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.
“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….
Phone lines quickly jammed. I couldn’t imagine my meetings would take place, but when I couldn’t get through, I left the hotel and began walking down Fifth Avenue towards the Empire State Building where Human Rights Watch had its offices. But as I headed downtown, the streets filled with people rushing uptown. New York City was closing, with no traffic allowed in or out. I found myself locked down in Manhattan. Most Americans can tell you where they were that day and what happened next.
Two months later I flew back to Europe for the PEN Assembly of Delegates, held in Russell Square in Bloomsbury at a cost-efficient hotel, rather stark if I recall, but functional and accommodating to the over 160 people who made their way from 65 PEN Centers around the world, delegates from every continent.
It was PEN’s 80th Anniversary. The initial meeting of PEN in 1921 with its first president John Galsworthy, PEN founder Catherine Amy Dawson Scott and others had been held in Bedford Square, not far from where we were meeting. PEN clubs had rapidly sprung up in Europe—in France, Sweden and elsewhere—and in the United States. By the Assembly in 2001 PEN had more than12,000 members in 131 centers in over 100 countries.
PEN was born in the upheavals of world history, observed International PEN President Homero Aridjis at the opening of the 2001 Assembly. “What should be the role of writers and PEN in the aftermath of 9/11?” he asked and answered that PEN should continue to ensure the role of writers and be alert to those who would try to sacrifice personal freedom and the rights of minority populations. It was important that democratic practices survive and that PEN remain vigorous in the defense of freedom.
In a resolution passed by the Assembly of Delegates, PEN recognized “the urgent threat to freedom represented by the terrorist attacks of September 11. It also recognized the aims of terrorism are incompatible with democratic values, including freedom of expression.” But the resolution also addressed the concern that “the emergency measures adopted by governments to combat ‘terrorism’ should not further endanger those values and the essential human rights that derive from them.” In the resolution passed, PEN “expressed its concern that legislation and executive orders currently being planned or already passed by the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Japan and other countries may place unacceptable restrictions on these rights. PEN voices its concern that such measures may curtail existing rights of writers and journalists, as protected by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. The Assembly of Delegates of International PEN urges that the atrocities of September 11 should not be exploited by governments to assume extraordinary and unjustifiable power to curtail free expression.”
The Resolution on post-September 11 events was the first of more than a dozen resolutions passed by the Assembly, resolutions which included protests, actions and appeals regarding freedom of expression and human rights in Bangladesh, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Israel and Palestine, Mexico, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and relating to the Kurds.
The Russian delegate thanked PEN for holding the previous Congress in Moscow. “You saw with your eyes what was in Moscow. I want to thank you that you didn’t leave us in this difficult time,” he said. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had been covering the war in Chechnya, then addressed the Assembly. She explained that she went to Chechnya in 1999 as a reporter for the only free and independent newspaper still publishing “to witness the crimes and evil by the Russian Army.” Because of recent threats against her by the government, she was advised by her editor to leave Russia, and she now lived in Vienna. “I’m going to remind you of unpleasant things the world has forgotten,” she said. “There is a war in Chechnya. The world doesn’t want to fight against this war. Nobody is counting how many civilians have been killed in the war. Journalists who cover the Chechen war have different figures from 18,000-100,000 people. There is no economy, only a black economy. Now there are practically no journalists who cover it…To me it’s clear it’s an anti-terrorist operation that failed to accomplish its goal, but against this background Putin has become a very important person after September 11…I want to remind you that all new wars are sequels to previous wars.”
After Anna addressed the Assembly, the delegates returned to the ongoing business of reports and resolutions, and Anna met with Writers in Prison Committee members and the WiPC Program Director Sara Whyatt.
Additional resolutions were also passed which approved the adoption of “the Membership Platform Document as a Working Paper of International PEN and as a guideline document governing the creation, organization and work of all PEN Centers.” The document developed in consultation with the centers and the Executive Committee and International Secretary, along with changes in Regulations and Rules of Procedure were part of the ongoing modernization of the organization. At the Assembly, the Executive Committee of PEN was officially renamed the Board of International PEN with an understanding that the translation of the term “Board” still had to be agreed upon by the French and Spanish speaking centers.
