PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey will be of interest.
Fremantle, Australia is far away, at least if you live in the Americas or Europe or West Africa. So is Tokyo, Manila, Nepal, Hong Kong,—all destinations of PEN Congresses and conferences. As a global organization with centers in over 100 countries, PEN tries to cover the world with its meetings and at least once or twice a decade organize a Congress in Asia or Australia with its centers there.
In 1995 for PEN International’s 62nd Congress Perth PEN hosted delegates from around the world in Fremantle, a port city on Australia’s western coast in the Perth metropolitan area, a picturesque city with Victorian architecture and, as I recall at the time, a town out of the 1960’s where time hadn’t quite caught up. The city’s reputation was partially derived from its history as a penal colony from the 1850’s to 1991. The traditional Aboriginal people who lived there called the area Walyalup “the crying place.”
The 65th Congress was one of the smaller for PEN, less formal with many delegates staying in the homes of local writers rather than in a hotel. Instead of formal receptions in houses of state, at least one evening’s entertainment was a game of literary trivia and bingo. Because the venue was on the harbor, the swimmers among the delegates, particularly Sascha (Alexander Tkachenko) General Secretary of Russian PEN, tried to swim each day despite the warnings that waters were shark-infested. Sascha defied the sharks which he considered a milder threat than what he was dealing with back home in Russia.
The Congress theme Freedom of Expression and Cultural Context translated into an endorsement of the universality of human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Held in the 50th anniversary year of the United Nations’ founding, PEN insisted human rights were not a relative notion. “While the concept of a universal right may not have penetrated the mechanisms of all states, the invocation of the universal right to free expression remains one of the essential tools that PEN and other organizations use to apply pressure and insert a wedge into the conscience of nations,” the Writers in Prison Chair’s report noted that year.
While certain human rights were absolute, governance was relative, and PEN itself was beginning to struggle with its structure. The relaxed atmosphere of Fremantle allowed informal discussions among delegates who were urging a more democratic structure for PEN. As PEN International headed towards its 75th anniversary the following year, Boris Novak, Slovene PEN President and Chair of the Peace Committee noted that the inner structure of PEN was no longer adequate for the needs of such a large global organization. This sentiment was echoed by the American PEN delegate and delegates from Scandinavian centers. The International Secretary agreed to hold a special meeting in Perth on this question, and the discussion and the dissent began.
As chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, I shared the concerns, but the WiPC staff and I determined that the Writers in Prison Committee should remain a place where everyone came together and focused on the mission of getting writers out of prison and securing freedom of expression so we stayed on the edge of the debate. The internal politics of PEN were stirring and erupted a year later at the 1996 Congress in Guadalajara. In Perth, however, the breezes were balmy and the water warm enough to dip in if not to cross the distance between the old and the new. That process would evolve over the next several years and Congresses to come.
Brief summary of work follows in this excerpt from my 1995 Writers in Prison Committee Chair report:
“Since [he] was arrested, my relatives and close friends have not dared to speak to me or telephone me for fear of being arrested. They have steered clear of me. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends and relatives who have stood by me. Since our problems began, I have had to rely on my family and our friends from abroad…I am very grateful to them…In short, your support will not only help my family, but also the families of others who are in distress. We will never forget your help.”
—Letter to PEN WiPC from the wife of an imprisoned writer who for reasons of security must remain anonymous.
“The work of the Writers in Prison Committee this year has included appeals on writers’ behalf to 59 countries, around 150 appeals from the London office and hundreds more from centers around the world who responded to PEN’s Rapid Action calls and to the specific cases of the prisoners they have adopted….
“The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II saw celebrations in Europe but also saw a resurgence in racist and hate literature and speech. Anti-fascists writers found themselves threatened, especially in Austria where one writer was almost murdered. Turkey continued to be the most difficult country in the region with over 200 arrests, brief detentions, killings and disappearances, almost all relating to writings on the Kurdish situation.…
“The other issues to watch—the rise of militant fundamentalism, terrorism, separatist movements—but these are generally issues over which PEN has little control even though they affect the fates of individual writers.…
“Progress this year can best be measured in the releases of prisoners and also by the changes in certain countries’ laws. The Writers in Prison Committee lobbied governments and international bodies on general issues such as the death penalty, long term imprisonment and anti-terror laws and has seen some effect. PEN, along with other human rights organizations, urged the Indian government to reform or abandon its anti-terrorist law under which writers were detained, and recently the government has voted not to renew the law. The WiPC has also spent a large effort speaking with representatives of the Turkish government at embassies and at the United Nations to urge the amendment or abolishment of Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. Just last week the Goverment finally announced its plan to amend the law. We are hopeful this will soon take place in such a way that hundreds of writers detained because of Article 8 will no longer face prison terms, though we are cautious in our optimism.
“The main substance of the Writers in Prison Committee work, however, is not shown in the statistics nor through the reformed government policy, but can best be measured in the lives of individual writers. This year over 90 writers have been released from prison and some individuals facing severe penalties, including death, have instead received clemency. Unfortunately in many countries as one writer walks out of prison, another is being brought in….
“Turkish writer Esber Yagmurdereli, who is blind, recently had his 20-month prison sentence ratified. He was arrested for a speech about the Kurdish situation at a human rights meeting just weeks after his release from 13 years in prison. [I’d like to end with] an excerpt from one of his plays, “Crossing Boundaries” which deals with the experience of a political prisoner:
The moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
You were leaving…the anguish would lift from your heart
…Your unconquered eyes would be mine from now on.
…You went and waking to your absence was to be condemned to a harsh fate
And I felt the damnation again when I heard my forehead crack against these silent walls
…Suddenly I was without a country like so many Palestinians
I even forgot my language: I forgot I was a scream in the river of your voice
(Didn’t we force these walls to memorize our voices
Didn’t we breastfeed these rotten cells our best folk songs?)
We set alight wet stones as we rested our backs against them…
…I kept biting my lips, but never forgot the memory…
And as the moon fell into the night, I saw your smile in its eternal beauty
The rainbow shone on your forehead and its greeting was a declaration
…then that moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
The silenced suddenly arose and spirits soared like rain-birds.”
Next Installment: PEN Journey 17: Gathering in Helsingør