were the result, in part because my mom couldn’t due to her upbringing.
I don’t know when my mother first found out about those affairs. I recently learned they began in 1981, but the first ‘clash’ didn’t come until 1985/86 when I was in the US. I missed it all. I couldn’t miss how their relationship had changed when I came back though. But my mother wouldn’t leave him. Threaten? Yes. But a good woman doesn’t leave her man. It’s how she’d been raised and she was unable to break out of the expectations of what it meant to be a good wife, a good mother.
Grandfather and grandson feeding the birds together. Those two… Photo: private
When my mom died, five years ago, my dad was devastated, even though he’d continued to stay in touch with at least one of the women he’d had affairs with through those years. I know because both my brother and I got an offer to inseminate her Lesbian daughter just a couple of years before mom passed away… We both politely (not really) declined. My dad could not cope with being alone after her death, he’d burn the water on the stove… It didn’t take many months before he considered at least four (!) different women and we all joked about what he’d labeled “Beuteschema”, i.e. target audience, to translate it a little bit less offensive than the German term.
Fast forward and my dad is dating the “other woman” and they spend a lot of time together. He’s grown a lot as a person in the past few years and is a lot more open about his emotions, and he’s an amazing and loving grandfather. But there are still lies, there are still cover-ups, and there are still other women that I’m not supposed to know about. His male ego still needs to be stroked. He needs to feel that power rush of being valued by women. Mind you, it takes two to tango, and cheating isn’t a male thing, but I believe that men cheat for different reasons: for them it’s the fear or loneliness, of asserting their power, having something pretty by their side, being looked after, cared for, while women do it to be seen, valued, affirmed. Two sides of the same coin. Ying & Yang all over.
To break the cycle
Unfortunately, this behavior, the effects of the inequality my parents suffer from, also affects their children. Having been my mother’s confidant for decades, I am the living memory of my mother’s pain and the betrayals against her. Every time I see my father’s new woman, I remember all the countless times my mom cried and lamented at being cheated on. It makes family gatherings very difficult and had it not been for my son and his right to spend time with his grandfather, I have a hunch I would avoid the pain if possible. Alas…
Here’s to a better, brighter future, regardless of gender.
So how do you break the cycle? I’ll be honest, I see little hope for me to ever feel differently about what happened between my mom and dad. And I doubt my feelings toward the other woman will ever change. What I can do is try and make sure that I raise our son to be different, to help him be a true human, someone who competes and fights, someone who is truly whole and who doesn’t judge others based on their biology or gender attributes, but based on their heart and mind. It’s an uphill battle because society doesn’t change at the pace we’d like it to (quite the contrary.)
Countless times have we had to point out that “no, that’s not a girl/boy thing” when he came home to tell us about something at school.
I try very hard to break the cycle. I’m a faggot, I’m in touch with every feminine side there is, and I celebrate those traits, every day, just as I relish my masculine characteristics. I can wield a hammer as well as I can stir a pot with a spoon. Let’s all work toward this common goal. Not just today, as we wear purple to honor our sisters, but every day of the year. For all of humanity, women, men and nonbinary people alike.
I wish you all a most auspicious International Women’s Day 2019.
How do you explain this to a five-year-old..?
I recently began writing the second book in the series about Valerius and Evander. Let’s be honest, it’s only really a series if you have more than one book, so duh, given that we called it a series, I needed to continue writing about the two princes whose love story was at the core of book one. I see Valerius and Evander as a way to use to “tool” of a fairy-tale to tell young kids (as a bedtime story) about diversity. Reception of the first book was really great, from both parents, librarians and some of the kids themselves. My son loves it (which is the most important praise.)
The second book deals with becoming parents. A challenging topic for every grown-up. I mean there has to be a reason we invented the stork, right? We use it because we feel uncomfortable talking about sex with children. And because it is difficult to explain the whole eggs and sperm concept to children.
To be honest without overwhelming children (or bore parents)
At first, I had this idea to explain all the various ways in which a gay couple (Valerius and Evander) could become dads. I introduced a Lesbian couple to explain the womb and IVF and surrogacy and suddenly I felt lost. I can barely grasp these concepts myself, from a medical point of view, even though I’ve done it myself in real life and wrote a book (primarily for my grown-up son, but also for adults interested in surrogacy and IVF) about it. However, this is all so very difficult and complex that I finally ended up abandoning the concept. The two queens are still in the manuscript (for now), but they might yet be bumped, as their presence fills no real “need” purely from a storytelling aspect.