In a globe where security paradigms had been turned upside down and armies were standing up, PEN’s 2001 Assembly, which had no remit in the area of security except to write about it, focused on the situation of writers around the world. This included the large number of prominent writers who had been freed over the past year after intensive PEN involvement as well as the rise in the number of writers who had been detained.
PEN worked in civil society. At the 2001 Assembly PEN encouraged regional cooperation between centers through networks. Earlier that year a trip through Africa by the International Secretary and African Board member Vincent Magombe had promoted further activity and growth of PEN centers in Africa.
The Assembly also attended to rules and regulations and the development of a strategic plan in the belief that a robust organization could better deliver the programs of International PEN and serve the world’s writers.
Elections gave Terry Carlbom a second term as International Secretary; Britta Junge Pedersen was elected Treasurer; Andrei Bitov and Moris Farhi were elected Vice Presidents, and with thanks to the three retiring Executive Committee members, especially Deputy Vice Chair Marian Botsford Fraser, three new members were elected to PEN’s International Board: Eric Lax (PEN USA West), Judith Roriguez (Melbourne PEN) and Alexander Tkachenko (Russian PEN.) Four new Centers were also voted into PEN: Algerian Center, Independent Chinese Writers Center, Nigerian Center and Ugandan Center.
PEN’s role at that time was perhaps best summed up earlier that year in an address by former International PEN President Arthur Miller at an American PEN event. He said, “That PEN is still around after three quarters of a century when it has no army, no navy or air force, no political rewards or threats of punishment, is possibly a triumph of illusion over reality, the illusion that hope is rational in this world.”
Next Installment: PEN Journey 26: Macedonia—Old and New Millennium
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.
We sat on the ferry drinking strong Turkish coffee then handing over the emptied cups to a woman who read fortunes from the pattern of the leftover coffee grounds. As we huddled in the wind off the Sea of Marmara en route to the prison in Bursa, we speculated who among the passengers was following us. We were assured we were being followed.
I came to Turkey in March 1997 as the returning Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WIPC) (PEN Journey 18). I was heading a delegation of 20 PEN members from 12 countries. We’d arrived to support Turkish PEN, the Turkish Writers’ Syndicate, the Literary Writers Association and the Initiative for Freedom of Expression in the first Gathering in Istanbul for Freedom of Expression. We had signed on as “publishers” to an abridged version of the book Freedom of Expression. The original book included essays by those who were in prison or facing charges for their writing, particularly former president of Turkish PEN, the prominent novelist Yaşar Kemal. He was tried for an article he’d published in the German magazine Der Spiegel. (PEN Journey 17). Headlined “Campaign of lies,” the article called out the government for its human rights abuses, particularly its treatment of the Kurds.
Bearing a letter from Arthur Miller, who knew Kemal and had himself come to Turkey with Harold Pinter in solidarity a dozen years before, I was among the 141 “foreign publishers” of the booklet Mini Freedom of Expression. This book contained a paragraph from each article published in the larger book. We joined the 1080 Turkish “editors” of the larger volume who included writers, theater actors, politicians, painters, cinema actors and directors, cartoonists, musicians, trade unionists, academics, lawyers, architects and others. The Turkish Penal Code made it a crime to re-publish an article that had been defined as a “crime” so that the publisher as well as the writer was charged.
The “publishers” had presented themselves before the State Security Court and faced charges of “seditious criminal activity.” After questioning the first 99 people, the prosecutor demanded the accused be tried under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law and Article 312 on “disseminating separatist propaganda.” After six months only 185 of these individuals had been questioned and brought to trial. If these individuals were given the usual 20-month jail sentence, that would mean ten popular television programs would have to be canceled because their stars or directors would be in prison; five series would have to find new stars and change their story lines. The media would lose over 30 well-known journalists; 15 popular columns would be left blank. Eight professorial chairs would be left vacant, and universities would require new teaching staff. Theater stages and film sets would require many other artists, directors, musicians, etc., and 20 new books about prison life would be added to literature if every author wrote.
