J.K. ROWLING’S SPEECH AT PEN AMERICA LITERARY GALA 2016: A CHALLENGE FOR ALBUS DUMBLEDORE?

As noted earlier on this blog (21 February 2016), J.K. Rowling was the main invited speaker at this year’s PEN America Literary Gala in New York, held on 16 May 2016,at which she received the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for 2016 (see: https://pen.org/2016-PEN-gala#sthash.oYyNL4BI.dpuf). Her chosen theme was one of today’s most burning topics, namely freedom of speech – an issue on which, as we saw last year over the Charlie Hebdo killings, some PEN members have shown attitudes best described as ambivalent.

Rowling, by contrast, is crystal-clear on the issue. In her speech (https://pen.org/2016-pen-literary-gala-parker-rowling), she declared: ‘The tides of populism and nationalism currently sweeping many developed countries have been accompanied by demands that unwelcome and inconvenient voices be removed from public discourse. “Mainstream media” has become a term of abuse in some quarters. It seems that unless a commentator or television channel or a newspaper reflects exactly the complainant’s worldview, it must be guilty of bias or corruption. Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me—a moderate and a liberal—most uncomfortable’. She concluded pleading for ‘plurality, tolerance, and the importance of rational discourse’ and expressing the wish that PEN continue to ‘fight for … the freedoms on which a liberal society rests and without which no literature can have value’.

We may conclude that Albus Dumbledore should allow Lord Voldemort to speak, however much he might abhor the latter’s views – arguably a bold position in today’s intolerant times.

This is not the first time Rowling has spoken at a major American event. The slim volume ‘Very Good Lives’, published by Little, Brown in 2015,

JKR Very Good Lives cover

contains her speech at a Harvard ‘commencement’ (graduation ceremony) held in 2008. There too she defends the freedom of the imagination. The world can only be the better-off for such interventions from a writer whose works have given so much pleasure, to children and adults alike.

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