PEN’s Jennifer Clement on ‘Gun Love’ and Women’s Rights

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

PEN International president Jennifer Clement’s fourth novel, ‘Gun Love,’ is focused on US firearm culture and set in Florida. At the London Book Fair, she spoke about that and challenges in women’s equality.

Jennifer Clement. Image: Barbara Sibley

In an intriguing coincidence, only three days after the March 6 release of Jennifer Clement’s ‘Gun Love’—which is set in Florida’s gun culture—that state’s legislature enacted what The New York Times’ Patricia Mazzei called “the most aggressive action on gun control taken in the state in decades”—pressured by Parkland’s formidable student activists. Clement’s young Floridian protagonist, Pearl, takes a tragic path, while her real-life #NeverAgain contemporaries instead are focused on the November 6 midterms at @AMarch4OurLives. —Porter Anderson

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

On Guns: ‘Tremendous Hope’
At the London Book Fair this year, Jennifer Clement had a dual role.

The first was to support publication of her new novel, Gun Love (March, Penguin Random House/Hogarth), the story of a young woman growing up in today’s United States. Her second role was as the first woman president of PEN International. In that capacity, she chaired a panel during the fair’s first freedom to publish two-hour seminar produced in association with the International Publishers Association.

Clement says she’s an activist at heart and that she firmly believes that literature can make a difference. She grew up and lives in Mexico and has long been involved with writing about women, inequality, and violence, much of her work inspired by true events.

In Prayers for the Stolen (2014, Penguin Random House/Hogarth), she wrote about women affected by violence brought about by drug trafficking. The protagonist of that book, Ladydi Garcia Martínez, grows up near Acapulco in a village in which the drug trade rules and young women are stolen and sold as sex slaves.

In Gun Love, the main character is another girl, Pearl, who lives in Florida, and Clement says that writing the book was part of a process for her. She visited the gun lobby’s National Rifle Association offices and wrote an essay for PEN International entitled “The Church of the Gun.”

Clement says she also reflected on the violence in Mexico and how gun shops dot the US-Mexican border—across which The Los Angeles Times‘ Sarah Kinosian and Eugenio Weigand report more than 253,000 guns move annually from the United States into Mexico.

That said, the recent student demands for change, as represented by David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and others from Florida, has given her “tremendous hope,” she says, “and she credits the students with realizing the importance of promoting voter registration as the key to change.”

On Women: ‘To Dispel All Hatred’

On a more global level, Clement says she has been focused on raising awareness about the challenges to equality for women.

She was president of PEN Mexico from 2009 to 2012, and one of the first things she began to work on when she was elected president of PEN International in 2015 was to change the organization’s charter.

It said, “we should do everything to dispel hatred of nationality and race,” Clements tells Publishing Perspectives. “So we changed the charter and said we’d do everything to dispel all hatred and be for equality.”

The PEN International Women’s Manifesto, which Clement presented at the United Nations in New York this year, is a document that took a year and a half to write. It had to speak to women of all horizons and situations, and it needed to be phrased in a way that could draw the support of as broad a base of concern and commitment as possible.

“The core message of the Women’s Manifesto,” Clement says, “is that tradition, religion, and culture are not more important than human rights.” Publishing Perspectives has added the text of the Women’s Manifesto at the end of this article, for your convenience, and you can download it in a PDF edition here.)

“I think of literature as a place that creates compassion and empathy, and history shows us that novels have produced social change.”Jennifer Clement

Clement has also chosen to partner with VIDA, the nonprofit organization that focuses on women in the arts and industry of books, and on the lack of gender parity on the literary landscape. The best known of its program’s missions is the “VIDA Count,” which focuses on “gender imbalances in publishing by tallying genre, book reviewers, books reviewed, and journalistic bylines to offer an accurate assessment of the publishing world.”

The role that writers play as activists and witnesses is something Clement says she feels privileged to be a part of each day.

“I’m in contact with people who are so brave and risk everything to speak up about injustice,” she says. “Literature is a very important part of PEN. The telling of stories is important, and, as we know, witnessing is also a critical act.”

She continues, “I think of literature as a place that creates compassion and empathy, and history shows us that novels have produced social change. Oliver Twist changed child labor laws. Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen revealed patriarchic laws. And social injustice [is highlighted] in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.”

And how, Publishing Perspectives asks, does Jennifer Clement write about sex trafficking or gun violence with such poetry?

“Poetry is my religion,” she says. For 22 years, she’s run the San Miguel Poetry Week, which she founded with her sister Barbara Sibley.

“Poetry is the place where I find solace and answers, the door into my writing is poetry.”

The PEN International Women’s Manifesto

The following text is entirely from the PEN Women’s Manifesto. We offer it without edits, to help explicate Jennifer Clement’s comments to Publishing Perspectives in our article. More information from PEN International on this statement is here.–Porter Anderson

The first and founding principle of the PEN Charter asserts that “literature knows no frontiers.” These frontiers were traditionally thought of as borders between countries and peoples. For many women in the world–and for almost all women until relatively recently–the first, and the last and perhaps the most powerful frontier was the door of the house she lived in: her parents’ or her husband’s home.

For women to have free speech, the right to read, the right to write, they need to have the right to roam physically, socially and intellectually. There are few social systems that do not regard with hostility a woman who walks by herself.

PEN believes that violence against women, in all its many forms, both within the walls of a home or in the public sphere, creates dangerous forms of censorship. Across the globe, culture, religion and tradition are repeatedly valued above human rights and are used as arguments to encourage or defend harm against women and girls.

PEN believes that the act of silencing a person is to deny their existence. It is a kind of death. Humanity is both wanting and bereft without the full and free expression of women’s creativity and knowledge.

“PEN believes that violence against women, in all its many forms, both within the walls of a home or in the public sphere, creates dangerous forms of censorship.”PEN International Women's Manifesto

PEN endorses the following internationally recognized principles.

  • Nonviolence: End violence against women and girls in all of its forms, including legal, physical, sexual, psychological, verbal and digital; promote an environment in which women and girls can express themselves freely, and ensure that all gender-based violence is comprehensively investigated and punished, and compensation provided for victims.
  • Safety: Protect women writers and journalists and combat impunity for violent acts and harassment committed against women writers and journalists in the world and online.
  • Education: Eliminate gender disparity at all levels of education by promoting full access to quality education for all women and girls, and ensuring that women can fully exercise their education rights to read and write.
  • Equality: Ensure that women are accorded equality with men before the law;, condemn discrimination against women in all its forms and take all necessary steps to eliminate discrimination and ensure the full equality of all people through the development and advancement of women writers.
  • Access: Ensure that women are given the same access to the full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights to enable the full and free participation and public recognition of women in all media and across the spectrum of literary forms. Additionally, ensure equal access for women and girls to all forms of media as a means of freedom of expression.
  • Parity: Promote the equal economic participation of women writers, and ensure that women writers and journalists are employed and paid on equal terms to men without any discrimination.

More from Publishing Perspectives on authors is here. And more of our coverage of issues related to women is here

Publishing Perspectives’ Spring Magazine is focused on inclusivity and diversity. Download a copy here. The magazine is distributed in print at the London Book Fair.

In it, we’ve asked publishing people how we can make our industry and the books we publish reflect increasingly diverse populations in many countries. And we’ve asked them to articulate why this is important to publishers, readers, and society at large.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.