The buds burst onto the trees this past weekend in Washington, DC and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Northern Virginia, heralding spring with cherry blossoms, tulip blooms, jonquils, forsythia. The skies dawned blue, then cloudy and windy with the backwash of southern storms, and now blue again. Spring has come!
It has been over a year since most of us have traveled anywhere though slowly the hum of life is returning.
In the absence of first hand encounters, I shared last month a retrospective of March blog posts and found appreciative readers so I repeat the exercise again. These April posts travel from China to Myanmar to Turkey to a sweep of Africa. Many of the issues remain current today.
This 2021 retrospective may prove to be a kind of dividing line—before and after the flood. None of us knows how the world will accelerate again with citizens crossing borders. I hope for the return to a world connected. We are more digitally connected after this year and that digital connection continues to gain momentum. But I also look forward to sharing a meal with colleagues around the globe and to gathering in person.
Below are the opening paragraphs of April blog posts beginning in 2008. Readers can continue reading the essays by clicking the titles. The journeys bridge past and present with a promise, I hope, of a future in situ and in person in years to come:
One of the more creative and moving responses to the Olympics in China this year is a poem relay, initiated by writers and members of International PEN. The poem June, was written by Shi Tao, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for sending to pro democracy websites a government directive for Chinese media to downplay the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
You may recall in 2004 Shi Tao was identified when Yahoo! turned over his email account to the authorities. Charged with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities,” Shi Tao now faces the next decade in prison. His poem June is his memorial of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
By Shi Tao
My whole life
Will never get past “June”
June, when my heart died
When my poetry died
When my lover
Died in romance’s pool of blood
June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth shifts, the rivers fall silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead.
(translated by Chip Rolley)
International PEN through its 145 centers around the world is circulating the poem as a parallel to the Olympic Torch relay. Over 110 PEN centers are participating by translating the poem into at least 90 (and counting) languages, and then sharing the written and oral versions in their countries and on the internet. By the end of the journey the poem is likely to be translated into as many as 100 languages, languages large and small–multiple Chinese dialects, English, French, Spanish, Catalan, Basque, Galician, Portuguese, German, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Bosnian, Serbian, Slovene, Croatian, Macedonian, Romanian, Hungarian, Finnish, Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, Russian, Chechen, Hindi, Pashto, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Greek, Turkish, Kurdish, Japanese, Malay, Haitian, Somali, Afar, Swahili, Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Krio, Wolof, Poular, Lusoga, Lingala, Chichewa. Tagalog, Cree, Nahuatl, Tsotsil, Mayan, Bikol, etc. etc….[cont]
In August, 1993 in Myanmar (Burma), Ma Thida, a 27-year old medical doctor and short story writer was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison, charged with “endangering public tranquility, of having contact with unlawful associations, and distributing unlawful literature.” She had been an assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi and traveled with Suu Kyi during her political campaign.
In September that same year at the International PEN Congress in Spain, I stepped into the Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. One of the early main cases that came across my desk was that of Ma Thida.
Last week in Providence, Rhode Island Ma Thida and I shared a stage with others at Brown University in a program: There Will Still Be Light: a Freedom to Write Literary Festival focused on the situation in Burma today as well as the situation for the freedom of writers around the world. For the past year Thida has been at Brown as a fellow of the International Writers Project (a joint appointment of the Writing Program and the Watson Institute for International Studies) which gives a writer under stress a year to work and to share their work and cultural heritage….[cont]
The volcanic cloud hovered above like the mythic hand of Vulcan, unseen and disrupting the plans of mere mortals.
I was stranded in Casablanca after a short research vacation, en route to a literary festival in London and board meeting in Paris. What does one do, stranded in Casablanca? I headed north to Tangiers and waited out the volcanic ash and waited for an open seat on an airplane. It was not hard duty.
The “doorway” to Africa, where the Mediterranean and Atlantic oceans meet, is where Hercules is said to have smashed through the Isthmus and created two continents. Under blue sky with no volcanic ash in sight, I contemplated the pillars of Hercules, one in Europe—the Rock of Gibraltar—and the other in Africa. I wandered through medinas and souks, drove along the coast, visited Tetouan and Cueta, guided by a 6’2” history teacher who strode slightly in front of me in a long saffron robe, maroon fez, hands behind his back, instructing me in 3000 years of history in this region where the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews all trod, where at least four colonial powers—England, France, Spain and Portugal—claimed and fought for land. I learned that Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States after it gained independence, and the first foreign legation the new United States of America sent out was to Morocco.
“You understand?” the guide kept asking me as he spun through the stories of conquest and power, of cultures on the move. “I told you that, remember?” I expected an exam any moment.
In mythology Hercules features most prominently in the region, but in the days after the volcano, I also read legends of Vulcan. In one tradition he is said to be the father of Jupiter, king of the gods. In another mythology he is the son of Jupiter and Juno, who threw their ugly baby off Mount Olympus. Vulcan fell for a day and a night and broke a leg when he finally landed in the sea. There he sunk to the bottom where a sea nymph found him and raised him as her son. According to legend, he spent a happy childhood playing with dolphins and the fish and all the wonders under the sea.
On land Vulcan eventually discovered fire and its properties, including fire’s ability to draw out from stones the iron, silver and gold which Vulcan then hammered into swords and shields and into jewelry for the woman he thought was his mother. In myths as in history, events come back on themselves. Juno, admiring the woman’s jewelry, discovered that the talented blacksmith who’d fashioned it was Juno’s own son. Juno demanded that Vulcan return; he refused. The plot thickened….[cont]
It rained every day on the Bosporus as we ferried back and forth across Istanbul’s grand waterway to discuss current and impending conflicts in the globe. Inside the windowless room, sitting in a large square facing each other, former presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, ambassadors and a former NATO commander toured the world in words and debate to find paths to end these conflicts, to encourage the opening up of political systems and to keep those systems, their leaders and others from killing their citizens. Reports from seasoned, on-the-ground researchers informed the discussion of the board of the International Crisis Group.
Outside the meeting room, the Middle East continued in a state of foment. Its citizens had taken by surprise many of the experts in the room. Egypt’s and Tunisia’s regimes had fallen through nonviolent resistance comprised of strikes and mass protests by its citizens. However, Libya’s President Gaddafi was attacking and threatening to slaughter his dissenting citizens and had sent that country into civil war. Syria and Bahrain, slightly more restrained, had also killed hundreds of protesting citizenry.
The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was a focus of the debate. At what point does the international community have a responsibility to intervene when a government not only doesn’t protect its citizens but attacks them? Can the international community prevent such actions so that there will never again be another Rwanda or Srebrenica? Does the responsibility to protect inevitably lead to military intervention as it has in Libya? How does the U.N. and NATO unwind its commitment? Can it? Should it? And what about the simultaneous bloodshed in the Ivory Coast? Why were nations not invoking the Responsibility to Protect there?
These questions unfurled and swirled with no definitive answers. Rather, the answers were iterative, inching towards solutions. Even with some of the brightest minds around the table, foreign policy and diplomacy is not so much an art or a science; it is more like a grand bazaar, a trading of perceptions and perceptions of national interests….[cont]
(This blog post originally appeared on www.africa.com, a website that features arts, culture, news, travel and commentary about Africa.)
Africa for me began in imagination. I was writing a novel The Dark Path to the River, which had an unnamed African country as the back story for a drama at the United Nations. The African characters started talking in my head, telling me their stories.
I had read widely about Africa, but at the time I had only been to Kenya on a traditional safari. I continued reading African literature, audited courses on African folklore and politics. While writing the book, I returned to Africa, to Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi, where I visited schools and children I’d been engaged with through a nonprofit organization. I listened to the rhythms of the languages, to the songs, observed the colors of the green hills, the red dirt, the fuchsia, orange, yellow and blue flowers, the clothing of the same astonishing colors and patterns. I met with fellow writers and artists.
I have since returned to Africa dozens of times. I’ve visited schools in east, west, central, and southern Africa. In Uganda, I’ve plowed through the bush in a jeep to arrive at classrooms in a clearing whose materials hung from the roofs of huts with no doors so the cows of the pastoralist herders wouldn’t trample them. I’ve visited brick schools built by villagers in Malawi where the children sat on the extra bricks for stools: I’ve sat in classes in bullet-scarred schools that have been rebuilt after the civil war in Sierra Leone. In Ethiopia I’ve participated in a village bridal ceremony, have sat around smoking fires in villages in Mali eating goat and rice, have walked through the modern capitol buildings of Abuja, Nigeria, watched the sun rise over the Indian Ocean in Tanzania and set on the Atlantic in Sierra Leone….[cont]
(In the past weeks I was brought to focus again on the situation of two writers in prison, one in China, the other in Turkey, both countries that have consistently challenged and imprisoned writers. In China the hope for expanded freedom of expression that came with the Olympics and China’s engagement with global institutions has not materialized, and Chinese writers remain in prison with long sentences. The situation in Turkey for a while was improving, but in the past year arrests have again escalated.)
Voice in China
I had dinner recently with three colleagues of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate and writer currently serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese jail. Two of his friends, Shen Tong and the other friend arrived in the U.S. around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, but the younger best-selling writer and democracy activist Yu Jie didn’t leave China until January, 2012 after being detained and tortured and put under house arrest. He now lives in Virginia.
Yu Jie consulted with Liu Xiaobo during the writing of Charter 08, the manifesto calling for democracy in China which resulted in the imprisonment of Dr. Liu. He and Liu Xiaobo also co founded the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and Yu Jie has written a biography of Liu Xiaobo.
At a round wooden table in a bustling Washington restaurant the friends outlined their campaign. Among their strategies, they are working to gather a million signatures worldwide calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since Liu’s imprisonment. So far they have gathered about half a million signatures in 130 countries, including from 135 Nobel Laureates. The Friends of Liu Xiaobo are also campaigning for the release of other prisoners of conscience in China. They and the Nobel Laureates are mobilizing support around the world and have been told the Chinese government has started to take notice and to worry about the scope of the campaign. Dr. Liu is the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in prison….[cont]
April 2014 I didn’t post in April.
I write in restaurants. I find my corner, find the plug, choose the restaurant and the table where I am not taking up needed space, where I can hunker down and concentrate with just enough ambient noise to take me back to my roots of writing in the middle of a newsroom. I have my favorite spots around town. I know the nicest waiters and waitresses, the best cups of coffee, the places I can write through breakfast and lunch without taking up space for other customers and can get fed at the same time.