Turkey already had over 200 writers either in prison or entangled in legal processes, more than any other country. This protest initiative was unique and creative. The challenge to the court was to bring charges against so many. The State Prosecutor had dropped charges against the foreign participants on the grounds that he wasn’t able to bring us to Istanbul for questioning though the Turkish citizens who had prepared and distributed the booklet could be tried. The organizer of the initiative Şanar Yurdatapan suggested we come to Istanbul and challenge the prosecutor. Though PEN members were willing to come to support their Turkish colleagues, no one wanted to end up in a Turkish prison.
“No one will go to prison,” Şanar assured. The prosecutor had to act within six months, and even in the unlikely event charges were brought, we’d go home before a trial, and there was no extradition from the US, UK and many other countries because no such “offense” existed under their laws. Unlike organizations such as Greenpeace, PEN was not a direct action organization. PEN dealt in words, protest letters, diplomacy, meetings, on occasion candlelight vigils outside embassies and stories in the media. But Şanar, who was a song writer, civic activist, not a PEN member, instinctively understood the dynamics of nonviolent direct action and understood how to get attention and make the point that the Turkish laws were unjust and unfairly administered.
On our first day, which was Women’s Day, we joined the Saturday Mothers’ rally of relatives of the disappeared who gathered every Saturday seeking information on their family members. The gathering had been held every Saturday for a year and a half at Galatasaray Square, ten minutes from our small hotel in Taksim. The crowd of mothers and children held pictures and signs of their loved ones, mostly Kurds, who had been taken away, assumedly by the government and likely killed. On the edges of the crowd police in riot gear gathered but didn’t interfere. Meeting at Galatasaray Square is now banned for Saturday Mothers by the Ministry of Interior since August 25, 2018. They still keep the rally at Human Rights Association branch in one of the back streets.
From there a number of us went to a women’s rally where hundreds of Kurdish women in traditional dress marched with banners shouting, “We are mothers; we are for peace! Mafia is in Parliament; students are in prison.” Along the route men cheered and dozens of police lined the road frisking and checking bags. This was the last weekend of a 40-day protest all over Turkey. At 9pm every night people around the country turned out their lights or blinked their lights and shouted out their windows and in the street, “Go Away!” in protest over the government. The idea was that people would have one minute of darkness to get years of light. At dinner that Saturday evening we watched as the streets filled with shouting and the lights in restaurant blinked on and off.
The trip to Istanbul was my first of what would turn out to be dozens of visits to Turkey over the years for PEN, for other organizations, and for family. In 1997 the times were tense; soldiers with their weapons and machine guns were stationed at the airport; armed police were on the streets; we were followed; the phones at the hotel were likely tapped. It was difficult to imagine then that it would get much better in the following decade as it did and then much worse in recent years. I’m not sure today we could hold such a gathering with confidence.
Throughout our visit we were covered by the press, including two visits to the State Security Court. In 1997 the legal way to meet publicly was to hold a press conference so we spent our days in press conferences, including one at the Journalists Association. Because I was Chair of the WiPC, I was often the one explaining why we were there. I emphasized that we had come out of respect for Turkish literature and writers. We had not come to break Turkish laws; we did not consider editing a book a crime. We were there to uphold the international covenants that Turkey had signed, approved and became a party to: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19), Article 19 of the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights and Article 90 in the European Convention on Human Rights. We noted that Article 90 in Turkey’s own Constitution declared that no law should supersede these international covenants.
Our PEN delegation included representatives from Canada (Quebec), Finland, Germany, Holland, Israel, Mexico, Palestine, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and Turkey. The delegates included James Kelman, Booker Prize winner from Scotland and Turkish writers including Yaşar Kemal, Orhan Pamuk and others.
On Monday we started the day at the State Security Court where Şanar petitioned the prosecutor for an appointment to question one delegate who had to leave early. Because the prosecutor didn’t want to bring charges against “international editors”, an act that would bring international attention, the “Turkish editors” could use this failure as further evidence of the unfair nature and application of the law when they took the case to the World Court. We approached the State Security Court again on Wednesday, when the prosecutor actually locked the gates and wouldn’t see any representative of our group. In the end nine of us—from USA, England, Scotland, Finland, Holland, Sweden, Canada (Quebec), Mexico and Russia—signed a form which said, “I accepted to be one of the collective publishers of this book willingly and I am aware of the legal responsibility. I have nothing else to say.” These forms were then sent registered mail to the prosecutor.
