Kjell Olaf was a writer, translator and a critic. He led Norwegian PEN 1997-2007 and was instrumental in establishing the first Norwegian Cities of Asylum in the mid-90s under the umbrella of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW). He later helped restructure the Cities of Asylum in Europe into ICORN, and served on the ICORN Advisory Board from the start until 2009, when it became impossible for him to travel for medical reasons. ICORN’s good relationship and cooperation with PEN is very much down to Kjell Olaf’s achievement.
Helge Lunde visited Kjell Olaf in the hospital last week, when he was still very much able to reminiscence, exchange memories and stories, laugh and say goodbye. He says:
«Kjell Olaf was bright and clear as ever when I met him last Wednesday. He remembered far more details about the past than myself. We spoke about 1998, when we first met in Stavanger and agreed that only one safe haven for persecuted writers was not enough. Systematically, Kjell Olaf convinced Kristiansand, Oslo, Trondheim, Tromsø, Skien and many more cities to join. As the IPW started to collapse in early 2002/2003, Kjell Olaf's Norwegian branch of the network grew stronger. What was more obvious then, we agreed by his hospital bed last Wednesday, than to start up a new, more mature and consolidated network in Norway and Stavanger? I will never forget the warm smile on his face when I told him the latest ICORN developments; more writers placed, more cities recruited, the successful assembly and 10 years anniversary in Paris. Kjell Olaf’s essential role in the creation and early development of ICORN is undisputable. His wisdom, wit and visions will continue to inspire the network and all its parts for years to come.”
Elisabeth Dyvik, ICORN’s programme Director, worked closely with Kjell Olaf for many years. She says:
I didn’t really meet Kjell Olaf that many times face to face after we first met in Stavanger in 1994, at what was to be the start of the city’s commitment to freedom of expression. We picked up again when we met by chance at the PEN Congress in Tromsø in 2004, and then, when I started working for ICORN, Kjell Olaf became my mentor. This was not by any agreement, just by him, in his quiet but decisive way, steadily teaching me everything I needed to know to do my job, especially when it came to bringing persecuted writers to safety, negotiating with immigration services, and convincing civil servants to make the right decisions without them knowing they had been leaned on. I took over this work from him gradually over the years, as ICORN grew and his health deteriorated. For years we were in touch through email and phone on a daily basis, in addition to the meetings of the ICORN Advisory Board. It was my great privilege to work alongside this wise, warm, generous man for so long.
It is not possible here to express what he has meant to so many writers in distress, or to count how many lives he has saved - but it humbles me to think of the numerous writers and journalists who have been able to keep writing and expressing their opinions thanks to him. Kjell Olaf changed the lives of so many; I don’t think we will ever fully understand the impact of his efforts. We can only try to continue the good work.
In the days before Kjell Olaf Jensen’s death, Anders Heger, PEN International board member, spent some of his final hours with him. He sent this letter to friends about their last afternoon together:
Let’s take the medical side first. It’s like Peter says – the old warrior has given up fighting now, he has made his decision. This decision is absolute, and it is set forward with the same calm and reflected stubbornness I recognize from countless conventions, meetings and delegation trips. Our «senior oracle» – as he has been called amongst friends and fighters for some time – knows what he wants, and there is no reason to try to make him change his mind.
He can still eat, certainly – he can drink that nutrition stuff that you get in such places, but he doesn’t want to. What he wants, and what he gets, is morphine and Sobril. His emphysema provides makes it difficult to breathe, gives him anxiety, makes him hyperventilate, which makes it even more difficult to breathe. Morphine / Sobril makes the system calm down and allow him breathe. And when he breathes, his voice is clear and fresh, almost like in the old days. He drinks water. And coffee.
“I have many hospital experiences, but this stay gives me two new ones. One is dying. The other is drinking coffee with a straw.”
I just came home from what might very well be our last encounter. After one of the finest evenings of my life. Kjell Olaf of course looks sick, with tubes going in and out of his body, and even thinner than we remember him (for those who got to know him when he was well-fed and then some, it is quite strange, that bird-look he has settled for the last few years), rickety limbs and only dawns of hair left. But the eyes are the same, his smile is the same, and his memory – his whole, gigantic, detail oriented, remember-name-on-the-most-peripheral-imprisoned-Guatemalan poet-memory (and pronounce it correctly!) – it is the same. The commitment is the same. And the sense of humor is the same.
I was terrified to tire him out or prey on his decreasing strength. But it became a three-hour journey through thirty years of memories, a summary of a life’s work and countless episodes, anecdotes and people along the way, there were absurd details and many, much laughter – it was simply one of the funniest evenings I have experienced. I had forgotten that it was so much fun along the way – I needed a deathbed to remind me of it.
“Thinking back – the peak of my life’s work must have been the chairman period in PEN Norway ….” (This said after we had talked through the dramatic congress in Helsinki, the change in PEN International’s constitution, our disagreement about Alexander Bloch (do not ask!), his time in Amnesty, our experience with the Institute of Literature at the university of Oslo, his time in the Literary Critics Union, a dramatic train ride through Europe in the eighties (feel free to ask), Russian PEN, Sasha and the congress in Moscow, why it’s so hard to breathe in Mexico city and the narrow spaces in Turkish court rooms. Among many, many other things.) “…. but most of all the creation of ICORN and the network of of cities of asylum.”
Then he looked out of the window, into the summer evening on a little sad construction site outside the Lovisenberg hospital, an old and tired fighter on morphine, with oxygen tubes in his nose. Out in that world, today there are fifty cities that provide refuge for writers in danger.
Way to go, chief.
We thank Kjell Olaf for his life long achievements for freedom of expression and send our warmest thoughts to his family.
The announcement made by Norwegian PEN:
The announcement made by PEN International: