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Standing Before History


May 10, 2009

On May 27, Royal Dutch Shell goes to court on charges of involvement in the execution of the iconic Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa thirteen years ago. His son, Ken Wiwa, Jr., and bestselling novelist Richard North Patterson discuss Saro-Wiwa’s legacy, Nigeria now, and the upcoming landmark trial.

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Photo by Dan Eckstein

Thirteen years after the popular Nigerian writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmental and human rights activists were executed on what many consider trumped-up murder charges, Ken Wiwa, Jr., and his family will get their day in court. On May 26, the Wiwa family’s lawsuit against Royal Dutch Shell, whom they charge played a major role in Saro-Wiwa’s death, goes to trial in federal court in Manhattan. What follows is a transcript of the PEN World Voices event, “Standing Before History: Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa,” co-sponsored by Guernica, that took place at the CUNY Graduate Center on Saturday, May 2. Wiwa, Jr., a writer who currently serves as a Special Assistant on International Affairs to the president of Nigeria, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, and Richard North Patterson, whose latest novel Eclipse draws on the Saro-Wiwa story, spoke on a range of topics, including the legacy of Saro-Wiwa, the current situation in Nigeria, and the upcoming trial. Novelist and Guernica contributing writer Okey Ndibe moderated the discussion.

The entire program can be heard here.

Okey Ndibe: I propose to start by asking Ken Wiwa to get the ball rolling for us. Sitting down there and watching the short documentary that we just saw, I was struck by my own memory of your father, the man in whose honor we’re all gathered here today. I met Ken Saro-Wiwa in the early eighties when he produced what became Nigeria’s first, most sophisticated soap opera called “Basi and Company.” What struck me then was how he was full of life, exuded great ebullience, an intellectual ebullience, really. He always, as I remember, carried a book, and he always had his signature pipe as well. Mr. Wiwa struck me as a renaissance man, somebody who was particularly interested in ideas. So what I’d like to begin with is to sort of invite you to reflect on the forces that finally reshaped this man, who would have preferred to enjoy his life in the company of books, to become an activist.

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: Well, that’s an easy question to start with. Like you said, in watching that, my memories of my father are sometimes mixed. When I find time to reflect and think and try to remember him, it’s actually that description of the man that comes back to me now: of a man who was always very full of life, always willing to embrace the underdog. The reading we had before we came onstage, that was very typical of a lot of his writing. His work was—he spoke for the little people, and I think that’s what I want to remember.

But, you know, when you see this and then you spend your time at trials, and everyday, the daily reminders of the injustice that shaped his life and continues to shape the lives of many people in the Niger Delta, you can clearly see that, for me as a father, I always found it very… my father was on the one hand this very ebullient and very outgoing character, but there was this sort of sadness to him, and I think that sadness is measured by the sense of the injustice that he felt. The anger he felt at the situation, that the community that lived on so much wealth was so poor. That you had a country that was really set up to exploit those resources.

And I think, as you say, all things being equal, he probably would have been a comedian or an actor. But he was compelled to write, and I think that’s… For me, the great sadness is always that there’s this sense of injustice that ran through his life, and I think changed him from the father that I knew as a child to the more distant and more complicated character that I knew later on.

Okey Ndibe: A follow-up question: in your memoir of your father, In the Shadow of a Saint, you give us a portrait, in a sense, of your own reluctant coming-into-being as an activist yourself, precisely an activist in the cause of saving your father from the hangman. Could you describe what that has done to you as a person and also as an intellectual and writer?

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: Well, I mean, one, my father’s a great man. Ken Saro-Wiwa was named after him. I grew up with this man, the memory, the myth always in front of me. And so, I guess like most people, to varying degrees, your first struggle in life as a man is to define yourself against your parents. So that was the first struggle, really. And when you have this sort of struggle, I mean, I grew up in England, at least a significant portion of my childhood was in England, which you can probably hear in my accent. So you have this sort of cultural dislocation as well with your father. So the struggle is really to find out who… I mean he’s Ken Saro-Wiwa, I’m Ken Saro-Wiwa, well, who am I supposed to be? What is my own unique, what is my own identity? So I mean that’s part and parcel of everybody’s life, I guess, but mine perhaps is a little bit more complicated maybe.

But you know, I always wanted to be a writer, unconsciously. You grow up seeing your father writing, and I guess somehow that percolates and becomes something that you enjoy. I don’t know whether I was born into it or whether I just kind of copied him or whatever. So then you become this writer and you find that the struggle to define yourself against your father gives you a sense of, at least of something to write about initially, and then there’s also the political struggle, as well, which also informs you as a writer. So those are the things that make up my identity as an individual and as a writer.