Two small groups visited prisons and the prisoners of conscience, including Dr. İsmail Beşikçi and his publisher Ünsal Öztürk in Bursa and journalist Işık Yurtçu in Adapazarı prison. Louise Gareau-Des Bois from Quebec PEN went to the Adapazari prison and was able to visit with Işık Yurtçu.
Kalevi Haikara from Finland and I went with Şanar on the ferry to the prison in Bursa where we met Ünsal Öztürk’s wife Süreyya. We waited and waited and talked together in the bleak courtyard with grey concrete walls rising around us topped with barbed wire, with guard towers looming over us. We went to the pink concrete building of Bursa Prison with a shield on the door “Ministry of Justice Bursa Special Prison” and waited there too. But we were not allowed to see İsmail Beşikçi, the noted Turkish sociologist and philosopher who wrote about the Kurds history and living conditions. He was one of the few non-Kurdish writers in Turkey speaking out about the treatment of the Kurds. At the time he was also one of the longest serving prisoners. He’d been sentenced to over 100 years though he was released from jail two years after our visit. Of his 36 books, 32 were banned in Turkey.
We were also not allowed to see Ünsal Öztürk, Beşikçi’s publisher, who had completed more than a three-year sentence. We met with the press which had gathered. We paid the outstanding fine against Öztürk with funds raised from Turkish writers, artists and many of the visiting PEN members. Öztürk was released the following day though there remained 30 outstanding cases against him, 62 charges waiting to be brought to court, all relating to Beşikçi. Every time he published a book, a charge was brought, but he kept publishing. Öztürk and his wife joined the conference.
The following day we attended the Justice House hearing of the “Kafka Trial.” When one editor of the Freedom of Expression book—actor Mahir Günşiray—faced the judges, he’d read a paragraph from Kafka’s The Trial. The paragraph offended the judges, and they brought a civil suit against him. Sixty-five other writers and artists signed on and said they also endorsed the reading of Kafka and should thus be guilty too. We all piled into the small room where the defendant Mahir Günşiray and his lawyer and the judge met. The hearing was the second or third for him, but with the room full of observers, the judge again postponed the proceedings.
Many of us went next to Istanbul University to participate in a Forum on Freedom of Expression. However when we arrived, hundreds of students were protesting in the plaza, surrounded by riot police with shields. The situation was tense. In Ankara students had recently been arrested after they’d unfurled a banner in Parliament challenging the 300% tuition increase at state universities. The student protesters there were tried with the demand of 18-year prison sentences. The students at Istanbul University asked if we would speak at the rally. None of us were prepared for this potentially explosive scene. The writers who’d come to speak on freedom of expression asked me to talk for the group, all except Sascha from Russian PEN who also wanted to speak. Sascha, Şanar and I addressed the crowd. I emphasized that we were there to uphold the right for free expression, not to take a side with any particular party of government or to take sides on how education was financed in Turkey, but to insist that individuals should have the right to discuss, debate and write about these issues without facing prison terms. We urged that the protest stay nonviolent. We were then ushered out through the police corridor.
In the evening the Istanbul Bar Association hosted us. The head of the Bar noted that the Turkish Constitution protects the state against the individual rather than the other way around as in the US. Everyone agreed there was free expression in many quarters of Turkey, but that the danger arose when one addressed Kurdish issues and Kurdish separatism and referred to the PKK.
Attending the meeting was the former PEN main case Eşber Yağmurdereli, a blind poet/dramatist, who’d served 14 years in prison. Released August 1991, he’d spoken in September 1991 at a meeting on behalf of Kurdish prisoners and had new charges brought against him. After five years he was still awaiting the resolution of that case. His passport had been taken from him. He could be sent back to prison for more than 20 years. He said he was unable to write, and if he wrote, he had to hide the writing and not publish. He earned his living now as a lawyer.
