Freedom To Write - Emerging Voices Essay - Kirin Khan

Every year, we ask our five Emerging Voices Fellows to answer the question, "What does Freedom to Write mean to you?" Over the next five weeks, each of our Fellows will talk about the role that freedom of expression, the keystone of PEN Center USA's mission, has played in their lives as writers, readers, and literary citizens.

Throughout my life in the US, I have heard that I come from an oppressed, oppressive country. When I told people, even as a little girl, that I was from Pakistan, the reaction was a mix of awe and pity.

“Wow. That must be so hard.”

“You are so lucky to be here, instead of trapped like girls over there.”

My impulse, then and now, is to resist that narrative. To talk about my amazing, accomplished family and friends, to list a thousand counterexamples. In reality, the picture is more nuanced.

Last year, I attended the Lahore Literary Festival in Pakistan. In the days leading up to it, rumors circled that it might be cancelled altogether. Something about permits and security. Something about keeping us safe. In the end, the show did go on, albeit one day shorter and in a completely different venue than was planned. It took place on the grounds of a lovely hotel, with uniformed men armed with rifles lining the perimeter. I saw them standing on the rooftops, and a small group of them hung out in the bright sun, just behind the only coffee vendor. Noticing my alarm, my cousin laughed and reassured me. She’s used to seeing them at the mall, movie theaters, on the freeway packed into the backs of uncovered jeeps. I’m not used to it, but perhaps I should be—the prevalence of police forces in the US feels similar; the displays of power and force at protests, rallies, and marches have the same texture.

Are we being protected, or are we the threat?

With this visual reminder of military force surrounding us, I was surprised, inspired, and energized by the writers who spoke in Lahore—from Mona Eltahawy, who knows first-hand the price of protest in the face of authoritarian regimes, opening up with, “Fuck the patriarchy!” to Mohsin Hamid venting openly about the frustrating process of getting a venue for the festival due to government restrictions and strategic bureaucracy. As much as I’d like to tell smug Americans that they’ve got it all wrong about Pakistan, I cannot deny that writers who write freely, who critique those in power, who question religion and culture and tradition are brave, and if they are brave, it must be because there is much at stake.  

In a 2005 Salon article, Iranian author Marjane Satrapi said, “The difference between you and your government is much bigger than the difference between you and me. And the difference between me and my government is much bigger than the difference between me and you. And our governments are very much the same.” I think of her words often in the face of this new administration. As journalists here get arrested for covering protests and our president declares war on the free press, PEN Center USA, seeing which way the wind blows, is directing more energy towards domestic issues. Americans whose families have been here longer than mine like to tell me how lucky I am because it makes them feel lucky. They want to create distance between that place and here. There is no such distance. All over the world, including in the United States, marginalized people are disproportionately targeted when we use our voices. We must use them anyway.

A journalist or blogger speaks out and tells us what is really going on in her home.

Readers bear witness. We coalesce. We mobilize.

Our stories expand the resistance.

When writers are brave, we make others brave. Authoritarian regimes throughout the world know this—this is why they work so hard to spin and discredit, to hurt us or make us disappear. To shut us up one way or another. Writers are truth-seekers, and authoritarians thrive in misinformation. We are all enemies of the state.

In her Guardian 2011 article, the first time she told her story after being assaulted in Cairo by Egyptian security forces, Mona recounts,

“Others asked me again and again: ‘Why were you there?’

‘I'm a journalist, I'm a writer, I'm an analyst,’ I said. But really I wanted to tell them I had longed to touch courage.”

To touch courage. This is the essence of the Freedom to Write. Writers throughout the world are fighting to tell stories that matter; they know that the fight for justice, for freedom, depends on their willingness to speak the truth. When writers put it all on the line, we must stand with them. Our societies, our freedoms, such as they are, depend on it.


Kirin Khan was raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Oakland, California. A Senior Analyst for YouGov, she has a bachelor’s degree in economics from Mills College and a post-baccalaureate in math from Smith College. Kirin is a 2016 VONA Voices alum and an upcoming 2017 Grotto Fellow. She is published in UprootsPARKLE & bLINK, and 7x7.LA. Kirin is currently working on her first novel as part of PEN Center USA's Emerging Voices Fellowship.