Arc of History Bending Toward Justice?

PEN International was started modestly almost 100 years ago in 1921 by English writer Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, who, along with fellow writer John Galsworthy and others conceived that if writers from different countries could meet and be welcomed by each other when traveling, a community of fellowship could develop. The time was after World War I. The ability of writers from different countries, languages and cultures to get to know each other had value and might even help reduce tensions and misperceptions, at least among writers of Europe. Not everyone had grand ambitions for the PEN Club, but writers recognized that ideas fueled wars but also were tools for peace.

Catherine Amy Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy

The idea of PEN spread quickly, and clubs developed in France and throughout Europe, the following year in America, and then in Asia, Africa and South America. John Galsworthy, the popular British novelist, became the first President. Members of PEN began gathering at least once a year in a general meeting. A Charter developed to focus the ideas that bound everyone. In the 1930s with the rise of Hitler, PEN defended the freedom of expression for writers, particularly Jewish writers. In 1961 PEN formed its Writers in Prison Committee to work systematically on individual cases of writers threatened around the world. PEN’s work preceded Amnesty, and the founders of Amnesty came to PEN to learn how it did its work. PEN’s Charter, which developed over a decade, was one of the documents referred to when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted at the United Nations after World War II.

Today there are over 150 PEN Centers around the world in over 100 countries. At PEN writers gather, share literature, discuss and debate ideas within countries and among countries and defend writers around the globe imprisoned, threatened or killed for their writing. The development of a PEN center has often been a precursor to the opening up of a country to more democratic practices and freedoms as was the case in Russia, other countries in the former Soviet Union and in Myanmar. A PEN center is also a refuge for writers in certain countries.

Unfortunately, the movement towards more democratic forms of government and freedom of expression has been in retreat in the last few years in a number of these same regions, including in Russia and Turkey.

As part of PEN’s Centennial celebrations, Centers and leadership at PEN International have been asked to share archives for a website that will launch in 2021. As I dug through my sizeable files of PEN papers, I came across this speech below which represents for me the aspirations of PEN, the programming it can do and the disappointments it sometimes faces.

At a 2005 conference in Diyarbakir, Turkey, the ancient city in the contentious southeast region, PEN International, Kurdish and Turkish PEN hosted members from around the world. The gathering was the first time Kurdish and Turkish PEN members shared a stage and translated for each other. I had just taken on the position of International Secretary of PEN and joined others at a time of hope that the reduction of violence and tension in Turkey would open a pathway to a more unified society, a direction that unfortunately has reversed.

PEN Diyarbakir Conference, March 2005

This talk also references the historic struggle in my own country, the United States, a struggle which is stirring anew. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King and others have been quoted as saying. This  is the arc PEN has leaned towards in its first century and is counting on in its second.


When I was younger, I held slabs of ice together with my bare feet as Eliza leapt to freedom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.

I went underground for a time and lived in a room with a thousand light bulbs, along with Ralph Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN.

These novels and others sparked my imagination and created for me a bridge to another world and culture. Growing up in the American South in the 1950’s, I lived in my earliest years in a society where races were separated by law. Even after those laws were overturned, custom held, at least for a time, though change eventually did come.

Literature leapt the barriers, however. While society had set up walls, literature built bridges and opened gates. The books beckoned: “Come, sit a while, listen to this story…can you believe…?” And off the imagination went, identifying with the characters, whatever their race, religion, family, or language.

When I was older, I read Yasar Kemal for the first time. I had visited Turkey once, had read history and newspapers and political commentary, but nothing prepared me for the Turkey I got to know by taking the journey into the cotton fields of the Chukurova plain, along with Long Ali, Old Halil, Memidik and the others, worrying about Long Ali’s indefatigable mother, about Memidik’s struggle against the brutal Muhtar Sefer, and longing with the villagers for the return of Tashbash, the saint.

It has been said that the novel is the most democratic of literary forms because everyone has a voice. I’m not sure where poetry stands in this analysis, but the poet, the dramatist, the artistic writer of every sort must yield in the creative process to the imagination, which, at its best, transcends and at the same time reflects individual experience.

In Diyarbakir/Amed this week we have come together to celebrate cultural diversity and to explore the translation of literature from one language to another, especially to and from smaller languages. The seminars will focus on cultural diversity and dialogue, cultural diversity and peace, and language, and translation and the future. This progression implies that as one communicates and shares and translates, understanding may result, peace may become more likely and the future more secure.