I also met the young brother of Bülent Balta, an investigation case. Balta, a chemistry honors graduate, a Turk, not a Kurd, had agreed to edit Özgür Gündem, the Kurdish newspaper, because of his sympathies for the difficulty of the Kurds. He had no particular experience as an editor, and after only 11 days was arrested and was serving a four-year prison sentence.
That evening the protest at Istanbul University was all over the news, including pictures of me with a bull horn speaking, but my words had been translated into Turkish so I had no clear idea what it was reported I was saying.
Early the next morning I slipped out of our hotel and walked to a large international hotel nearby where I called home. I asked my husband to confirm my return flight the following day. He asked what the flight was, but I told him to check with the travel agent and confirm. Over the phone I didn’t want to give flight details. I told him what was happening, including the widespread coverage of the protest with my participation, and he told me a colleague in Washington said that the American Embassy knew I was there and warned me not to leave the hotel. I had to leave the hotel, I explained. I was leading the delegation and events were planned, including a farewell dinner on the Bosphorus.
At the final panel/press conference, I noted that I had two sons, and as I observed the young people here, especially the young police officers and the young students, I felt sorrow that these youth were set across battle lines from each other. There was so much talent and promise we had seen. For the first time in the three days of speeches and press conferences, emotion stirred in my voice and I paused for a moment. One of the headlines the following day read something to the effect: “She Cries for Turkey!”
The following morning I was to be driven to the airport, but the driver didn’t show up, and I was left to find my own transportation in a taxi. The atmosphere around the conference had slowly made each of us cautious, even slightly paranoid. As I climbed into the taxi, driven by a stranger, I remembered the fortune teller on the ferry a few days before. Proceed with caution…was that her warning? You will make friends…was that the prediction? The road ahead is fortuitous but also fraught? In fact, I no longer remembered what her fortunes were, and I didn’t believe in fortunes or scattered coffee grounds, but I left Istanbul with a strong belief in the people and a commitment to the country and to the writers and publishers and lawyers and journalists and to the young people I had met and to the promise they represented.
In years following I returned to Turkey on numerous missions for PEN and for meetings with Human Rights Watch, with the International Crisis Group, on a trip with UNHCR looking at the Syrian refugee crisis, and several trips with my oldest son who wrestled in the World Championships and European Championships in Ankara and in the World Championships again in Istanbul and also lectured in mathematics at Koc University and other universities and with my youngest son who lived in Istanbul for two years with his two young children and wrote as a journalist on the Turkish/Syrian border and has set two of his four published novels in Turkey.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 20: Edinburgh—PEN on the Move, Changes Ahead
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 might be of interest.
With a blue glacial lake surrounded by the Alps, a small island in the center with an ancient church with a Wishing Bell that rang out and promised fulfillment for the wishers, with a castle perched atop a hillside—with beauty and history intertwined through the landscape, Bled, Slovenia offered a stunning venue for PEN International’s Peace Committee meetings.
In the heart of Europe, the Peace Committee sat in the heart of a contradiction, for there were few places less peaceful than the Balkans. Yet Slovene PEN members played an important role as did other PEN members in bridging divides among writers in conflict zones.
At the Peace Committee’s inception in 1984, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia, one of a handful of Communist countries after World War II whose writers were able to sign PEN’s Charter which endorsed freedom of expression. The other countries included Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Hungary. In 1962 a well-known Slovene writer, who was a member of English PEN but returned each year to Slovenia, championed the idea of resurrecting the Slovene PEN center which had existed before the war as well as the other two Balkan PEN Centers—Croatia and Serbia.
In 1965 writers from these Yugoslav centers took on the task of staging an International PEN Congress in Bled. At the congress Arthur Miller presided as the first and only American President of International PEN. At the ’65 Bled Congress PEN also hosted for the first time Soviet writers as observers. “Almost despite myself I began feeling certain enthusiasm for the idea of international solidarity among writers, feeble as its present expression seemed,” Miller wrote in his autobiography Timebends. “… I knew that PEN could be far more than a mere gesture of goodwill.”
It took almost 25 years before a Soviet, and later Russian, PEN Center emerged. [see PEN Journey 3, 6, 8] During the Cold War it was difficult for writers from the East and West to communicate, but at PEN congresses and meetings and at the Peace Committee, writers debated, exchanged ideas and shared literature. The Peace Committee became a haven during the Balkans War and also a meeting ground for writers from other conflict areas.
Unlike the Writers in Prison Committee which worked to protect and liberate individual writers, it was difficult at times to define the concrete actions the Peace Committee could take, but at least three stand out in my memory—one direct action, one initiative and one rigorous debate on a pressing issue.
As noted in an earlier post [PEN Journey 7] the head of Slovene PEN, Boris Novak ran the barricades during the Balkans War with aid for writers in the besieged Sarajevo as did Slovene poet and future Peace Committee Chair Veno Taufer and others. At the Peace Committee meeting in 1994 Boris reported 100,000 DEM ($60,000) had been contributed from PEN centers around the world and delivered to almost 100 Bosnian writers in order to save lives. When a new Bosnian center was elected at PEN’s Congress in late 1993, the Bosnian center began taking over the delivery of aid, and Boris was elected chair of the Peace Committee.
Boris Novak. Photo credit: The Bridge Magazine Veno Taufer. Photo Credit: Alchetron
I attended my first Peace Committee Conference as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee in 1994 at the midway point of the Sarajevo siege. At the time PEN was also being asked to help writers who managed to get out of the city. In London I’d met one of these Bosnian writers and gave him my son’s old computer which he accepted as if I’d given him the keys to the city for he had no means to write. Writers fleeing not only the Balkans but situations in Africa and the Middle East needed support as they landed in new locations. It was at the Peace Committee meeting in 1994 that PEN’s Exile and Refugee Network was first conceived in partnership with the Writers in Prison Committee. The initiative was confirmed at the PEN Congress later that fall in Prague.
This initiative for exiles and refugees moved into an exploratory phase which became a leit motif in PEN’s work over the next two decades as it had been in the decades past. PEN’s Exile Network, spearheaded by PEN Centers, including Canada, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Belgium, England, America and many others took the initiative and offered residencies, aid and services to refugee and exiled writers arriving in their countries. Eventually PEN International formed a partnership with the expiring Parliament of Writers Cities of Asylum. In 2006 PEN became a founding member of ICORN—International Cities of Refuge Network. [More in future blog post]
The following year in 1995 the Peace Committee meeting in Bled featured a debate on hate speech, seen as both cause and effect in the conflicts. The gathering included such intellectual luminaries as Adam Michnik, an architect of Poland’s Solidarity movement and editor of the leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw. The debate was lively over the incendiary nature of hate speech and the limitations that should be imposed. Both in the Balkans War and in the civil war in Rwanda, which had just ended the year before, hate speech and writing fueled the strife. In spite of PEN’s advocacy for free expression, PEN also called on its members “to use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people” and pledge “to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds.” Even as “PEN declares for a free press and opposes arbitrary censorship,” it recognizes “freedom implies voluntary restraint” and members pledge “to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.”
The very Charter of PEN contained the axis of the debate. What were or should be limits on expression? Should PEN take a position? At the 1995 Peace Committee conference and in debates since, the views tended to fall according to cultural and national experience. Those in Europe, Africa and elsewhere who had experienced effects of hate speech urged stricter limitations on speech; whereas Americans, bred on the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, remained wary of limits and argued that the answer to offensive speech was more speech, the drowning out of harmful ideas with inspiring ones. In my notes of the meeting and debate that year, I find no consensus or clear recommendation except for a reminder from one speaker who knew and quoted Russian exile and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “Don’t go against your conscience and don’t tell lies!”
Next Installment: PEN Journey 15: Speaking Out: Life and Death
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I have been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions, including as Vice President, International Secretary and Chair of International PEN’S Writers in Prison Committee. With memories stirring and file drawers bulging, I am a bit of a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. In digestible portions I will recount moments and hope this personal PEN journey may be of interest.