Writing for kids, particularly very young children is challenging. As an author, you want to make it fun and exciting while at the same time tell the story and convey whatever lesson the book is meant to tell. Children’s books tend to be a bit on the educational side, and whenever I talk to schools and libraries, it’s what they tell me: we need this or that, we have no books on this or that.
Front cover of my coming children’s book The Dragon Princess, releasing September 20, 2018
Focusing on the child, the story, rather than the procedure
What I ended up doing was just writing. I subject Valerius and Evander to a challenge, or two, and then help them figure it out. In this particular case, it’s an orphanage. In the realm of the fairy-tale it’s workable, even though in our modern day and age, most societies don’t have orphanages anymore. We use foster care instead. To use children in an orphanage allowed me to talk about the plight of children who most commonly end up in LGBT families: orphans or abandoned kids.
To talk about why some parents can’t raise their own kids isn’t easy, and this is the most difficult aspect of re-writing and editing right now. I have enough text to fill the book, but is it the right text? The right words? It’s about teaching the kids new words, but also help them understand societal phenomenons and to enable a discussion between parent/teacher and child when reading the story together. In a way, I have to go back to being a teacher and use pedagogy all over again. Fun, yet difficult because in my daytime career, I used to work with adults. The irony…
So what is Valerius and Evander 2 all about?
The story highlights the wish of our Princes to be parents, that which we label as involuntary childlessness. While recognized and part of the medical profession’s arsenal when it comes to het parents, for gay couples, this is still a territory mired with discrimination and–frankly–lack of understanding and deeply rooted homophobia. That’s where the book starts. Easy, right? It then moves on to show how children are a natural part of society and how they are literally everywhere: in towns, on meadows and even in the forest. To use animals helps to keep things grounded for the kids.
That’s when the orphanage comes in and gives the two princes something to sink their teeth into, but as they busy themselves with helping those kids, their own needs are put on the backburner, which, eventually, leads to the big conclusion of the story, and a chance encounter… To find out what that is, you’ll have to wait for the book to be released.
I still feel that I’m a long way from being done with this. The first book in the series took almost three years to be done. Oddly, it’s so easy to write down the story in a rough draft, but incredibly hard to rewrite, to make sure it’s understandable, relatable and on par with the level of understanding we can expect from a four-, five-, or six-year-old child. Once the text is finalized, edited and proofed, I’ll contact Felicity for the illustrations. That’s when the real magic happens…
Are you looking forward to it? Any other topics you would like to see Valerius and Evander to tackle?
Throughout history, few authors were successful enough to be financially independent
As a resident of the Kingdom of Sweden, I am days away from receiving the “invitation” from my government to file my taxes for 2018. As for most of us, a somewhat sensitive topic. As a full-time author, I don’t have much to look forward to. With little to no income, I don’t really pay taxes and I never ever see tax returns, obviously. I don’t mind paying taxes, but these days, my financial “well-being” is on my mind. Income is so much more than just taxes. I’m lucky to live in a country where much of our social services are offered equally to everybody, regardless of income (or lack thereof.) But other things, such as my future pension, aren’t.
The future looks bleak
“Garantipension” is a thing here, it’s a minimum pension paid to those who haven’t saved enough to warrant a higher pension through contributions (by working.) Our current pension system relies heavily on employers diverting a certain amount of money every month. No employer, no savings. As an author, I’m my own employer and without an income (to speak of), I have little resources to save for the future. But this isn’t just about me. This is something a lot of artists share. But what income sources can we tap into?
Looking back in history
Historically, authors have relied on rich patrons, usually royalty. Every court that could, would employ a bard to entertain nobility at festivities. It’s how we were afforded the great plays, dramas and comedies alike from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and I have a hunch that circumstances were similar elsewhere in the world.
