October 15, 2012
Why Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned down the 50,000 euro Hungarian PEN Prize
by Claire Kelley
Last Thursday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s publisher New Directions announced that Ferlinghetti had turned down the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian division of PEN. While PEN is dedicated to promoting freedom of speech and attempts to support imprisioned writers worldwide, Ferlinghetti explained in a letter to former Hungarian Secretary of State for Culture and Hungarian PEN Club president Geza Szocs that his decision not to accept the award was because some of the 50,000 euro prize money came from the Hungarian government:
Dear Geza Szocs,
After careful research into the Pannonius Prize and its sponsors, including the present Hungarian government, I have come to the following conclusions: Since the Prize is partially funded by the present Hungarian government, and since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept the Prize in the United States. Thus I must refuse the Prize in its present terms.
However, assuming the total devotion of the Hungarian PEN Club and yourself to freedom of speech and social justice, I propose that the Prize money be used to set up a fund to be administered by the Hungarian PEN Club, said fund to be devoted solely to the publication of Hungarian authors whose writings support total freedom of speech, civil rights, and social justice. These are the only terms under which I can accept the Pannonius Prize.
In defense of individual freedom and democratic institutions, I am faithfully yours,
Ferlinghetti is not the first writer or artist to object to the policies of Viktor Orbán, who is currently the Hungarian Prime Minister, or the far-right anti-semintic and homophobic party Jobbik.
- In June, Nobel laureate and 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel returned the Grand Cross Order of Merit—the highest honor from the Hungarian government which he received in 2004—because Hungarian officials, including Szocs, attended a ceremony in Romania honoring Jozsef Nyiro, a Nazi sympathizer.
- In March, Akos Kertesz, an 80-year-old Jewish Hungarian writer applied for political asylum in Canada citing harassment and threats in his home country.
- And in January, Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff said would no longer visit or perform in his native country: “They have a right-wing government led by Viktor Orbán,and more than two-thirds of the people have voted for them. This absolute majority has enabled them to rewrite the constitution, to rule the supreme court, the economy, the media, and even culture … I am not sure when this will change, but in the near future there is very little hope. For my part, I refuse to return to Hungary.”
In April Frank Bruni wrote a column in the New York Times that explains the increasingly tense atmosphere in Hungary, and expresses concern about Jobbik suggesting that “potently economic anxiety fans the flames of bigotry”:
The last two years have been among the most peculiar. A conservative party won two-thirds of the seats in Parliament and something akin to legislative carte blanche, which it has used in ways that may spell trouble. At the same time, a party far to its right has become a foul-tempered, foul-mouthed player in the country’s affairs… And to [many Hungarians], there’s an authoritarian, nationalistic tenor to things, along with strains of anti-Semitism and antipathy to other minorities.
These concerns inspired 50 members of congress to write a letter to Viktor Orbán in June calling on him to challenge Jobbik’s rhetoric.
Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.