Writing Freedom between Decolonization and the Cold War: PEN Asian Writers' Conferences, 1962-1981

29 Mar 2021 09.00 AM - 10.30 AM Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public

How did the Cold War shape political modernity in the Third World, and what do literature and literary networks reveal about such political contestations and their afterlives? Sponsored by the now-global literary organization PEN International, a number of Asian Writers’ Conferences were held during the 1960s to 1980s, bringing together writers from across the region. This presentation scrutinizes five of these conferences to trace the dilemmas of literary and cultural producers as they attempt to forge a collective future beyond colonialism, superpower subordination, and rising domestic authoritarianism. Reading the writers’ conferences in the wake of the historic Bandung Conference of 1955, I investigate the way notions of freedom and cultural autonomy prove to be anything but stable: they range from the PEN-endorsed defense of “free words” and exchange across the “free world” to more radical calls for political solidarity and “cultural import substitution.” This talk therefore explores the way Cold War exigencies reshaped notions of literary and political freedom in postcolonial Asia. The talk is drawn from my forthcoming book, Cold War Reckonings: Authoritarianism and the Genres of Decolonization (Fordham UP, 2021), which examines cultural production that emerges from, and reflects upon, the entanglement of the Cold War and decolonization in East and Southeast Asia.


Jini Kim Watson (PhD Duke Literature) is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at NYU. Her teaching and research focus on questions of decolonization, national and global imaginaries, uneven development and forms of political modernity in Asia/Pacific. Her first book, The New Asian City (Minnesota UP, 2011), examined the rise of so-called “Asian Tiger” economies and metropolises through the lens of literature and film; with Gary Wilder she co-edited a volume of collected essays titled The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present (Fordham UP, 2018). Jini’s new book, Cold War Reckonings: Authoritarianism and the Genres of Decolonization is forthcoming from Fordham UP in mid-2021.