Melinda Nadj Abonji, Adi Blum and Ulrike Ulrich are the initiators of a new writers-in-exile programme for Switzerland. Jill talked to Adi Blum, of the Swiss German PEN Centre to learn more. All images courtesy of Helge Lunde at ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network).
The Swiss German PEN Centre is a member of PEN international. PEN promotes literature and defends the freedom of expression. A consulting member of UNESCO, it is one of the most renowned international literary associations, consisting of 144 centres in 102 countries. The Swiss German PEN Centre was founded in Basel on the 2nd April 1979.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the project and how it started?
The idea began when I met members of ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network) at a conference. Over forty cities around the world, the majority in Europe, are part of a programme to host writers who need to escape their home countries because they face political threat and/or persecution. These cities provide a safe haven for a writer for one to two years, plus financial stability.
Switzerland has lots of artist residencies going on, but usually for a short-term exchange. This requires a longer-term commitment. After a lot of help and advice from Germany (they already have five functioning examples), we outlined our idea. We realised a research budget of around 6,000 CHF was essential before we could even begin.
That’s when we turned to wemakeit, a Swiss-based crowdfunding platform for creatives. We raised the money by the end of 2013, and now we begin to create a “City of Refuge” in Switzerland, with the full support of PEN International and ICORN.
Congratulations! So what happens now?
We need to find the right city in the German-speaking area of Switzerland. We would like to be an agenda item at the “Konferenz der städtischen Kulturbeauftragten”, a meeting of the cultural representatives of all the bigger Swiss cities. We hope to get some response from there. The city will need to provide the infrastructure, by which I mean a flat for at least one or two years, for the writer, and possibly his/her family.
At the same time, we’re meeting foundations who might fund the scholarship, and several are already interested. We’re not under any pressure, we want to take this step-by-step and get it right.
The whole package of funding and accommodation, taking away the initial costs, will come to around 100,000 CHF a year.
We also hope to build a wider network of supporters, here and abroad. Many of the writers who most need this kind of help cannot go back to their countries after one year, or even two. This is why the network is so important.
So this is a Swiss-German only idea?
The City of Geneva, via Maison de Rousseau et de la Littérature, is planning a similar thing. They’re adding a floor to their building which they intend to use as a residence for a writer. So yes, this particular project from the Swiss-German PEN Centre will be something different.
It sounds extremely exciting and worthwhile, but a whole lot of work.
Yes, but the money we raised from wemakeit means we can start now, find our city and foundation, so we can hopefully launch the project with our first writer in 2015. At the Solothurn Literaturtage (30 May-1June), we’ll be holding an apéro for all our supporters, with representatives from ICORN and a writer who has already benefitted from the notion of a safe haven to write.
Nuance want to wish Adi and the team all the best of luck with finding the right backing. We’ll bring you an update of the project later this year. If you want to support this or any other of PEN’s worthwhile causes, you can become a friend here.