The Literary Club


In an era marked by political upheaval and the erosion of basic human rights, writers have emerged as defiant warriors, brandishing their pens as swords to defend and protect against these attacks on freedom of expression. On May 20th and 21st, 2023, the British Library hosted the first European Writer’s Festival, which featured performances and discussions from some of Europe’s most celebrated authors.

Hailing from over 27 countries, the event boasted a constellation of literary stars, including Kateřina Tučková, Caroline Lamarche, Jan Carson, Zsófia Bán, Raphaela Edelbauer, Magda Carneçi, Chitra Ramaswamy, and Mithu Sanyal, who demonstrated the power of literature to reflect and embody the issues that are not only shaping the future of their countries but Europe as a whole. 

European Writers Festival 2023

The Role of Writers in Defining the New Europe

The role of writers in defining the ideas of Europe today was the topic of spirited debate at the event’s opening panel discussion. The central question at hand was whether writers should adopt a public activist persona or if they could get by simply being writers. This question resonates against the backdrop of persistent threats faced by writers across Europe, threats that have not disappeared and appear to be intensifying on multiple fronts. 

Over the past two years, Europe has been characterised not only by war but also by a variety of new and established methods aimed at silencing the voices of both writers and journalists. These methods include surveillance, legal intimidation, arrests, media manipulation, and the implementation of restrictive laws.  

Zsófia Bán, a Hungarian author who was raised in Rio de Janeiro, spoke out about the censorship her latest children’s book faced due to the Orbán regime’s radical propaganda against any form of differences. During the panel discussion, Bán revealed that her book had been targeted by a far-right member of the Hungarian parliament and torn up in a public performance in the lobby of the parliament building in Budapest.

The book’s protagonist is an owl who is befriended by a diverse class of third-graders, and it is referenced – in less than a sentence – that one of the little girls in the class has two mothers. Bán’s response to this incident was that it was a protest against not only the freedom to identify as gay or lesbian but also against any kind of difference. 

Reflections of the Past for Eastern European Writers

With the rise of totalitarianism and populism across Europe, the pen has become a powerful weapon in the fight to protect these liberties and fundamental rights. But for Eastern European writers like Romanian author Magda Carneçi, the fight for freedom of expression is not a newfound venture but rather a reflection of the past. 

“Freedom of expression is something we must learn to use and be courageous in using it”, expressed Carneçi to her fellow panelists. 


Carneçi vividly recounts how freedom of expression, after the 1989 revolution that toppled Ceaușescu’s regime, “arrived in a chaos”, prompting, in her words, Romanian writers to discover a “new accent on reality.” Other Eastern European authors echoed this sentiment, stressing the importance of freedom of expression by commenting that its value is often only recognised when it is absent. 

For Eastern European authors, freedom of speech means a continuous battle against the lingering fear of being “kidnapped from the European map”, as Czech novelist Kateřina Tučková put it, and regressed into totalitarianism, especially given Putin’s war in Ukraine. Consequently, they find themselves engaged in a delicate dance between political activism, protest and writing their novels within the European spirit. 

Just as the fear of being ‘kidnapped from the European map’ persists among Eastern European writers, the spectre of totalitarianism looms over our collective consciousness. 

The Dangers of a Single Story on Suppressing Historical Memory

During the panel discussion entitled “Writing about History”, Austrian writer Raphaela Edelbauer described history as being circular and stressed the importance of writing about it. Edelbauer’s debut novel, “The Liquid Land,” tackles her country’s efforts to bury its involvement in Nazi atrocities, both literally and figuratively.

During her contribution to the panel, she emphasised the inescapable nature of Europe’s collective past. According to her, the trauma of this past is deeply ingrained in the continent’s soil and is gradually inherited into our present-day psyche. 

The suppression of historical memory and its accompanying collective guilt across Europe cannot be ignored by writers because it leaves us susceptible to the emergence of a single story. Take Brexit, for example, a complex and multifaceted event that was reduced to a single narrative – “Brexit means Brexit.” But what did that even mean?

Without acknowledging the nuances and complexities and diverse perspectives that surrounded that decision, it was reduced to a simple narrative which perpetuated stereotyping, reinforced division and distorted the broader European narrative. 

HER-story for Uniting Europe

Edelbauer drew a parallel between the rise of populism in Europe and the rise of toxic masculinity. According to her, writers have traditionally focused on writing about history from the male perspective, but there now exists a movement to write about history from a female perspective, or “HER-story.”

She gestured towards the other authors on the panel as examples of this movement.  “HIS-tory” divides Europe as a culture, pitting one nation against the other, whereas “HER-story” is written to unite us by showcasing the remarkable women who have shaped the course of our collective past. In this, the European spirit remains alive, raw and authentic in nature as it forces us to find unity in our past rather than division.  

Conclusion: Giving a Voice to a United Europe 

Amidst a weekend filled with thought-provoking discussions, one key takeaway was the immense responsibility that writers hold in the fight for freedom of speech and that it is near to impossible for writing and activism to exist in isolation. 

As we look ahead to the future, a crucial decision lies before us: what kind of ethics do we want to foster within this New Europe? At a time when the political climate is marked by individuals shouting at each other, real freedom of expression must encompass not just the act of speaking, but also the act of listening. While silences may persist, it is the writer’s duty to listen to the stories around them and give a platform to the voices that are overlooked and unheard. It is through this act of listening that empathy, understanding, and meaningful dialogue can begin to flourish again. 

The question for writers and the implication for the future of storytelling in a New Europe raises significant concerns about what it means to connect with a broader European sense of community in the fight to have freedom of expression everywhere. The sophisticated modes of censorship witnessed in countries such as Hungary, Turkey and Greece serve as stark reminders that these threats extend beyond national borders.

The panelists emphasised the importance of having a unified voice, one that transcends national and individual perspectives, to pave the way for a vibrant and inclusive European narrative that embraces diversity, challenges oppression, and protects freedom of expression for future generations.