The routine also gives me access from time to time to interesting conversations. I am not a natural eavesdropper, but it is unavoidable when people sit nearby and talk as if I am invisible. People’s lives come together and fall apart in restaurants and sometimes in my presence. In Washington I have also overheard conversations I’m sure were meant to be confidential. It surprises me how one assumes a lone person ten feet away can’t hear just because she appears engaged in her work.
This morning I am in one of my favorite spots, big floor to ceiling windows, few people here but me this early, truly fresh squeezed orange juice (one of the reasons I come here). I plug in my computer; the waiters and waitresses know me well and bring decaf coffee and yogurt parfait, and I settle in for several hours work. But twenty feet away a meeting is going on around a big table, everyone perched on high stools leaning in. I am good at ignoring such talk, but I hear the word ISIS and then talk about their finances and other interesting international issues. As I’m setting up my work for the morning, I listen casually, wondering if this is a group of government employees strategizing in the open at this restaurant with good coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice. Or is it a team from an NGO or a think tank, and then I hear the word “campaign.” And I know with a sinking feeling that the long campaign season has begun. Whose campaign? The name is never mentioned, but by the pronoun, it is not hard to guess….[cont]
April 2016 I didn’t post in April.
April 2017 I didn’t post in April.
April 2018 I didn’t post in April.
I passed two ducks strolling down the highway on Easter morning—large mallards waddling and chatting with each other, staying on their side of the white-lined shoulder, yet precariously close to the cars whizzing by. They appeared oblivious to the traffic. I wondered where they were going and where they thought they were. They were several miles from water. On their side of the small highway on the Eastern shore of Maryland sprawled a shopping center with a supermarket, restaurants, movie theater. On the other side spread a bit of green field and beyond that more stores and beyond that woods, and beyond that the water—the Tred Avon River which eventually flows out into the Chesapeake Bay.
I was tempted to turn around and try to get a picture, but by the time I could make the turn and get back, they would likely have flown away. Instead, I carry their picture in my mind. I love ducks….[cont]
[April 2020: [Beginning in May, 2019 I began writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020. In April 2020 there are four posts in the PEN Journeys.]
[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.]
As I write these PEN Journeys, memory differs with each one. I sit and think, pulling up whatever memories I have. Some are visual; some are of activities, some of the twists and turns in PEN itself; many are of friends, a few of incidents; others come from concurrent parts of my life such as moving to London with my family and connecting to work at International PEN headquarters (PEN Journey 5), or scaling the Berlin Wall just after Germany reunited (PEN Journey 4), or visiting Russia shortly after the coup attempt (PEN Journey 8).
I have paper documentation for most of PEN’s events, not because I was an archivist in the making but more of a packrat who was too busy to sort through papers after a congress or conference and so set the files in a drawer. I am not even accounting for all the emails and digital files that began to accumulate in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. In my recounting, I am only now entering that period when the internet and email were burgeoning. For some of the Journeys I have photographs, but my picture-taking was random in retrospect, probably reflecting my role at the time. The more work I had, the fewer pictures. There were no iPhones or Android phones during these earlier years so I had to have a camera at hand. In certain years I have no photographic record of PEN though some may yet turn up in the recesses of my basement. There are, however, always pictures in my head.
For the Writers in Prison Committee’s (WiPC) third biannual meeting in Katmandu, Nepal in the spring of 2000, I have lots of pictures. We were celebrating the 40th anniversary of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. As ex-chair, I helped with the conference, but the burden of the meeting wasn’t mine so I was also out with camera in hand. In my head I still carry the landscape of Nepal—the hills outside Katmandu with the haze over mountains in the distance, the woman in a red sari walking up the hill carrying bundles of sticks, the gentle landscape and the harsh conditions….[cont]
“Contrary to our tradition, this year’s PEN Congress is being held in a country in which a massive, genocidal military and paramilitary operation is under way. Besides mass murder, the crimes perpetrated against the civil population of Chechnya include deportation, rape, torture, destruction and theft of personal property as well as the systematic looting and destruction of the material bases of Chechnyan culture and civilization. At the same time, freedom of information has been severely curtailed, and the official propaganda plays on xenophobic and even racist ethnic stereotypes…” So began a Declaration from the 67th World Congress of International PEN voted by the Assembly of Delegates in May 2000.
The decision to hold the International PEN Congress in Moscow was a controversial one, resulting in some members refusing to attend because of Russia’s prosecution of the war in Chechnya and the concern that holding a Congress in Moscow would give the government an appearance of approval. However, PEN’s Secretariat with the new Executive Committee concluded that the long-planned millennial Congress also presented the opportunity for International PEN to show solidarity with Russian PEN which had been outspoken both on the war and on behalf of Russian journalists and writers under pressure.
“The writers of Russia, united under the auspices of the Russian Centre of the International PEN Club, are concerned about the escalation of the war in Chechnya which is becoming a threat to not only peaceful residents of Grozny-city but also to the national security of Russia. The ultimatum announced to women, children and old people of the Chechen capital makes them hostages of both terrorists and federal forces. It is hard to believe that in this situation the Russian authorities are going to use the same methods as terrorists. We are very aware how hard it is to cut the tight Chechen knot, but in any case innocent people do not have to become victims of the decisions taken…” Russian PEN sent this appeal earlier to the acting President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
Russian PEN members, including President Andrei Bitov, had signed the appeal. Russian PEN’s General Secretary Alexander (Sascha) Tkachenko noted at the Congress that it was essential to call on all those involved—Russian and Chechen—to cease their brutalities. Sascha himself had regularly stood up to the Russian government. He championed the cases of imprisoned writers Alexandr Nikitin and Grigory Pasko, both of whom had recently been freed after trials. Pasko, who was a journalist and former Russian Naval officer, had been arrested and accused of espionage for his publication of environmental problems in the Sea of Japan. Nikitin, a Naval officer, had been charged with stealing state secrets by contributing to a report that revealed the sinking of Russian nuclear submarines and the dangers these decaying submarines posed to the environment.
The freedom and the openings which many embraced after the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s were beginning to close down and restrictions tighten. At the Moscow Congress Pasko expressed his gratitude for everything PEN had done to obtain his freedom. He urged the Assembly to focus on environmental problems. But he warned that the structure of the current Russian government had grown out of the KGB, and he feared nothing good would come for free speech or the environment….[cont]
“Whenever and wherever writers band together, whenever and wherever the members of PEN gather, regionally or nationally, there seems to be an emergency on our agenda…” So German novelist Günter Grass opened the 67th PEN Congress in Moscow in 2000. Grass was referring to the crisis in Chechnya at the time, but his observation held true the following year as PEN hastily arranged a replacement Assembly of Delegates in London, November 2001.
Two months earlier the United States had been attacked on September 11. A month later a U.S.-led NATO coalition invaded Afghanistan. But the conflict which upended PEN’s plans stirred in the Balkans with an impending civil war in Macedonia.
PEN’s 2001 Congress was originally to have taken place in the Philippines, but funding fell through. (Philippine PEN finally hosted a Congress in 2019.) Macedonian PEN agreed to move its 2002 Congress ahead a year and host PEN in the ancient city of Ohrid, but the Albanian National Liberation Army attacked Macedonian security forces in February 2001. As fighting escalated, PEN was again faced with the dilemma of whether to hold a Congress in a country in conflict.
Finally, in August given the political situation in Macedonia, which was close to civil war, PEN’s Executive Committee “against the advice of the International Secretary” but “united in trying to overcome the situation,” decided to cancel the Macedonian Congress. Instead PEN planned a three-day replacement Assembly of Delegates in London where the business of PEN and its committees would take place but without all the literary and social events that usually accompanied a Congress. Delegates who arrived early could attend English PEN’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer service at St. Brides on Fleet Street, and English PEN hosted an opening reception and literary evening at the British Library; another reception at Lancaster House was hastily arranged, hosted by the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Ten years earlier a similar replacement Assembly had taken place in Paris when the Congress had been canceled in Delphi because of finances and the start of the Balkan War. (PEN Journey 7)
In September, “alarmed by the escalating volatility of the situation,” International Secretary Terry Carlbom sent a letter to PEN’s Vice Presidents announcing the change and asking for support. That letter was dated September 11, 2001.
On September 11, I was in New York City. I had just flown in the night before from an International Crisis Group board meeting in Brussels to attend meetings at Human Rights Watch. That morning I was dressing and watching the news when, like millions of Americans, I saw the first plane fly into the World Trade Center. I assumed it was a terrible accident when suddenly live on tv I saw the second plane crash into the South Tower….[cont]
I remember diving from a rowboat into Lake Ohrid and swimming in pristine water. I love to swim but never did so at PEN Congresses. However, the 68th Congress was held on one of Europe’s oldest—3 million years old—and deepest lakes which floated in the mountainous region between North Macedonia and eastern Albania. The water was the cleanest I had ever seen or felt. I swam without looking back until finally, I heard a voice from the boat shouting, “Come back! You’re almost in Albania!”
Albania, or rather the Albanian Liberation Army, a paramilitary organization, had recently been in conflict in Macedonia and was the reason PEN’s Congress there had been postponed the year before. (PEN Journey 25)
Swimming with me was my friend Isobel Harry, Executive Director of Canadian PEN, and in the boat sat Cecilia Balcazar from Colombian PEN and another PEN member. They watched over us in this break from the PEN meetings. My memories of the 2002 PEN Macedonia Congress include intense meetings of the Assembly in the Congress Hall of the old Soviet-style Metropol Hotel and neighboring Bellevue Hotel conference center and relaxed gatherings afterwards at lakeside cafes in the town of Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the evenings we gathered for literary events with UNESCO-like titles—The Future of Language/Language of the Future and Borders of Freedom/Freedom of Borders. These were also the themes of the Congress. There was music and poetry in Macedonian and other languages I didn’t understand, recited in cavernous, shadowy chambers, including in the ancient Cathedral Church of St. Sophia, a structure from medieval times, rebuilt in the 10th century. Its frescoes still adorned the walls from Byzantine times in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries and had been restored after the church was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire.
While current politics and conflicts occupied the daytime work of PEN, history suffused the gathering. Civilization in Ohrid dated to 353 BC when the town had been known as “the city of light.”
“The old millennium, especially in ‘old’ Europe, should, I believe, be left behind with all its anachronistic boundaries—geographical, historical, racial, ethnic, state, linguistic, religious and cultural—and give way to the unfolding of the new millennium, to its open-mindedness and tolerance,” Dimitar Baševski, President of Macedonian PEN, wrote in his introduction to the Congress. “For generations we in Macedonia have lived with a creed according to which culture and not warfare or power is perceived as the field for competitiveness among nations. The aims of the World Congress of International P.E.N. in 2002 perfectly correspond with the spirit of this creed.”…[cont]
I wrote my first blog post 13 years ago in February 2008. I launched this site into the digital universe with a soft promise to myself to try to write one post a month. Mostly I was writing in other forms, but I kept this commitment, though on occasion, often in March, I skipped a post. I didn’t read many blogs, didn’t know the impact a blog might have and wasn’t aspiring to master the form—if it even was a form—but I wanted to join the digital world. I’m still not sure what impact this blog has, but I am grateful to those who have read it over the years. Each month I pause and consider what is worth saying in a few hundred words. The discipline of gathering thoughts in actual time once a month has value and has provided a record of sorts.
After this tumultuous year globally with quarantines and isolation and political upheavals in the US and abroad, I am not inclined to words so much as pictures these days, especially of the sunrise each morning, this universal affirmation of the earth spinning in its orbit whatever the sturm and drang of the citizens in its arms.
I found it interesting to review March posts over the years and share a quick snapshot here as a trail of thought and activity. I’ve only copied the opening of each post. You can click the date to read the whole. I hope that they may be of some historical interest and that you enjoy the words and the pictures at the end.
I’m writing this, my second blog, on the birthday of my oldest son and a day when much of the U.S. is watching presidential primary results. I find myself thinking about words, action and change—three concepts that have been debated relentlessly on the airwaves in this U.S. primary season. How do words link to actions that bring about change?
Let me start with my son who spends his days in abstract thought. He is a mathematician, a logician, whose thoughts and work are understood by only a very small number of people around the world. He teaches more accessible math at a university, but his research time is spent thinking and then writing in words and symbols which only a few understand. When I asked him once how his ideas might be applied a hundred years from now, he smiled his patient smile and asked, “Mom, do I ask you how your literature applies?”
All right, I get that. I understand the value of pure ideas, ideas for their own sake. I understand the need to think and to add to the universe of thought even if one doesn’t know the value the thoughts may have and even if they are shared with only a few. It is a way of ordering, discovering and revealing the harmony of the universe….[cont]
Today we are watching actions every day from the new administration. How effective they will be for the economy, for education, for international trade, for peace we all wait to see. But today the means of reporting, investigating, and evaluating these actions are challenged and changing as newspapers around the country struggle to survive.
In the U.S. newspapers are laying off staff, closing bureaus, including their Washington bureaus, and reducing the number of professional journalists who watch and report on the government. Across the globe the print media is challenged. The revolution of the digital age is as transformative as the Industrial Revolution. When one is in the midst of a revolution, it is difficult to know how to adjust and to survive and even flourish; but change is coming, ready or not….[cont]
My years as Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee began in a way with Salman Rushdie and ended, or at least were framed, by Ken Saro Wiwa. Both were global cases that mobilized writers and others around the world to protest the edicts of governments that tried to stifle dissent and imagination by killing the writer. Rushdie survived; Saro Wiwa did not….[cont]
I spent the month of February on a jury for the first time. I had been called for jury duty at least a dozen times in three or four different cities where I’ve lived, but I was never selected. I assumed because I was a writer and active in human rights work, I was considered a dubious juror. But in February, along with 15 other people, I was empaneled in a criminal case that lasted over a month…
For four weeks all 16 of us arrived every day on time at the courthouse to follow the trial for 6-7 hours. No juror was ever absent and only once or twice was anyone a few minutes late. Everyone took their responsibility to each other and to the court seriously…
Like most people in the jury pool, I was not looking forward to serving and interrupting my life, but I was willing. I was perhaps more willing than usual because I was following the upheavals in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt at the time. The citizens there were protesting for the very freedoms we had in an open democracy, the freedom to participate in government and in one’s justice system. Each day during the breaks many of the jurors followed what was happening in Egypt…had Mubarak resigned yet? It turned out that the people of Egypt overturned a 30-year regime faster than our trial unfolded. When Mubarak finally left office, we were still sitting in the jury box….[cont]
The city is surrounded. Shelling rains down on the population. Sniper fire, bombs, mortars erupt from all directions. There are no safe havens for civilians; dozens are killed each day. The international community meets, protests, debates what should be done. Powerful players like Russia obstruct action. Sanctions are tightened, but it is citizens who suffer most. Outside nations are willing to offer humanitarian aid, but are conflicted about arming the opposition. The UN organizes peacekeeping forces, but the mandate and rules of engagement are unclear. The siege and the deaths continue…for years.
This description could be from today’s headlines in Syria, but instead it is the siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia 20 years ago. The paralysis of the international community to intervene and prevent the killings of citizens is still haunting….[cont]
(My reprinted book review of Ambassador Swanee Hunt’s Worlds Apart.)
March 2013 I didn’t post in March.
I arrived at Johns Hopkins as a graduate student in the Writing Seminars straight from a small college in the Midwest with a combination of confidence and concern that Hopkins had made a mistake admitting me. I was sure the other students would be more widely read and experienced. I spent the whole spring and summer when I wasn’t working, reading. That fall at Hopkins I was assigned the very first seminar paper focused on a controversial novel at the time The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. The controversy arose around whether a white novelist could or should take on the first person narrative voice of a slave. I’ll get to my answer later in this talk. I got an A on the paper and knew I was going to be all right. Hopkins let me know I could meet the challenge. That was my first lesson.
When I arrived on campus, there were no women undergraduates. At the time my social conscience was focused more on civil rights than women’s rights so while the role of women in the larger society concerned me, I think I viewed the ratio at Hopkins as a social advantage. But here comes my next big lesson. When I had a disappointment on the romantic front and was feeling low, a voice in my head challenged: “If you have time to mope about, you have time to reach out and help someone!” That voice was not echoing my parents; they would be kinder. It was my own voice taking me to task, and so I listened.
I went to the Hopkins Tutoring office and signed up to tutor in the community. I was assigned a family who lived in West Baltimore and later moved to the projects on Druid Hill Ave. One evening a week I drove over to their house and tutored the mother of five children, ages 4-12. She only had an eighth grade education and wanted to read better. I also helped the children with their homework. The 10-year old daughter and I shared the same birthday. I tell you that because I’m still in touch with this family, and recently when the mother and I were talking on the phone after that birthday had passed, she asked me: “Do you know how old I am?” And I answered, yes, you’re ten years older than me and your daughter is ten years younger, and none of us should be counting anymore.” We both laughed. Three of those children went on and graduated from college and the oldest son finished high school and is a grandfather himself now. One of the treasures of my time at Hopkins was getting to know this family and having them part of my life over the years though we don’t see each other as much lately. My Hopkins education opened worlds to me of all kinds, showing me I would be okay in the larger intellectual world as well as in the inner city of Baltimore….[cont]
(From a talk given at Celebration of Women’s Day at Johns Hopkins University)
March 2015 I didn’t post in March.
I saw the first daffodils today…and forsythia…and the buds on cherry blossom trees. Spring with its regalia is starting to blossom, at least here in Washington, DC.
In the freedom of expression community renewal is heralded this week by the release of writers from prison in a number of countries, including Qatar, China and Azerbaijan. While the writers were unjustly imprisoned in the first place and many hundreds still languish in jails because they have offended governing powers, the releases of Qatar poet Mohammed al-Ajami after almost five years in prison and Chinese writers Rao Wenwei and Wang Xiaolu and half a dozen writers in Azerbaijan are cause for quiet celebration….[cont]
March 2017: I didn’t post in March.
March 2018: I didn’t post in March.
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….[cont]
March 2020: [Beginning in May, 2019 I began writing a retrospective of work with PEN International for its Centenary so posts were more frequent in 2019-2020.]
[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.]
In the old days, at least my old days, the Vice Presidents of PEN International sat in a phalanx on a stage while the Assembly of Delegates conducted business—revered writers, mostly white older men, along with the President, International Secretary and Treasurer of PEN in the center. If the Assembly business wore on, it was not unusual to see one or two of them nodding off. The role of the Vice Presidents was to provide continuity—many had been former PEN Presidents—to provide wisdom, contacts and gravitas. The designation was for life.
But times were changing. For instance, I had recently been elected a Vice President. I was a woman. I’d served PEN in several positions, including president of my center, founding board member of the International PEN Foundation and International Writers in Prison chair; I was a writer, though not of international renown, and at the time I was relatively young. I had been nominated by English PEN whose General Secretary thought it was high time more women sat on that stage. I didn’t relish sitting on a stage, but I was honored to hold the position. The Helsinki Congress in 1998 was the first when Vice President was the only role I had. I don’t recall if there was a stage at that Assembly. The fun was that I didn’t have to do anything. I could float between committee meetings, offer comments when relevant, wisdom if I had any and be called upon for whatever insight or experience or task might serve…
At the 65th PEN Helsinki Congress held at the Marina Conference Center on the waterfront, a short walk from the city center, delegates and PEN members from 70 centers around the world gathered. The Congress’ theme was Freedom and Indifference….[cont]
Bombs had been falling for months on Serbia when the 66th PEN Congress convened in Warsaw June 1999. The NATO assault—one of the last major campaigns of the Balkans War—ended just a week before the Congress opened. These events stirred debate at the Congress whose theme Farewell to the 20th Century caused delegates to look back as well as forward in deliberations.
The past included Warsaw’s history as well as its proximity (and a post-Congress trip) to Kraków and to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. I didn’t join the PEN trip, but during the Congress, I went on my own one day to these memorials of World War II’s terrible past so that I could walk and think alone among the empty crowded bunks, the piles of shoes, the ovens…
The Warsaw Congress was my first trip to Poland though not my last and my first visit to a concentration camp, though not my last.
The wars of the 20th Century both past and current were a problematic platform upon which to launch into the new Millennium, yet the century also was a time of citizens coming together and speaking out in such organizations as PEN….[cont]
A zoo in China placed a big hairy Tibetan mastiff in a cage and tried to pass if off as an African lion. But a boy and his mother heard the animal bark, not roar. As news spread, the zoo’s visitors grew angry. “The zoo is absolutely trying to cheat us. They are trying to disguise dogs as lions!” declared the mother.1
In 2009 the Chinese government put Liu Xiaobo, celebrated poet, essayist, critic, activist, and thinker into a cage, labeled him “enemy of the state,” charged him with “inciting subversion of state power,” and sentenced him to eleven years’ imprisonment. Liu Xiaobo was not an enemy, but he was a “lion” the state feared. He challenged orthodoxy and conventional thinking in literature, which he wrote and taught, and authoritarian politics, which he protested and tried to help reshape. His insistence on individual liberty in more than a thousand essays and eighteen books, his relentless pursuit of ideas, including as a drafter and organizer of Charter 08, which set out a democratic vision for China through nonviolent change, and finally his last statement, “I have no enemies and no hatred,” threatened the Chinese Communist Party and government in a way few other citizens had.