Patrons, these days in the re-invented Patreon-version, have always played a huge roll in the life of artists. Just look at how Italian and French nobility supported Leonardo, Machiavelli or Michelangelo. Many of these artists died in poverty despite their fame today. Nothing changed until books became a thing for a broad mass market. Suddenly you had authors who became celebrities, who sold books by the millions. Reclusive or not, they were famous and rich. But how many of them were there at any given time, globally?
Grants, stipends, crowd-funding or patrons
Few! Very few. But their visibility served like a beacon of light to the hundreds of thousands of authors who self-publish on platforms like KDP today. Of all those people, a handful per year, at the most, land a bestseller and a contract with one of the big houses who long ago abandoned niche literature for the benefit of celebrity literature, books they know will make them money.
So what do poets, authors do to pay their mortgage? Their utility bills? Groceries? Most of them work daytime and write at night. At my age, finding work is becoming increasingly difficult. My value on the job market is equal to the likelihood of global warming being a hoax. Some authors chase grants or stipends, spending many hours researching what is available and submitting proposals. For a shot at a few hundred dollars, these people spend days and weeks.
The advent of the Internet has not only changed publishing forever but also how we can earn money. Asking for donations online, Patreon (see above) or crowd-funding platforms are all ways to make a buck. One thing is certain: the only winners are the platforms… Oddly, the more famous you are, the more books you sell, the more likely you’ll attract money, whereas those who need the money most, they go without.
The Swedish Academy debate
In Sweden, we’ve recently had an interesting debate around income for poets and writers. With Katarina Frostensson offering to leave the Academy (her husband was convicted for raping women on two counts and has been suspected of using his relationship with her to gain financial benefits and access to many of the women he allegedly harassed sexually.) Frostensson refused to leave without financial compensation, having made millions on her “chair” every year. Most other poets make a tiny fraction of that money.
There is an interesting discussion going on in artist circles and in public access media about what an artist should make, what the value of a book is, etc. I think this is a valuable discussion. No doctor treats a patient without pay, the milkman won’t let you take his product for free, and no carpenter will make a table and chairs for you for free. Yet artists are often expected to give away their books, music for free. If nothing else, we expect to find them for free online.
Sometimes, people suggest a basic income. This has recently been tested in Finland, but not to a specific group of people and the trial has yet to be evaluated. The general idea is to supply every citizen with a base income above the poverty limit and to remove all other subsidies instead (housing, social welfare etc.) Some claim that a base income would be less shameful and would free up a lot of resources from the government (as the entire administration of pensions, welfare, etc. would cease.) Others call it a socialist vanity project. Personally, I’m on the fence.
It would certainly help artists and it would remove the angst of having money for the most basic aspects of life. As long as it would also count toward our pensions, all the better. But is it fair to ask for the working population to support artists? Would people still work? Are artists necessary for society to work? Do we add value? Or are we simply lazy leeches? Interesting questions that deserve looking at in more detail.
How much did I sell last year? What will I sell this year?
Sadly, my book sales have dipped in recent years. The first half of 2015 was my best-selling year, and while I had “bestsellers” on various lists in Canada, Australia, and the UK over the years, those books weren’t on the list long enough or the country too insignificant to warrant any major income. I don’t know how many books I’ve sold last year. Like all authors, I always dream that “the next one” will be my breakthrough, will be the one to propel me to the NYT bestseller list and a steady income to allow me to pursue my writing without turning each penny. It’s a dream all artists share, most of us being aware that we’ll never get there.
But we still hope. Thus I hope that 2019 will be a better year, with more sold books, ebooks, and audiobooks. Meanwhile, I enjoy the great reviews my books garner. They may not pay invoices, but they inspire me to work even harder on the next book.
How can you help?
If you are a reader, there are many things you can do to help an author you like. Apart from buying their books (thank you!), often at the cost of a large latte, you can help them at no cost:
- Tell your friends and acquaintances about a book you enjoy, and why.
- Write a short review. Tell people why you liked the book. Preferably not just on Amazon or GollumReads, but also on another site, e.g. Apple, Google, Smashwords et al. All those sites have sales, but very few reviews. Your review might make a big difference.
- Follow, like and share social media posts. Unfortunately, many of the social media sites and their algorithms only care about those metrics and will promote (i.e. make more visible) posts that are “popular”.
- Attend signings and readings. Often, those are instances where authors can sell books and/or are paid to attend.