Okey Ndibe: Alright, let me turn to Mr. Patterson for a moment. I have just been reading your really fascinating novel, Eclipse, which is set in I guess a fictional African country that you call Luandia, but it’s a thinly disguised Nigeria, obviously. And the story that you tell here is really the story of Ken Saro-Wiwa and of the Ogoni people, their struggle. Early in the novel, the protagonist, who is a lawyer who is doing well in his profession, has to encounter the question in a letter to a friend that he met in a college, in a creative writing class, and he uses the phrase “a life of meaning.” A life of meaning, that’s where I would like you to get in, to sort of talk about a life of meaning in the context of being an American writer encountering this tragedy in Nigeria and also to talk about what does Ken Saro-Wiwa mean for you?

We can disdain people who are not as courageous as Ken Saro-Wiwa, but we have to remember the forces that create them.

Richard North Patterson: Well, I think a life of meaning, among other things, involves using your work in some way beyond one’s personal self-interest. And there’s no better example of that than Ken Saro-Wiwa. I was involved with PEN in the protest surrounding his imprisonment and subsequent execution, and for me, he was unforgettable. There are few writers who use their craft to address subjects as directly as Ken Saro-Wiwa did. There are few writers yet who risk their lives for those principles. So for me, he holds up a mirror to writers and the rest of us about what is it we do that actually has any meaning beyond our own lives and the minute in which we do it.

And so Saro-Wiwa was to me quite remarkable for a couple of different reasons. One is that he came to maturity under an autocracy where dissent had very little tradition, where it was dangerous, and where, nonetheless, he started something unique in the history of Nigeria, as I understand it: a mass movement based upon nonviolence, the principles of human rights which the West claims to espouse, in the hope that he could both rally his own people, which he did, and the West to provide a counterweight to tyranny. So for me, he is a distinct and remarkable figure.

Now, why did I choose to write about him in 2007? In the fifteen years since Saro-Wiwa’s death, his story is all the more relevant. The Ogoni people continue to struggle, the Niger Delta is fifteen years worse in terms of environmental despoliation, in a failure of human rights, and we in the West fill our gas tanks without any knowledge of where that oil comes from, what the cost is. Specifically, after 9/11, our national security strategists and others have become deeply concerned with what we call “oil security.” Given that Iraq has gone to hell, our Middle East policy’s a mess, and we’re worried about al Qaeda, where do we get our oil? And the answer increasingly has been the Niger Delta. And yet we arrive at that answer without any consideration of what the conditions are there.

So what Saro-Wiwa meant to me in a personal way was an example to be admired, and what he meant to me in a geopolitical way is that he illuminated conditions that persist and should be written about in the best way that I could, which was fiction.

And what President Clinton took away from that, among other things, is that oil and the need for oil on behalf of the West and other places made Abacha, in his mind, impervious.

Okey Ndibe: As I read your novel, one of the things that struck me is that this is the kind of novel that could very easily turn into a kind of voyeuristic, simplistic retelling of a kind of a story about a strange place. Africa is often seen as a strange “other” in the imagination of the West. Your story is actually imbued with a complexity that recognizes, if you like, a number of forces that intersect to create the tragedy, the central tragedy that you explore in the novel. Could you speak to some of those other forces that are present in the making of the tragedy in your novel but also in the larger tragedy of the Ogoni people?

Richard North Patterson: There are so many. Before turning to the West and oil for the moment, imagine what it is like to grow up in a society where opportunity is limited, where you have a one-crop economy, more and more oil, where dissent is dangerous, and where you have the quirkiest hope, at best, of personal advancement on merit, given the barriers that exist. That distorts one’s fortunes in a variety of ways, and what I tried to portray is that it’s easy for us in the West to talk about human rights when we have the relative freedom to say those things without risk. It is a lot harder for people in a society fraught with danger and in which opportunity is so limited and in which poverty is often so desperate to do that. So what I tried to suggest is that there are a number of different forces that play in my fictionalized country which are only human. We can disdain people who are not as courageous as Ken Saro-Wiwa, but we have to remember the forces that create them.

