Her task is to strengthen the coordination of the Norwegian cities of refuge and to give advice to the city coordinators and the persecuted writers who have found their way to Norway and its twelve existing cities of refuge. As previous city coordinator and with wide experience within both the literary field and freedom of expression, we are happy to have her on our team. In an interview with ICORN, Hege she speaks about her new role as the national coordinator.
Interview with Hege Newth Nouri
What is your background and your motivation for assuming the task as the coordinator of the Norwegian cities of refuge?
When I saw the position advertised, I knew I had to apply. The job combines matters I find deeply important and interesting to work with. Freedom of expression is the basis of all democracies. In societies where there are restrictions on this fundamental human right, the writers and people speaking their opinion will suffer. Working for the objectives that Norwegian PEN, hence PEN International, are preoccupied with is meaningful and important.
As a former city of refuge coordinator myself, I had knowledge of ICORN and its work, I have met several guest writers and worked with them, including inviting them as writers to the literature festival of which I was director. I’m familiar with some of the obstacles and possibilities the writers meet when they arrive in Norway, and I strongly hope that I, in some way, can contribute to disseminate and publicize the guest writers.
I have previously worked in the organization Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression (which no longer exists), I’ve been the festival director for Bjørnsonfestivalen, the Norwegian festival for International literature with a special focus on freedom of speech, and prior to my engagement in Norwegian PEN as a coordinator, I worked as Secretary General in the Norwegian Library Association. My work as a coordinator combines these three positions; contribute to make writers able to write and publish, but also facilitating the accessibility and dissemination of their works, to everyone, a task the libraries will ensure. Libraries are without doubt one of the most vital democratic institutions in our society. Where else can all people obtain knowledge and cultural experiences for free? No boundaries, no strings attached and no demands or expectations.
When and why did you start engaging in freedom of expression?
In the 1990s, working in the Norwegian Forum for Freedom of Expression. My main task was the making of the database Beacon for freedom of expression, which I did in close collaboration with my mother, Mette Newth, who is a professional writer. Beacon for Freedom is an online documentation of censored publications on all continents, throughout history. It gives a detailed and profound perspective on how arbitrary, how evil and how devastating censorship can be for a society. And how dangerous and fatal it can be for writers. The database is still very much up and running, administered by the National Library of Norway: http://www.beaconforfreedom.org/.
You are the first coordinator for the cities of refuge in Norway. Why has it been a desire to create a position to assist the Norwegian cities of refuge?
The Norwegian cities of refuge network differs from the other countries in the ICORN network; both in that there are many cities, twelve in all, and more importantly, that the writers are invited here as refugees granted a permanent residence permit.
As there are many cities, there are also as many coordinators. I will seek to systematize and disseminate information that can help to improve contact between the coordinators and thereby increase the activities in the cities and amongst the cities.
The writers have to reestablish themselves as writers, in a new country, new culture. One major challenge is the language barrier; the writers are obliged to learn Norwegian, a language that really quite few people in the world speak, only five million. It’s difficult for Norwegian writers to make a living as writers. For the guest writers it is practically impossible. It’s a big paradox really; the writers are persecuted, harassed and threatened to silence in their home countries, in Norway they can write and speak freely, but no one seems interested in listening to their voices.
I emphasize seems. One of my major tasks is to identify opportunities for publishing and dissemination, facilitate and initiate projects and events, in short; contributing to making their voices heard. Once the public is aware of your existence, it is easier to get your message through. My work will be to map all possibilities, in close contact with the coordinators, and the networks within ICORN and Norwegian PEN.
Could you say a few words about the relationship between Norwegian PEN, the cities of refuge and ICORN in this regard?
Throughout the years Norwegian PEN and ICORN has worked in close contact. To the best of my knowledge I think the good relationship has been a precondition for the constructive development of the Norwegian network of cities of refuge, thus the invitation of many writers. Norwegian PEN is my employer. The guest writers arrives in Norway as refugees under the Norwegian UN quota. Norwegian PEN has the right to suggest refugee writers on the Norwegian UN quota. ICORN has the overall responsibility for the cities of refuge and guest writers.
Do you have a city of refuge “moment” that you remember with fond memory?
Absolutely! I was the coordinator for 4 years in Molde, a windswept city on the north-western coast of Norway. There are many episodes, situations and happenings I remember with fondness. However, I think the moments I remember the best are the ones where I met the guest writers for the first time, welcoming them to the city. And I will never forget the look on Gilles’ face (Gilles Dossou-Gouin, guest writer to Molde 2005-2007) when he held his first book published in Norwegian in his hands.
An even more special memory is visiting Nada (Nada Yousif, guest writer to Molde 2007-2009), in hospital just hours after she gave birth to her daughter Heya. Knowing what a long and hard journey that had been for Nada, it was a big big moment to see the little baby in her mother’s arms. Heya will soon be 6 years old.