Dr. Liu Xiaobo was the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, in 2010, but he was in prison, was not allowed to attend the ceremony, and died in custody in July 2017….[cont]
(My essay from The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate, ed. Joanne Leedom-Ackerman with Yu Zhang, Jie Li, and Tienchi Martin-Liao)
Sunrises on Maryland’s Eastern Shore:
The earth keeps spinning, showing us her beauty…
I can’t stop taking pictures of the dawn. I wake up before sunrise when I see the first red strip of light on the horizon. I slip on a sweatshirt, jeans, socks, grab my vest with a hood, turn on the coffee pot, gather a blanket, call the dogs, hit the full cup button on the coffee maker, pour the milk, wait for the coffee, flip on the fire pit, then hurry outside to watch the day dawning as light begins to color the sky from red to orange to yellow to pink…
Sometimes the light is gentle as the sun rises. Other times it is vibrant as this morning. I woke up a bit late—the sky was already a pale pink/yellow by the time I got outside. But then, but then…the hovering cloud bank filled with light reflected from the sun that was still hidden by the horizon and the trees across the river. As the sun blasted its light upward, the clouds turned pink and then the whole sky grew awash in rose light, and the clouds broke up into plumes scattered across the heavens.
On the river a family of ducks swam by, a dozen with their mother and/or father in the lead, swimming single file south to north. As the sun rose, a yellow globe into the sky, another family of ducks passed, also in a straight line. I wonder where they go each morning…to duck school, undisturbed by the challenges of us on the shore.
The dawning of the days continues to inspire me and leave me in a quiet state of awe as I begin my day. I try to keep that awe even as the complications and troubles of our world unfold around the globe where I am certain the same stunning sunrises are also unfolding.
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
I watched the sun rise this morning, the ducks swimming by south to north, the geese flying overhead north to south, the light spreading across the river—first a red strip, then orange…pink…a yellow ball peeking through the grove of trees across the water, then ascending the treetops…a golden globe heralding the day.
The river flows steadily towards an open expanse into the Chesapeake and ultimately into the Atlantic Ocean. It has been a mild winter so far, no ice on the water, just an occasional dusting of frost on the ground which melts with the sun.
On a flagpole by the river the American flag ripples in the breeze as the geese flap by. My dogs—one blonde, one black, both part Labrador and other breeds, wander along the river front, finding their smells and place to rest and watch the day unfold.
It is a new day…with a new government in my home city of Washington, DC. Today I look backward and forward at the same time. I am not the only one contemplating past and future, past as prologue? I share here two earlier posts, one from January 2009 after the inauguration of Barack Obama “When the Crowds Go Home, Ideas Keep Traveling.” Much has happened in the intervening twelve years. The other is October 2012, “A Visit to the End of the World” written from the edge of where the ancients thought the world ended, in Finisterre, Spain. Only a wide and empty Atlantic Ocean stretched before them. It was necessary to imagine…
How these connect I leave to another post and look forward to hearing from others.
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
The crowds have left; the reviewing stands, disassembled. The reflecting pool is frozen with sea gulls light-footing across it. Washington, DC has held its grand party. For three days, everyone was on foot, bundled in coats, scarves, gloves and walking everywhere–to the Mall, to the Capitol, to the White House (or as close as one could get), peering over barricades, hundreds of thousands of people.
Most of those who came to town have returned to all the states in the union from which they came. Those from the more than 100 foreign countries here to watch the Inauguration have also returned. As the full working week commenced in Washington, snowflakes were falling; the sky was cloudy, and the Potomac River, crusted with ice at the edges, waited for spring.
But the spirit remained. And the consequences of this global gathering were only beginning. Among those visiting Washington were women from the world’s conflict regions, women engaged in peace building, who were gathered to share experiences and also to study and watch the U.S. electoral process, particularly as it might apply to their circumstances and lives….[cont]
I visited the end of the world this week, at least the spot on the earth where the ancient Romans believed the sun left the earth and the known world ended. The AC 552 highway takes you there in four lanes with possible detours through charming fishing villages along the coast of Galicia. If you stand on the granite cliffs of Finisterre, Spain looking west, you see the billowing Atlantic and can understand the Roman’s perspective for nothing lays beyond, at least nothing one could see or travel to in the ships of their day.
The Romans called the spot the Cape of Death since the sun died there. It was also a place of numerous ship wrecks on the jagged rocks reaching out in a finger hook into the sea before a light house was built centuries later. The Greeks had denominated another spot on the earth, Mount Hacho in Spanish Morocco, as the place where the world ended because that was as far as their eyes could see….[cont]
As many Americans, I have watched with disbelief and sadness events that have taken place in my country and in my home city of Washington, DC over the last days. I have felt unable to add words. This morning I rose early to watch the sunrise on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I’ve been living this year.
I listened for inspiration. I wasn’t seeking political answers or recriminations, justifications or blame. I wanted inspiration to move forward. I share here the verse that came into my thought and the photos of the morning:
“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” —Romans 13:12
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
I am living in the country for the first length of time in my life. I wake up most mornings to light lifting the sky out my bedroom window which faces east—a vibrant red line on the dark horizon. Slowly the color fades to orange then yellow and then a pale pink as the sun sneaks up behind the land across the river.
As the sky grows lighter, I stumble out of bed, bundle up and go downstairs, make a quick cup of tea, turn on the fire pit and sit outside with my dogs to watch the world fill with light before the sun itself appears, a throbbing yellow globe through the trees. Some mornings a cloud settles on the horizon, and I see only the effect of the sun—light cast upward, shimmering pink splashes on the clouds above until the sun finally emerges through the clouds and greets the day.
I listen to the geese waking up, honking to each other before they take flight. An American flag blows on a flag pole by the river. On a windy day it flaps wildly and on other days it luffs in the breeze.
For the past year I have been living on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where oyster and crab boats quietly troll by on the river in their season. I live in the area near where James Michener wrote his doorstop-size novel Chesapeake. In fact our good friends, two of the few people we have seen regularly during this pandemic year, live in the house where Michener wrote his book.
For the first months here, I listened to Michener’s Chesapeake every day at lunch as I took a break from writing. For ten months, I have eaten the same lunch—tomato soup, rice crackers with melted chips of cheese, hard-boiled egg, grapes and frozen yogurt bar—and the same breakfast—coconut yogurt with blueberries, raspberries and slivered almonds and cup of decaf coffee—and though dinner varies, usually a salad with another hard-boiled egg, maybe tuna, few more rice crackers, another frozen yogurt. I eat the same meals because I don’t like to cook and have little imagination when it comes to food, so without planning, the routine has meant that everything again fits me in my closet. I bike every morning on a stationary bike and swim most afternoons after work is done.
Swimming at dusk and sitting by the fire pit at dawn are the particular times when I listen. I try to hear the harmony in the universe, not the arguing of political opinions nor the statistics of covid nor the rancor nor the violence of citizens intolerant with each other.
I look up at the sky and listen. On more than one occasion, clouds have broken open and a shaft of light has fallen on the water, or a pageant of clouds has swept across the blue with the wind rising, or some days the air is so still I can hear the river flowing. Nature reminds me there is a larger perspective, and if I listen, there are harmonies to hear, inspired thoughts to think. Hearing the harmony comes first and then…
I have a better feeling about tomorrow.
(Photo credits: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman)
PEN International marks the ten-year anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to writer, literary critic and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo on 10 December 2010. PEN’s Liu Xiaobo Anniversary Campaign acts as a commemoration of Liu Xiaobo’s life, his contribution to Chinese literature, and his selfless work promoting basic freedoms in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The campaign also highlights the cases of writers Gui Minhai, Kunchok Tsephel, Yang Hengjun and Qin Yongmin who are currently detained by the PRC government. The campaign seeks to raises awareness of their situation, to boost advocacy work on their behalf and to ensure that they and their families feel supported and not forgotten.
The following links to PEN’s campaign. Below is text and Chinese translation of my video tribute to Liu:
Hello, I’m Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President Emeritus of PEN International.
Ten years ago, essayist, poet, activist and PEN member Liu Xiaobo was the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. Liu envisioned and worked towards a peaceful and democratic pathway for China. Beginning with the protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and through the subsequent decades, he spoke out and wrote and gathered people and ideas in support of a China where individual freedom was valued and protected.
In 2008, he and others drafted Charter 08, which set out this democratic vision. He and others gathered hundreds and then thousands of signatures from Chinese citizens who endorsed the vision. Charter 08 did not call for an overthrow of the government so much as a transformation of the way government related to its citizens in a transition to a democratic society that would include freedom of expression and assembly.
2008年，他和其他人起草了《 零八宪章》，阐明这一民主愿景。他们从支持这一愿景的中国公民那里汇集了成百上千人签名。 《零八宪章》并未呼吁推翻政府，而是要转变政府相对于公民的方式，转型为包括言论自由和集会自由的民主社会。
Liu Xiaobo has been called the Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel of China because of his ideas, his activism and his leadership. Like Havel, Liu was committed to nonviolent action as a means of achieving change, and he was an inspired writer.
I first encountered Liu Xiaobo through PEN. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, PEN worked on behalf of the writers who had been arrested in the protest, including Liu Xiaobo. Liu had also been instrumental in persuading students to leave the Square before the soldiers and tanks rolled in to attack and possibly kill them. At the time of Tiananmen Square, I was President of PEN Center USA West. A few years later when Liu was again imprisoned for his writing, I was Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.
Liu Xiaobo then went on to become one of the founders and the second President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), whose members lived inside and outside of China. He was instrumental in establishing the platforms by which these writers could communicate and share ideas about a society where freedom of expression and democratic processes could exist.
During the time Liu was President of ICPC, I was the International Secretary of PEN. However, Liu was not allowed out of mainland China into Hong Kong where ICPC had its meetings, and I didn’t get to the mainland until in 2010 after he was arrested for the fourth and final time, so we never met in person, though over decades I have worked with many of his colleagues.
Liu Xiaobo was the writer the Chinese government feared the most and therefore arrested. Liu was charged as “an enemy of the state” for “incitement of subverting state power” because of his ideas, his writing and his participation in the drafting and circulating of Charter 08. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison. He was the only recipient of the Nobel Prize who was in prison at the time and not allowed to attend the ceremony. Only an empty chair represented him. His wife Liu Xia was also not allowed to attend. Liu Xiaobo died in custody July 13, 2017.
After his death, writers around the world who knew him began to write about him, his work, about China and the path of liberalism and democratic aspirations. This year THE JOURNEY OF LIU XIAOBO: FROM DARK HORSE TO NOBEL LAUREATE was published containing more than 75 of these essays—probably the largest gathering of writing from China’s democracy activists—and is both a memoir and tribute to Liu Xiaobo and a study of China’s Democracy Movement.
China’s Democracy Movement and Liu Xiaobo’s legacy still inspire those inside and outside of China, from the mainland to Xinjiang to Tibet to Hong Kong and to neighboring countries engaged in the struggle for political reform and an end to authoritarian rule.
Some have said that because of China’s ascendency in the last decade, the legacy of Liu Xiaobo has been reduced to nothing. But a longer view of history shows that the same was said of those visionaries and martyrs for free societies in Eastern Europe and South Africa.
Societies move forward and are changed by ideas, by leaders, and ultimately by their citizens. Liu Xiaobo did not aspire to personal power, but those in power came to fear him because he understood how to move ideas into action.
As individuals one by one—be they writers, lawyers, academics or others—are put into prison and taken out of the discourse, those in power attempt to maintain their control. That is why it is important to keep an eye not only on the monolith of regimes and government, but to protect the individuals who hold the powerful to account.
Liu Xiaobo declared, “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth.”
Liu Xiaobo insisted that to transition to a state that one wanted to live in, one needed to have citizens who represented those values even in the struggle.
I’d like to read from his Final Statement to the judge who sentenced him: “…now I have been once again shoved into the dock by the enemy mentality of the regime. But I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions…I have no enemies and no hatred…Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill and to dispel hatred with love.”
After Liu Xiaobo’s death, a colleague who had known and worked with him for decades was asked if he thought Xiaobo would have changed his statement had he known his end. His friend said No, that his final statement and sentiment that “I have no enemies, no hatred” was at the heart of who Liu Xiaobo was.
Now Liu Xiaobo’s beloved wife Liu Xia, who is herself a poet, will read one of his poems written to her: “Van Gogh and You” addressed to “Little Xia”:
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 was asked by PEN International to write down memories. I have done so in 46 PEN Journeys and have been asked to write an introduction to these. Below is the introduction coming last, drawn in part from an earlier blog post of the same title, but not in this PEN Journey sequence.
“In a world where independent voices are increasingly stifled, PEN is not a luxury. It is a necessity.”—Novelist & poet Margaret Atwood, former President of PEN Canada
“…freedom of speech is no mere abstraction. Writers and journalists, who insist upon this freedom, and see in it the world’s best weapon against tyranny and corruption, know also that it is a freedom which must constantly be defended, or it will be lost.”—Novelist Salman Rushdie, PEN member
PEN International was started modestly 100 years ago in 1921 by English writer Catharine Amy Dawson Scott, who, along with fellow writer John Galsworthy and others, conceived 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, they reasoned, at least among writers of Europe.
The idea of PEN [Poets, Essayists & Novelists—later expanding to Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors and Novelists and now including a wide array of Nonfiction writers and Journalists] spread quickly. Clubs developed in France and throughout Europe, and the following year in America, and then in Asia, Africa and South America. John Galsworthy, the popular British novelist, became the first President. A decade later when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he donated the prize money to International PEN. Not everyone had grand ambitions for the PEN Club, but writers recognized that ideas fueled wars but also were tools for peace. Galsworthy spoke about the possibilities of a “League of Nations for Men and Women of Letters.”
Members of PEN began to gather at least once a year in 1923 with 11 Centers attending the first meeting. During the 1920’s writers regardless of nationality, culture, language or political opinion came together. As the political temperature rose in Europe, PEN insisted it was an apolitical organization though its role in the politics of nations was soon to be tested and ultimately landed not on a partisan or ideological platform but on a platform of ideals and principles.
At a tumultuous gathering at PEN’s 4th Congress in Berlin in 1926, tensions rose among the assembled writers, and the debate flared over the political versus non-political nature of PEN. Young German writers, including Bertolt Brecht, told Galsworthy that the German PEN Club didn’t represent the true face of German literature and argued that PEN could not ignore politics. Ernst Toller, a Jewish-German playwright, insisted PEN must take a stand.
After the Congress Galsworthy returned to London and holed up in the drawing room of PEN’s founder Catharine Scott where he worked on a formal statement to “serve as a touchstone of PEN action.” This statement included what became the first three articles of the PEN Charter. At the 1927 PEN Congress in Brussels, the document was approved and remains part of PEN’s Charter today, including the idea that “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.” The third article of the Charter notes that PEN members “should at all times use what influence they have in favor of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people and dispel all hatreds and champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.”
As the voices of National Socialism rose in Germany, PEN’s determination to remain apolitical was challenged though the determination to defend freedom of expression united most members. At the 1932 Congress in Budapest the Assembly of Delegates sent an appeal to all governments concerning religious and political prisoners, and Galsworthy issued a five-point statement, a document that would evolve into the fourth article of PEN’s Charter.
When Galsworthy died in January 1933, H.G. Wells took over as International PEN President. It was a time in which the Nazi Party in Germany was burning in bonfires thousands of books they deemed “impure” and hostile to their ideology. At PEN’s 1933 Congress in Dubrovnik, H.G. Wells and the PEN Assembly launched a campaign against the burning of books by the Nazis and voted to reaffirm the Galsworthy resolution. German PEN, which had failed to protest the book burnings, attended the Congress and tried to keep Ernst Toller, a Jew, from speaking. Some members supported German PEN, but the overwhelming majority reaffirmed the principles they had just voted on the previous day. The German delegation walked out of the Congress and out of PEN and didn’t return until after World War II. Their membership was rescinded. “If German PEN has been reconstructed in accordance with nationalistic ideas, it must be expelled,” the PEN statement read. During World War II PEN continued to defend the freedom of expression for writers, particularly Jewish writers. (Today German PEN is one of PEN’s active centers, especially on issues of freedom of expression and assistance to exiled writers.)
PEN was one of the first nongovernmental organizations and the first human rights organization in the 20th century. PEN’s Charter, which developed over two decades, was one of the documents referred to when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted at the United Nations after World War II. In 1949 PEN was granted consultative status at the United Nations as “representative of the writers of the world,” and is today the only literary organization with formal consultative status with UNESCO.
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.
Today there are over 150 PEN Centers around the world in more than 100 countries. At PEN writers gather, share literature, discuss and debate ideas within countries and among countries, defend linguistic rights 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 in the late 1980’s and in other countries of the former Soviet Union and in Myanmar where a former prisoner of conscience was instrumental in forming a center there and was its first President. A PEN center is a refuge for writers in many 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.
For more than 35 years I have been engaged with PEN, as a member, as the President of one of PEN’s largest centers, PEN Center USA West during the year of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and Tiananmen Square, as Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (1993-1997), as International Secretary (2004-2007), and continuing as an International Vice President since 1996. I’ve also served on the Board and as Vice President of PEN America (2008-2015). I lived for six years in London, where PEN International is headquartered.
In the run-up to PEN’s Centenary, I was asked if I would write an account of PEN’s history as I’d seen it. I began by posting a blog twice a month, taking on small slices of the history in each narrative. This serial blog of PEN Journeys recounts PEN’s history as I’ve witnessed it as well as history of the period and personal history during those years. The narratives are framed by the times, featuring writers, including the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the protests in Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall—PEN members or future PEN members were central in all these events—the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of PEN Centers there; the opening up of Eastern Europe with its PEN centers; the release of PEN “main case” Václav Havel and his ascendency to the Presidency of Czechoslovakia; the mobilization of Turkish PEN members in opposition to recurring authoritarian governments; PEN’s mission to Cuba; PEN’s protests over killings and impunity in Mexico; protests and gatherings in Hong Kong on behalf of imprisoned Chinese writers; the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to PEN member and Independent Chinese PEN Center founder and President Liu Xiaobo.
PEN and its members have played a pivotal role in defending freedom of expression around the world, in challenging systems that trap citizens, and in at least two instances, in taking on the presidencies of the new democracies that emerged. The PEN Charter, which sets out the principles and ideals, has united the global organization and guided its members who have often been at the forefront or in the wings of important historical moments—celebrated and outspoken writers like Václav Havel, Nadine Gordimer, Margaret Atwood, Orhan Pamuk, Yaşar Kemal, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Koigi wa Wamwere, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Arthur Miller, Anna Politkovskaya, Salman Rushdie, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Carlos Fuentes, Liu Xiaobo. The list is long, and I have had the privilege of interacting with many of them in PEN and also with hundreds of perhaps lesser known, but courageous writers who have stood watch and engaged.
The view of PEN Journey is global though the work is often local. As well as chronicling global events and personal history, PEN Journey recounts the shaping and re-imagining of this sprawling nongovernmental organization, one of the largest in terms of geographic reach. PEN has had to evolve and re-shape itself to serve its 155 autonomous centers. With at least 40,000 members around the globe in more than 100 countries, there are many stories others might tell, but this narrative is a close-up view of a period of time and of the writers who continue to work together in the belief that the world for all its differences and complexities can aspire to and perhaps even achieve “the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.”* [*PEN Charter]
Because I tended not to throw away documents over the decades, I have an extensive paper as well as digital archive which I used to refresh memories and document facts. As I dug through files, I came across a speech I’d given 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.
The talk also references the historic struggle in my own country, the United States, a struggle which is ongoing. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Martin Luther King is quoted as saying. This is the arc PEN has leaned towards in its first century and is counting on in its second.
From Diyarbakir Conference:
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 PEN’s 141 centers in 99 countries. [Now 155 centers in over 100 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 for himself this ancient city, 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, March 2005
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.
I finished my term as International Secretary of PEN July 2007 at PEN’s 73rd World Congress in Dakar, Senegal. I handed over the responsibility to my longtime colleague Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN) who would continue to work with the Board, the Executive Director Caroline McCormick, new Treasurer Eric Lax and President Jiří Gruša. We had executed many changes in the last three years, and those who had been involved were continuing and active both in the international leadership and in the PEN centers.
Before the Congress, the staff and PEN members gave me a farewell party at PEN International’s relatively new London headquarters on High Holborn. PEN is about people, and I’d been fortunate to work over many decades with dozens of talented writers who were also competent in organizational work, friends from around the globe who remain friends today.
As a Vice President, I would continue to work, write appeal letters to governments for the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC)’s RAN (Rapid Action Network) cases, speak when asked and hold meetings in Washington when asked, but I could return to being a writer. American PEN’s Executive Director Michael Roberts asked me to join American PEN’s board. I demurred and said I needed a break, but he and others urged me so in 2008 I joined the board of PEN America but worked at a far less intense pace for the next six years. When American PEN’s new Executive Director Suzanne Nossel came on, I was asked to extend for an additional year as a Vice President while she oriented to PEN’s international work. It is difficult to step away from PEN though most who are engaged find they must for a time, though not too far away.
As I left the historic Senegal Congress that July 2007, I boarded a plane and flew out over the Atlantic to Italy where I met up with my husband by a lake in one of our favorite spots for a vacation. He had patiently waited those three years as I spent 10-15 days a month on the road. In the first week without PEN’s emails and phone calls and conferences, we talked; I wrote, and I read four books in six days.
Back home I soon realized I needed to join the 21st century as a writer. At PEN we had begun to use some tools of social media in publicizing cases of writers under threat, but I hadn’t engaged personally. I remember sitting with a group of women writers in Washington, DC, many younger than me, who were talking about their websites and blogs and Twitter, and Facebook. In 2007 writers having URLs, Twitter handles, Facebook pages was relatively new. Twitter had only launched the year before, and though blogs had been around for a few years, I had never written one. Facebook seemed an odd medium, also only a few years old. I was of the “private” generation; we were not prone to sharing our activities and feelings on a “social” platform. Those of us who’d been journalists were used to having to condense stories, but never to 140 characters which Twitter demanded. We were in a new communications age, and I needed to understand and at least to put a toe in the water, even if I didn’t jump fully in.
Encouraged by friends and agent, I set up a website. The developer urged me to blog. I didn’t want to blog, I explained. I wanted to write fiction and occasional journalism, but I agreed to post a blog once a month. I have done so for over ten years now. Often when I considered what was worth writing about each month, I found myself reflecting on work with PEN. When asked to write about PEN’s history as I’d witnessed it in anticipation of the Centennial, I reasoned I could post twice a month. That seemed a reasonable way to get through PEN’s history year by year. A serial blog. I have sped up the pace since Covid locked us all into our homes and travel has halted. I have now come to an end of this particular PEN Journey though I will write an introduction. I will also reference links to those blog posts I wrote after 2007 when I continued to work with PEN.
In this final post, I want to review a few areas of PEN International I feel I haven’t explored sufficiently, and I want to give a quick view forward of what and who came next.
In Journey’s 7, 8, 22, 25, 26, I touched on the work of the PEN Emergency Fund. I want to highlight that here. Founded in 1971 by Dutch Writer A. (Bob) den Doolaard who had an active role with PEN International, the PEN Emergency Fund fulfilled a missing link in PEN’s work. Doolaard noted that PEN had no mechanism to grant material aid to writers, especially those under threat who had to flee their countries so he and Dutch PEN set up the aid fund based in the Netherlands, operated under Dutch law. The PEN Emergency Fund gives a one-time grant to writers in dire circumstances and is able to act quickly. Over the years PEN’s Emergency Fund has provided rapid support for writers on every continent, especially those in Eastern Europe during the Communist era and those in the Balkans War in the 1990s and also to persecuted writers in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Every year dozens of writers have been helped with grants that have bridged to longer term answers. The Fund operates in close collaboration with PEN International whose professionals furnish the Fund with information and with the PEN centers and members who have contributed to the Fund. I’ve had the privilege of serving on the PEN Emergency Fund Advisory Board for a number of years.
Prizes: As a literary organization, PEN through its centers awards numbers of literary awards, but only a few literary prizes have been awarded by PEN International. Over the years the idea of a PEN International Prize for Literature or even for Peace has arisen. When I first took on the position of International Secretary, we were approached by a donor offering to give PEN $100,000 for the PEN International Prize for Peace. Well-meaning though the donor was, it quickly became clear that PEN International could not accept. The donor already had his first winner in mind—Bono. We explained that any prize would have to be independently judged with established criteria and nominating processes, and in order for PEN to give an annual prize, we would need to have a substantial financial commitment in an account to assure we could afford the prize each year as well as the cost of the judging and ceremony. We named the figure. The discussions broke off though the donor, I think, did find another way to give his prize though not through PEN.
The biennial PEN David T. Wong International Short Story Prize did come into being for a time, with a much more modest monetary award for a new writer, open to nominations by all PEN Centers and run by International PEN Foundation’s Gilly Vincent, who later became General Secretary of English PEN. Gilly was a pro and lined up well-qualified writers as judges. The nominations came in from PEN Centers around the world and the winner was often celebrated at PEN’s Congress. One of the first winners for 2002-2003 was a young Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, who won for her short story “One Half of the Yellow Sun,” submitted by her local PEN Center USA West. The story went on to become the celebrated novel by the same name, and she went on to win wide international acclaim for that and other books. The PEN David T. Wong Prize was one of the first international recognition of her as a writer. The judges for 2003 were William Trevor, Michele Roberts and J.M. Coetzee who won the Nobel Prize for Literature later that year. The 2001 prize had been won by Rachel Seifert, who went on to have her first novel short-listed for Booker Prize.
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, the PEN Emergency Fund and Oxfam Novib each year do give the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Free Expression Award to writers who work for freedom of expression in the face of persecution. The award is given to writers and journalists committed to free speech despite the danger to their own lives.
Many other literary awards and literary festivals are hosted by PEN’s centers around the world. I had the pleasure of visiting a number of those, including in Croatia and in Turkey, hosted by the PEN centers.
There are many aspects of PEN’s work I’ve touched on but not explored fully such as the formation of a PEN center, which technically can occur when 20 reputable writers get together and petition the International office. There is a limit of five centers per country; most countries have fewer, and many countries have only one center. The rationale for additional centers has been to reflect linguistic diversity in a country. For instance, Switzerland has French, German, Italian, and Esperanto centers, or to facilitate participation when the land mass is large. The U.S. used to have two centers, one based in New York and one in Los Angeles, but in the past years, the two centers have merged into one PEN America. In Canada where there is both large land mass and diverse languages PEN has two centers—PEN Canada based in Toronto essentially uses English as the primary language and Quebecois PEN uses French. In some countries there are many, many languages as in India, which also has a large landscape and has the All-India Center in Bombay and the PEN Delhi Center. The rationale depends largely on the ambition and needs of the writers on the ground. Often a center will form branches within a country to provide the services and community for writers.
One document I did not include in an earlier post was the rationale from PEN International Vice President and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer regarding the formation and naming of centers as related to a petition from writers in South Africa to form an Afrikaans Center. I’ve copied it here because it was from one of PEN’s eminent and active members and because it articulated ongoing questions in PEN. Gordimer’s argument did not prevail at the Berlin Congress in 2006 where an Afrikaans Center, not a Pretoria Center, was voted in though the center is based in Pretoria. The reasoning nonetheless is worth considering. The dynamics are ongoing in a number of countries and will likely continue as new centers are added or removed when they grow inactive.
Nadine Gordimer: “Let me make it clear. My objection to the formation of an Afrikaans language PEN club has no significance whatever of any kind of prejudice against my brother and sister South Africans, who are Afrikaans speakers and writers just as I am an English-speaking writer. We have eleven languages in our country. I should have exactly the same objection to the formation of an isiZulu or isiXhosa Club. We cannot have separate-but-equal (shades of apartheid) Clubs for every language, even though most of which have the strong linguistic claim of ante-dating colonially imported English and colonially created Afrikaans. I support a vigorous and linguistically open South African PEN Club, to have local representation in each region, with membership actively pursued among writers in whatever South African languages are theirs. Only such a chapter could have the strength to fulfil our needs…Historic-culturally determined circumstances give us both the necessity to overcome them and the fine opportunity to make full use of them, for our writers and our poly-literature.”
PEN is a breathing, living organization whose main body has been working around the world for a century with new members and centers joining every year as other centers at times have fallen dormant or closed. It is a fellowship of writers, of citizens in civil society holding watch over freedom of expression, linguistic diversity, over literature, and over the imagination and art by which societies flourish. Particular issues and threats change according to the times. PEN declares itself an apolitical organization, yet it is an organization whose central principle and commitment to freedom of expression sets it in the fray of politics since an early warning of a society descending into authoritarianism is the arrest of its writers and the closing down of space for free expression.
Changes in PEN leadership internationally and in centers effect the organization, but the Charter holds the whole body together. The leadership of PEN International used to reside in the President, the International Secretary and the Treasurer as the Executive, which represented the Centers’ Assembly of Delegates between two annual Congresses. The narrative of this PEN Journey has shown the change in the organization and its governance as it has grown and the world in which it operated has altered. PEN International has more than doubled in size over the last three decades to 155 centers in more than 100 countries. It now holds only one Congress a year, and the leadership is a partnership among the President, the International Secretary, the Treasurer, and an elected 7-member Board representing the Centers. Work is facilitated by an Executive Director, a position first hired in 2005, who heads the staff. Depending on the skills and experience and personality of each, the dynamic changes. In my term, I tended to be hands-on as an International Secretary. The President Jiří Gruša with whom I served was engaged as the Director of a Diplomatic Academy and had not been very active in PEN before he took the role of President. I would check in with Jiří before each monthly board meeting, explain the agenda as I saw it, ask if he wanted to add or change any items and if he wanted to attend. Jiří, a former prisoner of conscience, had lived the principles of PEN, understood them and with experience, knowledge and wit was an authentic voice on the international stage. But the day-to-day decision-making and running of the organization he largely left to me and then with the first Executive Director, the Board and the staff.
Jiří’s successor John Ralston Saul, former President of PEN Canada, had been a long time PEN member, active in the organization with experience in governing. He took on a much more active role as President, working with International Secretary Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN) and then International Secretary Hori Takeaki (Japan PEN). John traveled the globe visiting PEN centers and government officials and taking on the issues of his period. After John, PEN elected its first woman President Jennifer Clement, former President of PEN Mexico, who took on the work, along with a special focus on the issues of women globally. She spearheaded, along with PEN’s Women Writers Committee, a Women’s Manifesto and later an Imagination Manifesto and will serve until the end of the Centenary Congress in England in 2021. Kätlin Kaldmaa (Estonian PEN) has served as International Secretary during this time along with longtime PEN member Carles Torner as Executive Director.
Unfortunately over the years as PEN’s website has been upgraded, the content has not always been exported so many of the documents and speeches and records have not followed into the digital universe. The narrative is carried in paper files which overflow in my basement and even more in PEN’s and in the memories of PEN members. My own PEN Journey has been an effort to record some of the history and offer a continuity of narrative during a particular period, through the eyes of one PEN member who has had the privilege and pleasure of standing up close for part of that history. I’ve tried to render the direction and actions. The flaws, the missteps of people, including myself, I’ve also witnessed but have largely left to the side in this narrative. My purpose has not been to be a critic nor a hagiographer, nor a novelist, but a reporter, recording the actions and the journey with a touch of personal memoir.
The opening of the PEN International Charter states that literature knows no frontiers. This speaks to both real and, no less importantly, those imagined.
PEN stands against notions of national and cultural purity that seek to stop people from listening, reading and learning from each other. One of the most treacherous forms of censorship is self-censorship —where walls are built around the imagination and often raised from fear of attack.
PEN believes the imagination allows writers and readers to transcend their own place in the world to include the ideas of others. This place for some writers has been prison where the imagination has meant interior freedom and, often, survival.
The imagination is the territory of all discovery as ideas come into being as one creates them. It is often in the confluence of contradiction, found in metaphor and simile, where the most profound human experiences reside.
For almost 100 years PEN has stood for freedom of expression. PEN also stands for, and believes in, the freedom of the empathetic imagination while recognizing that many have not been the ones to tell their own stories.
PEN INTERNATIONAL UPHOLDS THE FOLLOWING PRINCIPLES:
- We defend the imagination and believe it to be as free as dreams.
- We recognize and seek to counter the limits faced by so many in telling their own stories.
- We believe the imagination accesses all human experience, and reject restrictions of time, place, or origin.
- We know attempts to control the imagination may lead to xenophobia, hatred and division.
- Literature crosses all real and imagined frontiers and is always in the realm of the universal.
Next and final installment of PEN Journey: Introduction—the Curtain Rises
Links below are to blog posts mentioning PEN after 2007. I was not writing official reports of Congresses or WiPC conferences or other events, but reflecting on PEN’s work, cases and the impact of ideas in my own monthly posts, some of which I used in writing this PEN Journey:
The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate
March 31, 2020
Arc of History Bending Toward Justice?
March 20, 2019
Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression
May 23, 2018
Women’s Voices Rising (Women’s Manifesto)
February 28, 2018
Liu Xiaobo: On the Front Line of Ideas
December 7, 2017
Reclaiming Truth In Times Of Propaganda (83rd PEN Congress in Lviv, Ukraine)
September 28, 2017
“Finding Room for Common Ground: No Enemies, No Hatred”
September 8, 2017
In Turkey, a show of solidarity with writers behind bars (PEN Turkey Mission)
February 3, 2017
Power on Loan
January 23, 2017
Hope for Songs Not Prison in 2017
December 27, 2016
Building Literary Bridges: Past and Present (82nd PEN Congress in Ourense, Spain)
October 3, 2016
Call for Help inside Iran’s Evin Prison
May 23, 2016
Spring and Release
March 18, 2016
View on the Bosporus: Rights in Retreat
January 29, 2016
Democracy in Africa: Who Can Chat with Kabila?
November 30, 2015
Life instead of Death…Rationality instead of Ignorance (81st PEN Congress in Quebec, Canada)
October 23, 2015
What Are You Not Reading This Summer? (WiPC Conference in Amsterdam)
June 11, 2015
Times and Tides
November 14, 2014
PEN on the Plains of Central Asia (80th PEN Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
October 7, 2014
Poets, Pardons and Ramadan
August 2, 2014
Qatar: A Poet in a Desert Cell
November 1, 2013
The Last Colony?
October 15, 2013
Parallel Universe in a Glassed Concert Hall in Iceland (79th PEN Congress in Reykjavik, Iceland)
September 16, 2013
Living In and Beyond History (WiPC Conference in Krakow, Poland)
May 20, 2013
Two Voices Behind the Iron Doors
April 8, 2013
North Korean Writers in a Land of the Rising Sun (78th PEN Congress in Gyeongju, South Korea)
September 15, 2012
facebook or not?
June 28, 2012
Voices Around the World
January 30, 2012
Bridge Over the Bosporus: Citizenship on the Rise (77th PEN Congress, Belgrade, Serbia mentioned)
September 28, 2011
Tourist in Beijing: A Dance with the Censor
July 29, 2011
Ice Flows: Freedom of Expression
January 29, 2011
In the Woods: On History’s Doorstep
December 22, 2010
Full Moon Over Tokyo (76th PEN Congress in Tokyo, Japan)
September 30, 2010
Introducing Isabel Allende
May 21, 2010
“Because Writers Speak Their Minds”–2
March 31, 2010
“Because Writers Speak Their Minds”
February 24, 2010
January 18, 2010
Yellow Geranium in a Tin Can
October 27, 2009
China at 60–Fate of Liu Xiaobo?
September 30, 2009
A Time of Hopening (WiPC Conference in Oslo, Norway)
June 24, 2009
“There Will Still Be Light” *
April 30, 2009
The Intensifying Battle Over Internet Freedom
February 24, 2009
Charter 08: Decade of the Citizen
December 30, 2008
China from the 22nd Floor (Hong Kong Conference)
May 28, 2008
OLYMPIC RELAY– A POEM ON THE MOVE
April 21, 2008
Words That Matter
March 4, 2008
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.
PEN International’s 73rd World Congress in Dakar, Senegal July 2007 celebrated the first Pan African PEN Congress with over 200 writers gathered from over 70 countries around the theme “The Word, the World, and Human Values.” The theme had been developed by PEN’s African centers who assisted in the planning of the Congress which brought together writers from every continent as well as from across Africa.
The setting was grand on the rugged Atlantic coast at Le Meridien Hotel. Government luminaries, including the President of Senegal Abdoulaye Wade and Prime Minister Cheikh Hadjibou Soumaré greeted delegates at the opening and closing ceremonies in the tiered auditorium where the Assembly of Delegates conducted PEN’s business. Ministers of Culture, Information and Foreign Affairs hosted dinners in the evening as did the President and Prime Minister.
Because PEN monitored the human rights situation in countries, particularly regarding freedom of expression, PEN vetted carefully countries where it held its Congresses. Senegal had prosecuted four journalists the past year, but none were in detention, and PEN Senegal and the International Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) were advocating to abolish defamation laws used to repress writers across the continent. Senegal in general was an open society for writers. On the few occasions when PEN hosted Congresses in countries with more repressive regimes, it took no assistance from the government and used the occasion to advocate on behalf of the writers.
The 73rd Congress marked the end of my term as PEN International Secretary. At my first Congress as International Secretary, I’d opened with the image of a bridge soaring into the sky, a bridge that had taken decades to construct. I had suggested that for the last decade International PEN had been building an organizational bridge into the 21st century. Having occupied the position of International Secretary for three years on a daily basis, I could attest that PEN was a robust, though occasionally fragile, organization whose bridges across cultures were real, whose joints were welded by the principles of the PEN Charter and by the fellowship among writers.
For me, memories abounded—memories of the ancient city of Diyarbakir, Turkey where Kurdish and Turkish writers translated each other side by side for the first time; the gathering in Hong Kong where writers from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the diaspora, along with other writers from around the world, met and shared ideas and literature; and the memory of the dungeons of Gorée Island with its dark doorway to the Atlantic, similar to “the door of no return” on Ghana’s Cape (Gold) Coast where the most basic human rights had been violated centuries before when men and women were shipped as slaves to other countries, including to my own.
At the Congress PEN members traveled to Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar to see and to pay homage to this history and through PEN’s work to act on behalf of freedom and human dignity today.
A Nobel Laureate in science once said, “Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.” That could be said of the writer whose imagination saw bridges between people and cultures where others saw clashes and conflict.
Before each Congress I made a point of reading histories of PEN, particularly the history of the place where PEN was holding its Congress. The 73rd Congress was only the second time PEN’s whole international body had met in Africa. Forty years before a PEN delegate at the 35th Congress in Abidjan, Ivory Coast recalled ascending the stairs of the Congressional Hall between a double row of guards dressed in scarlet and gold with raised sabers. At that Congress PEN members took special notice of writers in prison in Communist and noncommunist countries. There were not many PEN centers in Africa then, but PEN Senegal existed. At the Congress the prior year in New York City in 1966, delegates from the Ivory Coast and Senegal had attended as had observers from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. By 2007 PEN had 15 centers in Africa, including in those countries whose writers had visited the New York Congress. Today PEN has 28 African centers.
At the Dakar Congress, writers from regions who hoped to develop PEN centers observed, including Uighur writers, Afar-speaking writers and writers from Tunisia, Bahrain, Iraq and Jordan, all of whom eventually formed PEN centers. Forty years ago International PEN also had observers from the Soviet-bloc. In all these instances, PEN had acted as a bridge to writers who aspired to share their literature and to work for freedom of expression in their societies.
In Dakar, International PEN President Jiří Gruša noted, “International PEN and its Centers are glad to be gathering in Senegal, a country which holds literature in high regard, in part because its first President Leopold Senghor was the internationally renowned poet and also a Vice President of International PEN.”
Mbaye Gana Kébé, Senegal PEN President, affirmed, “Senegal has remained a welcome land at the crossroads of all civilizations. In addition to that we have its democratic ideal and respect of human rights. This Congress taking place here consecrates a lasting and beautiful tradition of African hospitality.”
The Congress theme “The Word, the World, and Human Values” was explored thorough round table sessions including “Literature and the Oral Tradition” and “The Role of Contemporary African Literature in Intercultural Dialogue” and at International PEN’s first literary event “Freedoms” held outside under the stars. Hosted with TrustAfrica, a new African foundation that promoted peace, economic development and social justice, the evening and the panels featured writers from across Africa, noted Senegalese PEN Vice President Amadou Lamine Sall and General Secretary Alioune Badara Bèye who were instrumental in arranging the Congress. Writers included Bernard Dadié (Ivory Coast), Jean-Baptiste Tati Loutard (Congo), Fernando d’Almeida (Cameroon), Dieudonné Miuka Kadima Nzuji (Congo), Tanure Ojaide (South Africa), Frédéric Pacéré Titinga (Burkina Faso), Aminata Sow Fall and Pr. Abdoulaye Elimane Kane (Senegal), and Jack Mapanje (Malawi).
In the hotel’s meeting rooms, PEN’s standing committees adjourned. The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), chaired by Karin Clark (German PEN), focused on criminal insult and defamation laws, particularly in Africa. These laws endangered writers and resulted in imprisonments. During the previous year WiPC had followed 1100 cases worldwide of attacks on writers, ranging from killings, long term detentions, threats, and harassments. Around 320 of those had been in Africa.
