The clouds have finally lifted after days of grey and rainy skies. The sun is rising in all its quiet splendor. I can see light hovering at the horizon on the far shore this early morning.
Since I returned from PEN International’s World Congress in Sweden earlier this week, the landscape here has been shrouded with the outer edges of Hurricane Ian. As the storm moved up the eastern coast of the United States, it delivered rain and wind and grey skies to the Washington and Maryland area. We are fortunate and probably needed the rain, but the devastation of the hurricane to the South haunts us and fills the airwaves with troubling news and pictures, as it also does regarding the war in Ukraine, the protests in Iran, and the famine in Somalia. These remind me to be grateful for my cloud-enshrouded patch of earth and at the same time to be attentive to all that lies beyond. My patch of earth at least is now filled with light.
Connected as we are and as we were this past week in Uppsala, Sweden at the PEN International Congress, we were reminded of the origins of the 101-year-old organization PEN, begun in the aftermath of World War One’s devastation. A few British writers, including Catherine Amy Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy, who later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, came together to form a dining club for writers of different countries in the hope that a community of fellowship and understanding would arise and diminish the nationalism and tensions that had brought on the First World War. Soon the concept spread across Europe and North America and then Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The mission also expanded to defend writers under threat. There are now 150+ centers of PEN in over 100 countries.
After two years of meeting on zoom, PEN delegates from 100 centers came together, hosted by Swedish PEN, to celebrate and defend literature, translations, and freedom of expression around the world, to bring to bear a collective voice to combat threats to writers and also to see longtime colleagues and friends. Gathering around the theme “The Power of Words,” writers celebrated the multiple languages and literatures represented and also strategized to defend writers arrested, disappeared, and killed by authoritarian regimes.
“PEN has power but not power to prevent some writers getting killed,” said International PEN President Burhan Sönmez. “But we won’t leave people of art in the hands of dictators.”
The bid for fellowship and a collective voice to protect writers under threat continues to inform PEN’s work a century after its founding. The 88th PEN World Congress sent its members back across the globe to work. The poem “Fairwell” by Federico García Lorca, read by PEN’s International President, went with us:
If I die,
leave the balcony open.
The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)
The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From my balcony I can hear him.)
If I die,
leave the balcony open!”