An Interview with PEN Mexico President Jennifer Clement
“Killing a Journalist Has to Be a Federal Crime”
Sampsonia Way continues its series on writers who defend freedom of speech with our third featured writer, Jennifer Clement, president of PEN Mexico. Clement was born in the United States but moved to Mexico in 1961, when she was one year old and her father was hired to build water treatment plants. As she grew up in that country, she felt more Mexican than American.
She has been a member of PEN Mexico for over ten years and was elected as the organization’s president three years ago. When asked about the origins of that PEN chapter, she points out that Mexico was one of the first countries to join PEN International. Now it has 25 members including Homero Aridjis, President Emeritus of PEN International, and poet José Emilio Pacheco.
Clement began her presidency with one and only cause: addressing the high rate of journalist murders. In a country where journalists and reporters have been killed for their work, and no killers have been found or convicted, her PEN chapter held a public demonstration of support for writers and journalists called PEN Protesta! This movement was supported internationally by writers, including Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, and Tarık Günersel.
In this interview conducted via Skype, Clement discusses the work of PEN Mexico, impunity, and the role of the Narco Blog in Mexico.
What got you interested in working with PEN Mexico?
I realized that PEN Mexico was not addressing the killing of journalists, and, along with the other board members, I decided that I would make that my one and only cause. At PEN there are many things going on, but my concerns have been the killing of journalists, the lack of freedom of expression, and the amount of guns that come into Mexico from the United States: there are at least 8,000 legal gun shops on the border. Everyone is worried about the drugs that come from here to the US, but nobody talks about the guns that go from there to here.
PEN Mexico was one of the first countries to join PEN International and the branch’s founders pointed out a commonly ignored, and unconsciously accepted censorship created by “frontiers and nationalistic ideals.” You stated that “PEN represents members not countries.” Can you explain more?
Some PEN centers are not very active or are almost nonexistent. I feel that it’s important to say that PEN Mexico is open to anybody. If you are in a country where there is no PEN center, then you can always be a part of the Mexican center. Historically, PEN Mexico center has had this international feel to it, and Mexico is very proud of the fact that it was one of the first countries to join PEN.
That’s why, as the president of PEN I wanted to get the international community involved. On January 29, 2012 PEN Mexico and PEN International held a public demonstration of solidarity for writers, called PEN Protesta! Before the protest a letter was published, signed by writers and Nobel prize-winners, expressing horror about what was going on in Mexico. It was the first time the international body of writers came together about this issue.
What can be expected of PEN Mexico in the following years?
Well the PEN presidency lasts for three years, so my time is coming to a close. I can’t speak for the new PEN Mexico president, but I would imagine that, now that the country has a new president, PEN will have to continue being really vocal about the fact that there is so much impunity. The problem is that nobody who has killed a journalist is in jail for killing a journalist. This is a terrible problem. The other problem is that to kill a journalist continues to be a state crime. That must be changed to a federal crime, because criminal organizations have infiltrated the local governments, which makes it very hard for the local governments to police themselves. Killing a journalist has to be a federal crime so that it’s a more serious crime.
Since 2000 at least eighty journalists have been killed and some are missing, and not a single person is in jail for those crimes. What PEN needs to do is create a lot of pressure on Mexico’s new president to do something about it.
And how can an organization like PEN create a pressure on the government and be heard?
Through the power of public opinion and the support of outstanding writers.
In 1997 you and your sister, Barbara Sibley, founded the San Miguel Poetry Week, a “weeklong celebration of English language poetry” with global writers. Can you tell us more about?
Both my sister and I were raised in a family that had an activist bent. Since the San Miguel Poetry Week began, the event has created new poetry bridges between British and Mexican writers. Even though it’s a very small event, it has done something very special. The event is now affiliated with the Stonecoast MFA program from the University of Southern Maine, and next year Carol Ann Duffy, the British Poet Laureate is coming.
- Jennifer Clement
- Jennifer Clement studied English Literature and Anthropology at New York University and also studied French literature in Paris, France. Since 2000, Clement has been a member of Mexico’s prestigious “Sistema Nacional de Creadores” and she is also the recipient of a US-Mexico Fund for Culture (FONCA, Fundacion Cultural Bancomer, the Rockefeller Foundation) grant for the San Miguel Poetry Week,which she founded in 1997 with her sister, Barbara Sibley.
- Clement’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies such The Best of The American Voice (USA), INUITS numéro 3, (France), Mexican Poetry Today, 20/20 Voices, Shearsman Books (UK), and Verse and the Universe (poems about science), Milkweed Editions, (USA). She is also included in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Work (Facts of File Library of World Literature).
In your story “This Was When You Could Still be Killed for Love,” a character says that “sometimes the circumstances demanded that one speak in one’s own language.” Can you elaborate on this statement?
What my character was expressing is that when you feel terrible grief, terrible sorrow, or confusion, one needs to speak it in one’s own language
Is there ever a time when translation is inappropriate?
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s the condition of the world, and we live in a globalized world which needs more translation.
Are there any Mexican writers that you would highly recommend to our readers?
Definitely read Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz. She was born in 1651 and defended the right of all women to attain knowledge. She was not allowed to study so she was forced to go into the convent, but her work and her poetry are amazing. There is also an outstanding biography about her written by Nobel Prize-winner Octavio Paz.
What about contemporary Mexican writers?
You have fought for journalists’ safety and against impunity. Which non-fiction books on these issues do you suggest?
Books by Lydia Cacho.
Are there any blogs you follow?
The role of blogs in Mexico is really fascinating. The Blog del Narco is a place where everyone is participating, including the drug traffickers, the police, and citizens. There was a time when I was monitoring the site because I was just fascinated that all these sides were all speaking to each other anonymously. The role of all this new technology is changing the face of journalism. We have seen how Facebook and Twitter have worked in all the Middle Eastern uprisings. The Narco Blog is another side to this.
However, the Blog del Narco has been criticized as a source of information as it does not filter or fact-check what it posts. What is your response to those criticisms?
I find it an interesting contribution in a country where there is censorship by bullet and self-censorship. The Narco Blog is anonymous so everyone is speaking to everyone. It does not follow standard journalistic ethos and does not claim to.
If you had a megaphone that would reach everyone in the world, what would you say into it and why?
I have done all this work with journalists being killed, but my other big cause is women. That’s why my new book, Prayers for the Unusual, is all about the trafficking of women. Even in México that is the big untold story. Girls can just get stolen right off the street and no one cares. If I had a megaphone I would speak about the abuse, trafficking, and slavery of women and children that is a problem all over the world.