A second aspect of that, of course, is geopolitical. Interestingly enough, I had a surprising phone call this week. I was in Washington; it was President Clinton, and he had just read Eclipse, which he was nice enough to say he liked quite a bit, and he told me about his conversation with Sani Abacha in which he argued for Ken Saro-Wiwa’s life. And I ask him, I say, “Well, what was that conversation like?” And he said he was very polite—and you and I discussed this before—but he was cold. And what President Clinton took away from that, among other things, is that oil and the need for oil on behalf of the West and other places made Abacha, in his mind, impervious. And so the second level or another level I portray is all the political machinations around trying to save a fictionalized human rights leader and how they come up against the terrible realities of economics, of the need for oil, and of some ultimate indifference on behalf of the countries who espouse human rights to pushing those at the cost of other interests.

We feel that clearly Shell financed and provided logistical support to the military taskforce who silenced my father, MOSOP, and the Ogoni people from their legitimate right to protest.

Okey Ndibe: And talking about that conversation, I happen to know somebody who was in Abacha’s cabinet at the time Abacha was a military dictator and Abacha’s account of this conversation with then-President Clinton was, what struck Abacha, Clinton was saying “Sir, you need to listen to the international community,” sort of the polite way that you Americans say “sir,” right? And Abacha turned to his friends afterward and said, “You know, all these pro-democracy activists run to America and expect America to save them, but the U.S. president himself is calling me ‘sir.’ He’s scared of me.”
Let me bring it back to you, Ken. In your memoir, you write about the compulsion by those who set out to sacrifice themselves for a struggle that, in the bid to create a space, if you like, a safe place for society, they end up sacrificing their own children. It’s a very haunting portrait of the sacrifice of one’s children in order to, as it were, create a space for society, create a social space. Could you speak to the experience then of growing up in a situation where your father gave himself to a struggle perhaps to a degree that then made him absent as a father?

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: Let me just say that the word “sacrifice,” if you take it out of context, can seem a bit strong. In no way do I feel… Looking back on it, it wasn’t that I felt my father was absent. He sent his children, all of his children, to the best schools money can buy. So as a father, he pretty much did his duty in many ways. But I think what, for me… In the book, I go and talk to, I think I interviewed Winnie Mandela and Biko, Nkosinathi Biko, Steve Biko’s son, and I also went to interview Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. And what struck me from all these conversations with all these people, and memories of my own father, is that it’s just very simply, it boils down to this: all of us have a choice in the world, to make our children safe in the world or to make the world safe for our children. And I think people like my father, Steve Biko, Aung San Suu Kyi, chose to make the world safe for their children.

And there are implications for that, all of us, those of us that come from that condition. I think to most of the people I’ve spoken to, they’re all, we’re all proud of the choice our parents made. I speak to my brothers and sisters, they say the same thing. When you say sacrifice, it seems as if there’s something that we missed or lacked, but at the end, it’s more that our fathers chose a different path. It’s just a different path, so that’s really what I was getting at there.

Okey Ndibe: Let me get to the question of the trial, of the lawsuit that is being filed in a few weeks. I know that your family holds Shell Petroleum Company responsible really for what happened to your father. Could you lay out the case as the family sees it?

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: This is the point where my lawyers, some of whom are in the audience, get very nervous. But we feel Shell’s fingerprints are all over not just the murder and execution of my father and the eight others who were executed with him, but many others who were shot. We saw some of the scenes of destruction and the villages. Thousands of others were sent into exile, many of them here in the U.S. We feel that clearly Shell financed and provided logistical support to the military taskforce who silenced my father, MOSOP [Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People], and the Ogoni people from their legitimate right to protest. And I think starting May 26, our lawyers are going to lay out that case and, as we say, we feel very strongly that Shell’s fingerprints are all over those murders, executions, torture. And the judge, after twelve years, feels that, has felt that Shell has a case to answer. And so we’ll find out.

Okey Ndibe: Good, thanks. Mr. Patterson, I get back to you. Your novel is much more than a novel, [it is] a reflection on this tragedy in Ogoni land that is fictionalized. You actually show a kind of tapestry of violence that runs through all the arteries, including this country with September 11, and so on and so forth. Could you speak to that for your vision of what is producing this violence and what would it take to begin to perhaps reduce it and create a safer world?

Richard North Patterson: Boy, that’s a… we could spend a couple hours on that one, and the truth is, obviously, as we all know, there’s no simple answer to it. I think one reason that we have the kind of violence and injustice in the world is a failure of empathy and imagination. And I think, for example, when we were attacked on September 11, there was a tendency, among other things, not only to draw inward but to organize the world; either you’re for us or you’re against us, regardless of whether the individual people had anything to do with September 11 or not. I mean, the Iraq war to me is this totally misplaced adventure justified verbally, but not in fact, by the [September 11 terrorist attacks]. I think we as a result looked upon the Arab world in a very simplistic way, as one example.

