After deep disagreements in the Writers’ Guild, interim president Joseph Haslinger takes on the task of restoring trust. The 66-year-old has been temporarily elected head of the German PEN Center after the angry departure of journalist Deniz Yucel. After the resignation of the entire Executive Committee, the PEN Plenary in Göta also established an emergency council to prepare for the election of a new leadership team.
Interim President Joseph Haslinger talks about the State of the Pen
“We will fight for reconciliation,” Haslinger said. At the same time, he made it clear that he would only be available as Head of Pen on a temporary basis. “I have no other ambitions,” Haslinger ruled out a new term. He previously served as Registrar from 2013 to 2017. The new election to the Presidency should take place at an extraordinary general meeting in the fall at the latest. Haslinger spoke to NDR Kultur about the state and prospects of the pen.
Mr. Haslinger, have things calmed down in the pen at the moment?
Joseph Haslinger: No, you can’t say that for sure. It was actually expected that after such a violent escalation of the plenary meeting, complete calm would not return the next day. There are members who toy with the idea of leaving. And there are others who write me emails and talk to me and hope that everything will be rearranged again and that PEN will find its way back to the intensity of its old or new work.
Let’s look at those who want to leave or have already done so: Frederick Christian Dilius, for example, after 50 years. What did you tell him?
Haslinger: I’m writing this message: “I would like to ask you to wait a few months and then evaluate if it is not possible to find a reboot that you can be a part of.”
Throughout the history of the pen there have been conflicts and debates. How harmful is something like this – or how helpful it can be?
Haslinger: Conflict and debate are perfectly fine. Only this time has a point been reached where the agitation is so great that one can no longer speak objectively with one another. This is not a requirement. But disagreements and discussions are useful in principle because they help advance the reform process and set new directions. Things should always be questioned, re-discussed, and reorganized according to the times we are moving, the conflicts we are talking about and the situation that has changed.
One important point is that the pen is said to be a collection of old West German gentlemen. Is this criticism justified? Couldn’t the union be younger, more feminine, and more diverse?
Haslinger: Yes, this is correct. This is a bit tricky transition. In 2017, the last year as regular head of PEN, I tried to embark on this renewal. At that time 80 new members were accepted. Some were skeptical and spoke of a “mass baptism” that not everyone wanted to support. It did, but unfortunately it turned out that the new members did not feel really involved in the work of PEN. Maybe they did a little on their own. But this feeling of having a hereditary lease here, Deniz Yucel wanted to get rid of his presidency from the general meeting. Perhaps the expression “meeting of members” was a wrong one, because at the general meeting it was noted that the elderly were mainly present, and most of the young people did not attend the general meeting at all. So, there are differences in perception, and above all I have to guarantee with the interim chair that this open participation is restored to all members.
How exactly do you want to do that?
Haslinger: We are preparing for a new normal general meeting. I hope to be able to persuade several members to present themselves as candidates, whether it is for the new presidency, for various other assignments, or for the new presidency. Leaving does no good to anyone, especially if the person leaving is also committed to the goals and content of the pen. Then we have lost a really loyal person, and I want to avoid that at all costs. We are actually urgently looking for people who are willing to do this volunteer work. These people exist, and they should be given the feeling that they have a chance to join the committees and have a say in the pen.
In general, how do you feel now: Like a spirit of optimism and a fresh start, or after damage reduction?
Haslinger: For now, for me, it’s basically an attempt to reduce the damage. We have our first meeting in Darmstadt on May 30 at the Provisional Presidency, so it is important to think about the new path concretely in order to prepare for a fresh start. It just needs a reboot. We need to be able to return to the civilized climate of discussion, and dispose of any legacy – whatever its nature – that might be a hindrance to future work. Accordingly, I try to reach out to all members, no matter who they were upset with or not, and invite them to engage in the new issue we are trying to address.
led the interview Jan Wiedemann.