The mighty power of words
A few days ago, I was invited to join Pen Sweden, a club within Pen International. I was deeply honored to be considered for membership of such a prestigious organization. As a writer, my pen, my keyboard and the words they create are my way of changing society for the better. I have always held a deeply felt conviction that we must speak up. Speak up about injustice, speak up against prejudice, persecution, speak up against racism, homophobia, misogyny. Pen International takes all of our pens and turns it into a powerful force to be reckoned with.
I first heard of Pen…
I will never forget the first time I had heard of Pen International. Salman Rushdie published the Satanic Verses and as a result, some priests in Iran were in desperate need of a diaper change. To have, as they believed, Islam sullied on the day of their greatest triumph was considered blasphemy. Shortly after that, a fatwa was issued against Mr. Rushdie. Mr. Rushdie deserved, the claimed, death for his words. That was in 1989. I was twenty-two years old at the time, I was working as a banker in Zurich and had never heard of Mr. Rushdie before. Yet somehow I noted the strong and global reaction by the literary community and the strong condemnation of the fatwa by Pen International.
Around the world, authors and writers rushed (no pun) to his defense and that was the first time I heard about Pen International. I have held this organization in the highest regard ever since, for speaking up in the face of death threats, and I have followed their work from a respectful distance. This is particularly true considering how some authors and some literary organizations with power, e.g. the Swedish Academy, who awards the Nobel Prize for literature, acted. They refused to speak up which led to some of the members to leave the academy. The final “empty chair” wasn’t filled until late last year when the last of the “Rushdie” members was finally allowed to officially leave the academy and a replacement was voted in. Almost thirty years later.
There is a risk associated with speaking up
To speak your mind, to exercise our “freedom of speech” is not without risk. Maybe the Swedish Academy was afraid of what might happen if they spoke up. Terrorist regimes, like the one in Iran, do not shy away from using violence against dissidents, even abroad. Just last fall, Scandinavian police forces stopped a plot by the Iranian secret police to kill exiled Iranians in Denmark. 2018. Iran is not the only country that has little regard to our human rights: Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi, China and Gui Minhai, the Swedish author and publisher who was abducted in Thailand and taken to China against his will, Dawit Isaak, a Swedish journalist who’s been imprisoned without a trial in Ethiopia and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, the list is so much longer.
A few years ago, I spoke up against the human rights violations in Russia, particularly for the LGBT community on this blog. Suddenly, I noticed that I no longer had readers in Russia (even though I had many Russian readers in the past.) It seemed that my criticism of the Sochi Olympics and the horrific treatment of its queer citizens had scared the government there into blocking my blog from reaching Russia. As feeble as my pen may be, it had stung someone somewhere.
Things in our society are far from perfect, but…
Last night, my husband and I had a discussion with our godson about equality in Sweden, and while we may be frustrated with the lack of progress here and there, and rightly so, our life here is still infinitely better than that for many other people elsewhere. Personally, I see no conflict between working to improve things locally with speaking up for those who are infinitely worse off elsewhere.
- In Sweden, we lament the lack of progress in fathers taking their six months of parental leave. In most countries of the world, the concept of paternity leave is completely foreign.
- In Sweden, we are frustrated by the fact that we still haven’t had a female prime minister. In Saudi, women can’t even leave the house without the approval of a male.
- In Sweden, we are frustrated about the red tape that queer families have to cut through to legalize their families and children. In fourteen countries, simply being queer incurs a death sentence and in another eighty or so, it will land you in prison. Marry? Children?
- In Sweden, I may be frustrated by angry and pointless letters to the editor. In many other countries, such letters are inconceivable, dangerous.
I add my voice to the chorus
The work of Pen International and its national chapters is incredibly important. We speak up for those who have been silenced. We speak up for those who have no voice, and we are a constant reminder to those who oppress, discriminate and hate, that they are seen and recognized for who really they are and what they do. “Freedom of speech” is such a treasure and the very foundation of a free society. And never before has it been more threatened than before, by novel concepts such as AI, fake news. Coupled with state disinformation campaigns, blatant political lies they become a real threat to the fabric of our societies. I can only hope that my pen will continue to be an annoyment to those who deserve to be annoyed by it, as tiny as the sting may be.