PEN also brought attention to the refugee crisis in Iraq with an appeal for translators, writers and journalists who were being targeted for death because of their work. In a resolution supported by American PEN and passed unanimously, International PEN urged the US to protect these refugee writers and translators and to increase funding for UNHCR and other refugee services and remove barriers to resettling Iraqi refugee writers and intellectuals.
The Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC), chaired by Kata Kulavkova (Macedonia PEN), considered the mounting threats to linguistic diversity in an English-dominated world. Delegate Esther Allen (PEN America) presented “To Be Translated or Not to Be: Globalization, Translation, and English,” a major survey of barriers to the exchange of literature and entrance into the international literary marketplace. The Assembly of Delegates passed a resolution calling on UN member states to comply with international conventions on linguistic rights.
The Women Writers Committee (IPWWC), chaired by Judith Buckrich (Melbourne PEN), met during the Congress and also at its own conference right after the Congress to examine the challenges faced by women writers, especially as related to freedom of expression and censorship, particularly in Africa. The writers also discussed women’s literacy and educational opportunities and explored the publishing potential for voices which struggled to be heard.
PEN’s Peace Committee, chaired by Edvard Kovač (Slovene PEN), met with an appeal to bring writers in countries at war together in an exchange of literature and ideas such as at a recent meeting between Turkish and Kurdish members
The Writers in Exile Network, chaired by Haroon Siddiqui (PEN Canada), reported that PEN continued to assist resettling writers under threat, often at universities, and also through partnership with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).
International PEN’s Executive Director Caroline McCormick and her team worked before, during and after the Congress on regional development. “International PEN is working in partnership with its African Centers to address challenges which they have identified in the region. Essential to this work is the role of continued engagement with reading, writing and ideas in bringing about change and empowering civil society.”
Each African center had its own history and focus though many overlapped. PEN Senegal, the first and oldest center in Africa, was dedicated to raising the profile of young and new unpublished writers and published an anthology of young writers and actively promoted work through its publications and competitions. The center had the advantage of a permanent writers house which was a drop-in center and focal point for the writing community and also accommodated visiting writers.
Guinean PEN had been established by the Women Writers Association of Guinea, which made it one of few African centers that had majority of women writers as members. Headed by Zeinab Koumanthio Diallo, President of Guinea PEN, the center ran its own museum and cultural center and raised the majority of funds through income-generating activities, including performances and cultural activities with a focus on literature and on raising awareness of social issues to include communities who didn’t normally have access to the world of literature. Projects included promoting reading in rural agricultural communities and using literature to support the rights of women and girls.
PEN International’s next regional focus would be Latin America in anticipation of the 2008 Congress. After a vigorous debate at the Congress, the Assembly of Delegates voted to move the 2008 Congress from Oaxaca, Mexico because of challenges to freedom of expression there to Bogotá, Colombia, hosted by Colombian PEN which was monitoring closely, along with International PEN, the situation for writers there.
The work of the 73rd Congress included the final disbanding of the International PEN Foundation which had served its purpose for over a decade as a charitable entity that existed with its own board alongside PEN International and enabled PEN International to receive charitable donations. Now that British charitable tax law had changed, PEN International, which was headquartered in London, could finally be incorporated as a charity.
The work of the Assembly of Delegates included elections of:
—International Secretary Eugene Schoulgin (PEN Norway), former WiPC Chair and International PEN Board member,
—Treasurer Eric Lax (PEN USA West), former International PEN Board member and former President of PEN USA West,
The Assembly adopted twelve resolutions from the Writers in Prison Committee focusing on the imprisonment of writers in China, Tibet, Iran, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Cuba, Turkey, Tunisia and Vietnam, the killing of journalists in Mexico & Afghanistan and the forced closure of television stations in Venezuela.
One unexpected controversy arose just a few weeks before the Congress when the British government conferred a knighthood on Salman Rushdie. The act stirred disputes in literary and political circles which threatened to follow us to the Congress. We came prepared should questions arise. I don’t recall now if the question was asked at the closing press conference where Jiří and I sat in our new African dress which had been given to us by the Congress hosts. Along with the President of Senegal PEN we recalled the successes of the Congress and the African programs which PEN International committed to continuing.
Rather than revisit the Rushdie controversy, I quote here PEN International’s response from Vice President and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer: “International PEN deplores the reaction of extremists to the honor conferred upon one of the world’s great writers, Salman Rushdie, by the Queen of the United Kingdom for his services to literature. The appalling reaction from extremists threatens not alone the principle of freedom of expression as a basic tenant of justice, but seeks to decree the violent end to the life of a writer, solely on the grounds of written words that did not call for any aggression against any group or individual.”
My personal memories of the impressive Dakar Congress include being driven around in a limousine as International Secretary. Because PEN Board Member Eric Lax was hobbling on crutches with his foot in a cast, he also hitched a ride. I would have been happy to go on the bus, but we both appreciated the gesture.
Before each PEN Congress while I was International Secretary, I studied French. I hired a tutor and talked with her for hours, practicing conversation and comprehension and jotting down what I might want to say. I understood that it was important to know the language of so many of PEN’s members, especially when the Congress was in a French-speaking country. I didn’t do the same with Spanish because my Spanish was more remedial, but I had studied French at university and so had some base. French colleagues used to say, “Your accent is cute and you are fearless,” which I think was a nice way of saying you’re not very good, but at least you’re trying.
Before I came to the Dakar Congress, I had taken out my notebook from French lessons and copied on a single page the phrases I thought I might want to say at some point. When I arrived at the opening ceremony, I was seated on the dais along with Jiří, PEN’s Vice Presidents, the President of Senegalese PEN and the President of Senegal. I had not been informed that I was expected to give a speech, but my name, along with Jiří’s, was on the program. I knew Jiří didn’t speak French, and I felt it would be insulting for neither of us to speak in one of the languages of the country. That morning I’d tucked my sheet of phrases into my bag, and as I sat there, I glanced at the accumulation of sentences; they were a kind of speech so for the first few minutes I spoke in French then said, “Now I’d like to shift to English so I can speak better from my heart.” Everyone had translation equipment.
When the closing ceremonies arrived, the same situation arose. With the Prime Minister of Senegal also on the dais, I was again listed on the program to speak. However, this time Senegalese PEN had written remarks for me in French, and I stepped over to my nearby colleagues at French PEN to practice.
To close out this final memory, I share here a portion of my report to the Congress. Each International Secretary and President and Board member and Staff member brings his/her talents, skills and affection to this organization which is held together in part by ideals and friendship. In marking progress, no one diminishes the work that came before. I continue to note in wonder the improbability of an organization of writers connected around the globe in 150 centers in more than 100 countries surviving for a century. With gratitude I recognize those who have come before and kept the organization together and those who come after and add to the bridges and structures or whatever metaphor suits at the time. Here is a brief summary of my journey those years as International Secretary:
As an organization we have grown in the past three years, both in numbers of centers, scope of activity, and size of the Secretariat. We have worked to strengthen the infrastructure of the London office so that it can better assist the centers and can coordinate the international work of PEN. We have put financial systems in place for budgeting and have expanded fundraising, and have established employment procedures and contracts for staff and transparent criteria for our own grant-making.
The Board, which now meets monthly by phone, has worked, along with the Staff and myself, in this process. I want to take this moment to thank the Board whose members work hard on your behalf and each of whom has always said yes when asked to take on a task. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with a wonderful staff, first Jane Spender, who has now retired and sends her best and with the highly qualified team of Caroline McCormick, Sara Whyatt and now Frank Geary and Karen Efford and newer members Tamsin Mitchell and Emily Bromfield…I want to thank former International Secretaries Alexandre Blokh and Terry Carlbom who have always been available when I’ve sought counsel. And I want to thank so many of you in the centers who have helped me in the work and my home center in America for sustained support. Finally we all want to thank Senegalese PEN for its work in putting on this Congress and all the African centers who participated in this effort.
To finance PEN’s growth we have raised funds from new funders and from existing funders, who have signed onto the expanded program for International PEN and have given us larger grants…
I’ve had the pleasure of working with and visiting many of you and your centers over the last three years…One of the greatest pleasures of working with International PEN has been developing friendships around the globe.
PEN is only as strong as its centers. We have been working through our regional program on a one-to-one basis with centers in Africa this year to develop strategic plans. Through the Board we have also been in touch with centers whom we have not heard from in long time to see if they still exist and to find out how we might help them. Through the workshops at the Congresses and in the consultations last year with the whole membership, we have developed for centers a guide to good governance which we will share later at this Congress. Most PEN centers already operate according to the principles of transparent membership criteria, regular elections, rotation in office, and governance by a constitution, but other centers need assistance in this area.
PEN began as a club of writers committed to the ideals which developed over the years. But a club does not mean that qualified writers should be kept out of the work of PEN or that PEN should be an exclusive Academy. There has always been the balancing of PEN as a club and PEN as a nongovernmental organization (an NGO.) Each center chooses its activities, but internationally, PEN operates as an NGO. That is why we have consultative status at the United Nations. Clubs do not receive this status. As an international organization we work to achieve goals related to civil society—the goals of promoting literature and defending freedom of expression. The work of International PEN, through its committees and through the centers and writers who chose to participate in the international work, serves these goals.
This year Caroline and I visited UNESCO several times and are happy to report that UNESCO officials are enthusiastically recommending PEN’s partnership under the framework agreement be renewed for another six-year period. They specifically praised PEN for its “significant modernization.”
At a PEN Congress in 1966 the Mexican novelist Carles Fuentes took note of “the improbable spectacle of 500 writers—conservatives, anarchists, communists, liberals, socialists—meeting not to underline their differences or to enumerate their dogmas, but to bear witness to the existence of a community of spirit while accepting diversity of interests.” That is still what PEN is and what PEN represents to the world.
The theme of this Congress—The Word, The World and Human Values—resonates and was chosen by PEN’s African centers. I am particularly honored to be finishing my term in Africa, for African literature and the literature of African American writers have had a significant influence on my own work as a writer. I’d like to end with a verse from Senegal’s great poet and first President and also International PEN Vice President Leopold Senghor, from his elegy written after the assassination of my countryman Martin Luther King. Senghor’s life offered a kind of bridge in the world. Through his life and his words, he showed how an individual and a writer can in fact enhance human values.
From Senghor’s “Elegy for Martin Luther King”:
“As the Reverend’s heart evaporated like incense and his soul
Flew like a diaphanous rising dove, I heard behind my left ear
The slow beating of the drum. The voice and its sharp breath close to
My cheek said: ‘Take up your pen and write, Son of the Lion.’
“And I saw a vision…”
You must read the poem to see the vision, but I can tell you it is a vision very much in the spirit of PEN.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 46: Wrapping Up