By Lesedi Mnisi
Regardless of international and political disturbances, literature should continue to be common currency to all people and should have no limitations. This is an affirmation found in the PEN Charter. PEN International is an organisation of writers who are politically unaligned, and it has over 140 centres in more than 100 countries.
According to Lara Buxbaum, The Empty Chair by PEN SA’s executive producer, “PEN International was born after World War One in a spirit of internationalism. The idea was that literature could be a way to overcome the … nationalism, xenophobia and violence after the war and it could be a way for literature to cross boundaries.”
PEN South Africa (SA), one of PEN International’s centres, was founded in 1927 and places itself to be South Africa’s “leading moral voice within the world of literature” as per its website. During the pandemic, PEN SA began its highly acclaimed podcast The Empty Chair by PEN SA. The podcast was started to explore and engage in conversations regarding themes of solidarity between writers, freedom of expression and issues of social justice.
“During the height of the pandemic we all felt a loss of structure of our daily lives and the world experienced a lot of social justice activism. There was a shift towards alternative forms of expression… and people turned towards writing and literature, so these themes were emphasised and talked about.” says Kevala Rungopal, an intern for PEN SA’s podcast.
Rungopal further states that it is important “to continue the conversations on these themes so that real change can occur, so these themes do not become a passing fad.”
Each episode of the podcast is dedicated to writers who have been imprisoned, are imprisoned or have faced any kind of abuse from the State. An example of this is episode five of the podcast which was dedicated to civil society leader, publisher, and human rights defender, Osama Kavala. According to the episode’s description, in April of 2022, Kavala was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Season five of the podcast began airing on 4 August 2022 and it is titled, The Empty Chair: A Transatlantic Conversation. This new season features interesting guests from South Africa and the United States of America, such as former Justice Albie Sachs, Venita Blackburn, Julie Otsuka and Stellenbosch University (SU)’s Dr Wamuwi Mbao.
Buxbaum says that the transatlantic nature of the podcast is meant to “give American guests access to South African ideas and South African guests to have access to American ideas.”
The episodes range from 50 minutes to just over an hour. They are filled with interesting information, history and ideas that can spark conversation and thoughts. The podcast has the potential to introduce people to new writers, new ways of thinking and a new perspective on the well-known ideas of social justice, solidarity and freedom of expression. It is a highly recommended listen for all people everywhere. The podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Anchor FM and PEN SA’s website (https://pensouthafrica.co.za/category/podcast/).