In one of his most well-known, quotable declarations, Franz Kafka said that ‘(a) book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ This comes at the end of a letter to a school friend, in which Kafka responds to the idea that books should make us happy. ‘If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to.’
The longer I have been working on Transmissions, the more I have thought about Kafka. From the start, the idea behind PEN Transmissions was to showcase writers as thinkers. Literature is a form of entertainment, sure, and yes, it can and perhaps should make us happy (even if Kafka wasn’t a fan). But it is also a tool for challenging our thinking, for waking us up. Good literature makes us think about more than just ourselves, and how we see ourselves reflected in the pages of a book; it gets us out of the relatability trap and holds a mirror up to society.
These are very PEN-ish thoughts. A large part of what English PEN, along with its sister organisations around the world, does, it to campaign for writers who are being persecuted for their art, and to highlight and celebrate an international community of writers. As a PEN project, PEN Transmissions reflects these values: of showcasing international writing, of giving a platform to writers from different countries, languages and backgrounds, and of foregrounding their thinking about and their engagement with the world at large. Looking back on the last fourteen months of Transmissions, what becomes apparent is that the idea that art could not be political is born out of immense privilege.
This is the last issue of Transmissions in its current form, and in it we return one last time to a theme that has haunted this zine since its inception: how the past shapes the present, and how we ourselves can shape the future. The four contributions in this issue range from concrete steps to achieve a utopia without sexual harassment and assault, to dystopian visions that are anchored in the more nightmarish aspects of our present, to reflections on how past ideologies have an impact – even when we believe them to be mostly forgotten.
Ho Sok Fong and Zehra Doğan both imagine futures that are dystopian – yet clearly recognisable from things we see happen today. They invite us to linger over their texts for a little, to reflect whether what they describe is really the future, or rather a heightened aspect of the present, or even an aspect of the present we refuse to see.
Jen Calleja discusses how utopian hope can inspire and inform tactics for real change. In this case, the utopia is a world without sexual harassment and assault. As Jen points out, making practical changes, however small, can have a big, lasting impact.
Finally, I spoke to Kapka Kassabova, author of the acclaimed Border, about how versions of the past linger on and affect the present, about how to avoid clichés and othering when writing about the Balkans, and about psychogeography.
This is my final issue as commissioning editor of PEN Transmissions. I hope you dig through the archive to read pieces you might have missed, and I hope you subscribe to get updates on future pieces and news. It’s been a total pleasure to work with the 51 writers and translators who have contributed their words and thoughts during my time here. Here’s to them for keeping it real (and political, always). Here’s to the axe shattering the frozen sea.
– Theodora Danek, Commissioning Editor, PEN Transmissions