As long as we in America view the world in black and white terms, in primarily military terms, or in terms of subduing or out-powering someone, there will be violence. You can certainly loathe al Qaeda and still understand that there’s a great reason, other than the loathing of Israel, for Arabs in the Middle East to resent how colonial powers, and later America, have dealt with them, in the way in which we tend to look upon them in terms of resource—much in the way I suggest we look at the Niger Delta. So that failure of empathy and imagination, that narrowness on our part, contributed to it. If you have a country like Nigeria where there is so much abuse of power, in a way it’s like having an abusive parent. What do you learn? Ken Saro-Wiwa tried to set an example for a very specific reason: I think among other things to provide a very healthy model for people to improve their lives, other than having recourse to the same kinds of tactics used against them. And sadly, too often, that prevails in the Niger Delta. So it’s also a matter of habituation. What are you taught to expect? What do you learn?

And finally, and just briefly, I’d say we in the United States more and more have become a gated community of the mind, or a series of gated communities where the media, where our political parties, where people who are popular culture figures ask us to narrow ourselves to see only the people who are like us, to think about only the people who are like us, to think only like the people who are like us. So it’s that same failure of empathy and imagination. But as I say, you asked me a very large question.

Okey Ndibe: Well, that’s my style. So the next question, which is just as large, is, this Manichean vision of the world as cast in two molds and its “us” and “them” seems to have seized the American imagination. One thinks of a moment during the last presidential campaign when a woman got up and said to John McCain, “I don’t like Obama, I hear he’s an Arab,” and she was reassured that he was a good American, which excluded Arabs, I suspect, from being good Americans.

Richard North Patterson: There might have been a more complete response to that one.

Okey Ndibe: My question then is what do we do to get the ordinary American in the street to sort of discover that there is a far more complex picture of the world and what is the role of the writer, in your view, in this work?

Richard North Patterson: Well, we need to get out a little bit more. I mean, when I go overseas, people ask me, “Well, why don’t we ever meet Americans that were for Bush when you elected him,” and I say, “Because a lot of them don’t have passports.” And that’s a little glib, but what I mean is that there seems to be a failure of curiosity on behalf of so many. And if you depersonalize other folks, if you can’t imagine the justice of their view of the world or even where it comes from, you know, then you’re in real, real trouble.

One of the things I admire most about Obama is that, and I say this in a good way, is that he’s afraid of being stupid. He’s afraid of telling us stupid things. And to a remarkable degree for a politician, he’s willing to acknowledge nuance and act as a teacher. In a very small way, I think writers are obligated to do that. I don’t have any illusion that I have changed the course of political debates by writing about the things I have. I have written about abortion, and I’ve written about guns and gun violence; I’ve written about capital punishment, about the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, about a number of subjects which are controversial, and my feeling is, I forget the Bobby Kennedy quote exactly, but if one throws a pebble, it will intersect with other pebbles and eventually you form ripples of daring. All one can do as a writer is ask people, in addition to entertaining them and hoping to sell enough books to send your kids to school, to imagine experiences outside their own. I am never more grateful than when I get a letter, and I’ve gotten a fair number of them, saying, “You’ve made me think about something in an entirely different way.” A particular example that’s actually not American, but when I wrote about the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy and the way that those two narratives never seem to intersect, in a number of letters I got, including from self-identified supporters of Israel, they said, “You’ve made me think about the Palestinian narrative in a different way.” [They] were very affecting to me.

I guess we change minds a little bit at a time. But I do note, for example, that the gay rights situation is very different here than it was. And that isn’t because some president got up and said, “I am now going to declare gay rights as a respectable cause in America.” It’s because people came around to it. They knew gay people, they thought about the problem, they read something that made them think, and I think we all have a piece in making our society better or worse.

Okey Ndibe: Ken, I return to you. The situation in the Niger Delta continues to get very bleak and, in a lot of ways, some would say bleaker than it was when your father was struggling to change things. Do you have confidence at all that there is any prospect for a peaceful resolution of that, the crisis in the Niger Delta, and what would it take to achieve one?

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: Another small question.

Richard North Patterson: I’m glad you got it!

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: Let’s solve the Niger Delta in two minutes. I think what you’ve seen in the Niger Delta now is some of the predictions my father made during his tribunal. He said that the public out there was waiting for the signal the court sent: that nonviolent struggle would be met with violence. And I think what that created was this sense that there was… it heightened the sense of injustice, the perception of injustice amongst people in the Niger Delta and that sort of has splintered into all kinds of different responses from different groups.

