How has the internet changed the relationship between the writer and the state?

The relationship between writers and the state is complex, multifaceted and changing. At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2013 a panel of experts explores some of the issues faced by writers around the world.

Timothy Garton Ash chaired the conversation with Ariel Dorfman, Frank Dikotter, Ian Buruma, Selma Dabbagh and Sudeep Chakravarti. Here we highlight the most important points made.

Ariel Dorfman describes how he has seen several phases of censorship under the Pinochet regime, and how complex the situation for writers in authoritarian states is. Part of this is the moral comfort of being able to be against the state rather than for it. (4:00)

Frank Dikotter speaks about his experience writing about China. Having the advantage of being an EU citizen resident in Hong Kong rather than the People’s Republic of China he is very aware of the difficult situation many Chinese writers and historians are in trying to break the silence. He does understand also that many cannot go as far needing to preserve some ability to write and publish. (7:00)

Ian Buruma defends the right of writers of fiction to be apolitical. There is no duty to be political or a dissident as an artists, and Mo Yan’s writing should therefore not be judged on whether it is. The problem, he points out, is that the Chinese state wants exactly that kind of apolitical attitude and their withdrawal from public debate. Yet, a space needs to be preserved for artists to be apolitical. The true state if freedom is to be free to choose exactly the degree of how political one would like to be. (11:10)

Selma Dabbagh explains her situation as a Palestinian with foreign passport, not having to live under occupation. People are, as she explains, very possessive of their own narratives so that it can be difficult for fiction writers to explore the themes with freedom. There is the expectation that one should have a political message. There also needs to be internal criticism of one’s own side that the people accept and use. (16:00)

As an Indian fiction and non-fiction writer, Sudeep Chakravarti talks about his experience writing about conflict and the dangerous position of writers. He emphasizes that the lines between state and business are increasingly blurred. (20:10)

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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