Writing itself is often an act of faith and of hope in the future, certainly for writers who have chosen to be members of PEN. PEN members are as diverse as the globe, connected to each other through 141 centers in 99 countries. They share a goal reflected in PEN’s charter which affirms that its members use their influence in favor of understanding and mutual respect between nations, that they work to dispel race, class and national hatreds and champion one world living in peace.

We are here today as a result of the work of PEN’s Kurdish and Turkish centers, along with the municipality of Diyarbakir/Amed. This meeting is itself a testament to progress in the region and to the realization of a dream set out three years ago.

I’d like to end with the story of a child born last week. Just before his birth his mother was researching this area. She is first generation Korean who came to the United States when she was four; his father’s family arrived from Germany generations ago. I received the following message from his father: “The Kurd project was a good one! Baby seemed very interested and has decided to make his entrance. Needless to say, Baby’s interest in the Kurds has stopped [my wife’s] progress on research.”

This child will grow up speaking English and probably Korean and will also have a connection to Diyarbakir/Amed because of the stories that will be told about his birth. We all live with the stories told to us by our parents of our beginnings, of what our parents were doing when we decided to enter the world. For this young man, his mother was reading about Diyarbakir/Amed. Who knows, someday this child who already embodies several cultures and histories, may come and see this ancient city for himself, where his mother’s imagination had taken her the day he was born.

It is said Diyarbakir/Amed is a melting pot because of all the peoples who have come through in its long history. I come from a country also known as a melting pot. Being a melting pot has its challenges, but I would argue that the diversity is its major strength. In the days ahead I hope we scale walls, open gates and build bridges of imagination together. –Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, International Secretary, PEN International


  1. Lucina Kathmann on March 20, 2019 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks. It is wonderful on this Newroz to remember that conference and that year, 2005, when we were so full of hope. It happened before; it can happen again. We must be patient.

    • Joanne on March 20, 2019 at 7:52 pm

      An experience and memory shared. Yes, it can happen again but difficult times until then.

      • burhan on March 21, 2019 at 3:25 pm

        it is wonderful.. thank you dear joanne.. and
        happy newroz

        • Joanne Leedom-Ackerman on March 21, 2019 at 6:29 pm

          Happy Newroz, Burhan!

  2. Susan on March 20, 2019 at 3:54 pm

    Thank you, Joanne, for the excellent history of PEN and for sharing your archived 2005 talk. What a breath-taking deep dive into history and an incentive to keep our expectations of progress alive! Your closing comments in your talk (“Being a melting pot has its challenges, but I would argue that the diversity is its major strength.”) are a rallying cry for the diversity we support and work toward today. I certainly would have expected more progress along this line 14 years later. Thanks to PEN International, writers and thinkers around the world have friends who believe in and support them wherever they are and whatever the conditions.

    • Joanne on March 20, 2019 at 7:53 pm

      Good to hear from you and thank you for your thoughts.

  3. Lisa Page on March 20, 2019 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks for the real context here, Joanne. I really appreciate your eloquence on top of this important information.

    • Joanne on March 20, 2019 at 7:54 pm

      Thank you, Lisa!

  4. Richard Bray on March 20, 2019 at 6:38 pm

    This is great, Joanne!
    Your summary of PEN’s history brought back moving memories and good feelings of my small contribution.
    The points of your 2005 talk are so critical today.
    Happy Spring.

    • Joanne on March 20, 2019 at 7:56 pm

      Yes, we began a PEN journey together mobilizing our Center after the fatwa against Rushdie!

  5. Katherine Stephen on March 20, 2019 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks for this fascinating information about PEN International. I had not known that it was started by two British writers.

    • Joanne on March 21, 2019 at 3:19 am

      Thank you, Kathy!

  6. Terry Carlbom on March 21, 2019 at 4:47 am

    There was so much good-will slowly emerging in those days; language becoming not an instrument for separation and narrow nationalism, but for free-minded individuals seeing the greater forces of creative cooperation. Thanks to you too Joanne for your dedication and services to International PEN – and your own contribution to creative writing!
    And I remember that bridge!
    Terry (Int. Secr. 1998-2004)

    • Joanne on March 21, 2019 at 9:23 am

      How good to hear from you, Terry. Yes, we all remember well the incomparable Hasankeyf and mourn its imminent destruction.

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