The most important thing is that, for me, my father always advocated nonviolence. He always advocated a solution that was borne of thinking, empathy. I’ve tried to continue along that line. The window is closing, for sure, but if we’re committed to justice, we’re committed to accountability, we’re committed to seeing that actually the future of the world is safer if we insist on the mutual benefit and dependency. I mean, we’ve just come out of a period where, as you say, it was them and us and there was this sense that this was the project for a new American century, where there were problems we could use power and force to get our way.

Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that and the response is people can disarm, talk about asymmetrical warfare now, you know your F-16s can’t fish out bin Laden and so on and so forth. So there has to be a different way, and I think it’s the struggle for hearts and minds, it’s the struggle to use soft power, to project all the good things that we like—democracy, accountability. And it’s possible to do that, but I think the forces that lead toward violence and destruction are in the ascendancy, and it’s going to take a tremendous will, both from the people in the Niger Delta, the oil companies, federal government, and the international community to insist on a nonviolent and a fair and a just solution.

But unless we insist on it, I think it’s going to have all kinds of ripple effects. Because as we always used to say in the struggle, what happens in the Niger Delta can have effects that go all the way back to Washington, right across the world. Because one in ten black people are Nigerian, a catastrophe in the Niger Delta has consequences, not just in terms of climate change, in terms of regional security, for energy security. So I think this, the Niger Delta, is a theater that’s actually more important to the world than we realize, than most people realize. I mean we know how important it is, so it’s even more important that we address these issues. I hope the trial, at any rate, will bring some of these issues out to the fore and people realize that what’s happening there is actually very intrinsic to the future of our planet.

Okey Ndibe: I imagine that you occasionally travel in the region, in the Niger Delta, which has since become quite treacherous. So what sense do you get from the people back there? Is there any hope, do they believe that there is a peaceful solution? That’s one arm of the question. The other one is that the current leader of Nigeria, Yar’Adua, had proposed a few months ago a summit, a kind of gathering to discuss the problems of the Niger Delta. And that was quite quickly dismissed because people felt there had been discussions in the past, there had been documents produced as to the way to go, you know, to achieve the fairness and equity and justice that you talk about. He then turned around and appointed somebody as minister for the Niger Delta. Are these, in your view, substantive enough measures toward the goal of justice in the Niger Delta?

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: Two large questions there; I’ll take the last one. I serve in the government, and I was party to a lot of the discussions that led up to the formation of the Niger Delta ministry. And those discussions are too complicated in this forum to unpack and to see how we got to this Niger Delta ministry. But my sense of it is that we do need… Government recognizes this is an issue. If you look at where we were in 1993 and where we are now, the Niger Delta is quite clearly front and center of the political debate. Federal government realizes that the Niger Delta issue is probably the most pressing issue for Nigeria. So if we just take a graph of where we were and where we are now, there is a recognition of many of the things my father and others have been saying for forty years or more. But whether that’s enough, time will tell.

I think the Niger Delta ministry, the way Nigeria works… I’ve been in the system, I understand how government works and how it doesn’t work, if you like, and it takes time for some of these things to come through. And what’s important is that you communicate to the people that there’s a certain level of seriousness, an application being given, an attention being given to this issue. For me, I’ve always felt that things like resolving the issue in Ogoni is the clearest way to send a message to the rest of the Niger Delta. I’ve argued and been in debates within government that said, look, the Ogoni struggle is one that’s well known out there. If we’re able to find the solution that is mutually beneficial to the oil companies, the community, and the federal government, it will send a message to the rest of the community that here’s a community that advocated for nonviolence and the government came around and sat down with all the stakeholders and we came up with a solution that works for everybody. And that will send a message not just to the rest of the Niger Delta, but right across the world. And I’ve argued and argued and argued this. It’s why I’m in government.

Now to your first question. I travel around. Yes, I travel around the Niger Delta. What’s struck me is, I grew up in the Niger Delta, my memories of the place are so much different from what obtains now. We read about the kidnapping and the violence on the streets. There’s a sense that, you know, look, you can walk around in Port Harcourt or the Niger Delta, you’ll never get a sense that this is somewhere that has been described as a low-level civil war in some of the descriptions of international organizations. But yes, there are thousands of people who are being killed in the Niger Delta every year and there is a lot of violence in the city. But there is a sense that this is a society that has accepted a level of violence that is abnormal, that lives in fear, lives behind high walls and abnormal levels of security. And most people, my fear is that people who are born into the Niger Delta don’t know any different now. People who are born now don’t know any different.

I have very different memories of the Niger Delta, of living in Port Harcourt. Very peaceful. But I just wonder what children who have been born in the last ten years, how they conceive of what seems to be their normality, their reality, and what effect that will have when they grow, become adults, and they grow into a world where most of them will not have a good job, they won’t have electricity, they won’t have running water, and how their response to all of that is not going to be the considered response of my father and my generation. That’s my real concern. And so, as I said, the window of opportunity is closing. And you try to impress it upon the government. I mean, I am the government, but we try to impress it upon the policymakers that we need to do something, we need to make a very definitive statement that will change people’s perceptions. I had hopes, in three years of being in government, that they would use the situation in Ogoni as a metaphor, if you like. But, you know, here we are. We’re coming up on the trial and the window’s closing.

Okey Ndibe: I suspect we’re closing in on time. But I’d like to ask our two guests to sort of briefly frame for us what you believe—beginning with you Mr. Patterson—that Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy is.

He would have been very gratified to know that—he’s probably smiling right now—that his son is here talking about his legacy. And issues of climate change are front and center of global public policy debates.

Richard North Patterson: Well, we’re here talking about him and we’re here because he embodied a nonviolence in civil society in a very particular way. We’re also here because he was an environmentalist; let us not forget that this was not about economics simply, but it was about the environmental impact. We’re fifteen years deeper into realizing the environmental destruction that we have imposed on the world and there is not a better example of it than the Niger Delta, a formerly fertile land of crops, plentiful in fish, which has now been turned into a wasteland by sheer carelessness, callousness, and profiteering. That is something to remember about Nigeria; it is something to remember happens too often around the world and we have to remember that it’s a priority.

I think more than that, he embodies courage; he embodies caring about a cause larger than himself. He embodies what can happen through the power of ideas. He embodies that leadership doesn’t always come from presidents and may never come from autocrats but comes from people defining themselves in a different way. I think for all of those things, for the nobility of what he did, he is an example to us all, not only in the causes that he embraced, but in the smaller ways that we can act in our own lives.

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: It’s difficult for me… I mean, I think the struggle is still, I don’t know where we are in the struggle. I mean in twenty years, maybe thirty years, there will be a proper, full reckoning and account of who Ken Saro-Wiwa was or is. But whenever I hear this question, I always think of a conversation I had with Aung San Suu Kyi, and I told her I was writing a book called In the Shadow of a Saint, and she said, “Was he a saint?” And I said, “Well, not exactly,” and she smiled. But what I was thinking of was her statement where she said the definition of a saint is someone who keeps on trying. And it struck me, when I read that before I met her, that it described my father because he always talked about at the age of seventeen in 1958 that he started writing letters in local papers, talking about the destruction of the environment. And for the next thirty years, he talked about oppressed minorities in Nigeria, about oil exploration—issues that at the time that no one was really talking about. And now, I remember as a teenager he would go on and on and on about it, and I used to wonder, Why does this man keep talking about this? Nobody is interested. [Laughter]

And of course, now all these issues are front and center of the debate in Nigeria. Here we are in New York. He would have been very gratified to know that—he’s probably smiling right now—that his son is here talking about his legacy. And issues of climate change are front and center of global public policy debates. And these are all issues that he spoke about. And I don’t think it’s hype to say that he played an intrinsic role in that. But beyond that also, there’s this issue of accountability, corporate accountability. He began, he tried, and he never let up. And we have lawyers here from the Center for Constitutional Rights, and they spent twelve years arguing this case, and they tried and they’ve kept trying, and I think that example serves as an inspiration, at least to me, anyway, that the definition of a saint is someone who keeps trying.

Okey Ndibe: Thank you very much. [Applause]

Ken Wiwa, Jr.: I should also add that PEN embraced my father, as Larry [Siems, Director of PEN American Center’s Freed to Write] said. The PEN family has just been a wonderful institution not just here in the U.S. but in Canada and in the U.K. I felt very comforted by the community and the family of writers and readers and artists, which has sustained us. So I’m entirely very grateful for people like you who come out to support us. [Applause]

To hear Guernica Editor-in-Chief Michael Archer read Ken Saro-Wiwa’s final statement to his executioners, go here.

Editors’ Recommendations:

A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary by Ken Saro-Wiwa

Before I Am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Literature, Politics, and Dissent by Onookome Okome

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