During our recent run of Stefano Massini’s Intractable Woman, we spoke with Dr. Polina Kovaleva of the PEN America organization.
PEN America was founded in 1922 and is the largest syndicate, out of 100 centers, of PEN International. Its mission statement is simple: To “unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.” It takes the meaning of Miguel de Cervantes’ passage in Don Quixote–that the “pen is the tongue of the soul; as are the thoughts engendered there, so will be the things written”–one step further in its efforts to make the written word universally accessible.
Prior to it’s full run with PlayCo produced a reading of Intractable Woman for PEN’s annual World Voices Festival. Like our community partner on the project, the Overseas Press Club, PEN America has a personal stake in this adaptation of Politkovskaya’s work. In 2002, she was awarded the foundation’s Freedom to Write Award, a prize reserved for international authors who fight for the right to free expression in the face of adversity. Though that reward has been inactive since 2015, its principles live on in the PEN/Barbey Award, designed to more specifically honor imprisoned writers for their brave words. Oleg Sentsov–about whom we have written this past summer, and who has ended his hunger strike though remains in prison–received this award in 2017. Out of the forty-three recipients, thirty-eight have been freed from prison. Upon his release, Ahmed Naji claimed that his experience in prison made him “believe in literature more.”
Prior to her assistance in such cases with PEN America, through the assemblage of forums, Dr. Kovaleva worked for the Habitat Pro Association and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, both places where she recognized her vocation for empowerment through words. We speak with Dr. Kovaleva in greater length about her efforts as part of the organization, which include the campaign to liberate Sentsov.
When you joined the PEN America organization two years ago, you became the first Free Expression Programs Coordinator for Eurasia. Can you enlighten us on some of the responsibilities that come with the profession?
My work at PEN America encompasses really everything related to Eurasia within the organization. I lead programs such as Writers in Dialog – when American writers visit Moscow and Russian writers come to New York for a series of cultural exchanges. We always invite Eurasian authors to represent the region at the World Voices Festival. Recently, PEN America’s center development has been focused on helping PEN Centers in Eurasia work sustainably. But most importantly, my day starts with monitoring and responding when needed to cases of violation of artistic freedom or writers’ rights to free expression – specifically in our focus countries such as Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
What role does literature play in the international advocacy for human rights?
Attempts to restrict people from their human right of expressing themselves freely directly affect writers. Consequently, it’s no surprise that writers are among the most active advocates for free expression. That’s how PEN was created, about a hundred years ago, when a few writers in London decided that they could not just sit and watch their colleagues being harassed, imprisoned, and even killed for their views. Now, there are more than a hundred centers around the world, particularly in the countries where advocacy for free expression is much needed, and these regional PEN centers being part of the international network plays a vital role in this fight.
In August, you authored a commentary on the imprisoned Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike, done in petition for the release of Ukrainian political prisoners currently held in Russia. In the write-up, you stated your fear that the Russian government “will wait until the last minute, when they can release Sentsov and be confident that he will die shortly thereafter.” But, after 145 days, Sentsov has ended his strike, choosing to live a little longer. Still, he remains in prison, and so do the Ukrainian political prisoners for whom he advocated. How would you interpret this turn of events? What would you say is in store for Sentsov moving forward?
First and foremost, he didn’t choose this because he wanted “to live a little longer.” He is a strong and exceptionally brave man who doesn’t care about his own life, which he has repeatedly put on the line in order to do everything he can to secure the release of all Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. He made this decision after being threatened with force-feeding, which in Russian prisons is nearly equivalent to torture.
I don’t consider his move as a failure, but rather as a victory. He not only emphasized the problem of political prisoners in Russia; he started a movement of people educating others about it. In a country with almost no free media, people began to assume the roles that the media cannot play anymore, thanks to Oleg. That’s why I think it’s not only a small victory for Ukrainians, but for Russian people as well.
Are the examples of Anna Politkovskaya and Oleg Sentsov’s experiences emblematic of all Russian storytellers’ struggles this date in time? How so?
I agree that these two stories are emblematic, even though they are very different. Anna Politkovskaya is a journalist who died because, despite continuous threats and serious danger to her life, she continued doing her job – discovering and sharing the truth with people. Oleg Sentsov represents the people themselves, who have dignity and pride which cannot be taken away with any force. Their cases are emblematic because they once again prove that nothing – not prison bars, not guns – can restrict true freedom.
To which writers should the general public pay their attention at this moment and why?
If we are talking about writers from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, I would recommend looking at the contemporary writers with a strong civil stance, as it goes without saying that literature today cannot be considered in isolation from the socio-economic and political situation in these countries. Unfortunately, not all of them have been translated to English yet. In Russia, Maria Stepanova is certainly the poet of our generation. She is translated widely and her first book of prose will be published in America next year. I would also recommend Alisa Ganieva, who is a Russian writer from Dagestan. Not only she is a brilliant young writer, she also actively participated in the campaign for the release of Oleg Sentsov and other political prisoners. Lev Rubinstein’s essays on current events are always very accurate, critical and funny. Among Ukrainians, I would suggest the works of Serhiy Zhadan – who has recently been translated by Yale University Press, Donetsk writer and historian Elena Styazhkina, as well as Katerina Kalitko, and Artem Chekh. And literature of Belarus is best represented by Alhierd Bacharevič whose Dogs of Europe won the last Book of the Year in Belarus, Uladzimir Arlov who had to quit state-funded publishing house because of his book Medal of White Mouse, and Mariya Martisevich, cultural manager, editor of American Woman book series, essayist and a queen of crowdfunding. The recent campaign for publishing her poetry book Sarmatia got 70% of requested amount in two days.
For more information, please visit PEN America’s website here, and learn how you may help in their cause.