Our delegation of two from PEN USA West—myself and Digby Diehl, the former president of the Center and former book editor of the Los Angeles Times—arrived in Maastricht, The Netherlands in May 1989 for the 53rd PEN International Congress. We joined delegates from 52 other centers of PEN around the world, including PEN America with its new President, fellow Texan Larry McMurtry and Meredith Tax, founder of what would soon be PEN America’s Women’s Committee and later PEN International’s Women’s Committee. Meredith and I had met at the New York Congress in 1986 where the only picture of the Congress on the front page of The New York Times showed Meredith and me in the background at a table taking down the women’s statement in answer to Norman Mailer’s assertion that there were not more women on the panels because they wanted “writers and intellectuals.” Betty Friedan argued in the foreground.
Over the previous months the two American centers of PEN had operated in concert, mounting protests against the fatwa on Salman Rushdie and bringing to this Congress joint resolutions supporting writers in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam.
The theme of the Maastricht Congress—The End of Ideologies—in large part focused on the stirrings in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as the region poised for change no one yet entirely understood. A few weeks earlier, the Hungarian government had ordered the electricity in the barbed-wire fence along the Hungary-Austrian border be turned off. A week before the Congress, border guards began removing sections of the barrier, allowing Hungarian citizens to travel more easily into Austria. In the next months Hungarian citizens would rush through this opening to the West.
At PEN’s Congress delegates from Austria and Hungary sat a few rows apart, separated only by the alphabet among delegates from nine other Eastern bloc countries which had PEN Centers, including East Germany. This was my third Congress, and I was quickly understanding that PEN mirrored global politics where writers were on the front lines of ideas and frequently the first attacked or restricted. Writers also articulated ideas that could bring societies together.
In those days PEN had close ties with UNESCO, and attending a PEN Congress was like visiting a mini U.N. Assembly. Delegates sat at tables with name tags of their countries in front of them. Action was taken by resolutions which were debated and discussed and then sent to the International Secretariat and back to the Centers for implementation. At the time PEN operated with three standing Committees, the largest of which was the Writers in Prison Committee focused on human rights and freedom of expression. The other two were the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee and the Peace Committee. Soon, in 1991, a fourth—the Women’s Committee—would be added. At parallel and separate sessions to the business of the Assembly of Delegates, literary sessions explored the theme of the Congress.
PEN USA West was particularly active in the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) where we advocated for our “adopted/honorary” members, most prominent for us at that moment was Wei Jingsheng in China. We had drafted and brought to the Congress a resolution, noting that China had recently released numbers of individuals imprisoned during the Democracy Movement, but Wei Jingsheng had not been among them and had not been heard from. We addressed an appeal to the People’s Republic of China to give information on the condition and whereabouts of Wei Jingsheng and to release him.
Before we spoke to this resolution on the floor of the Assembly, we met with the delegate of the China Center. The origins of this center was a bit of a mystery since it was one of the few centers that defended its government’s actions rather than PEN’s principles. I still recall the delegate with thick black hair, square face, stern visage and black horn-rimmed glasses, though this last detail may be an embellishment. He argued with me that Wei Jingsheng was an electrician, not a writer, that he had simply written graffiti on a wall, but that he had committed a crime by sharing “secrets” with western press.
The Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee Thomas von Vegesack, a Swedish publisher, arranged for the celebrated Chinese poet Bei Dao, a guest of the Congress, to speak in support of the PEN USA West resolution. The delegate from Taipei PEN stood next to Bei Dao and translated his words which contradicted the China delegate. Bei Dao noted that Wei Jingsheng had been in prison ten years already, having been arrested when he was 28-years-old. He had already published his autobiography and 20 articles and for years had been editor of the magazine SEARCH. In his posting on the Democracy Wall and in his essay “The Fifth Modernization,” Wei had suggested that democracy should be added as a fifth modernization to Deng Xiaoping’s four modernizations. “This shows that Wei Jingsheng’s status as a writer can’t be questioned,” Bei Dao said. I still remember that moment of Bei Dao addressing the Assembly and his country man with a Taiwanese writer translating. For me it demonstrated PEN in action.
In Beijing at that time thousands of students and citizens were protesting in Tiananmen Square.
PEN Center USA West’s resolution passed. The China Center and Shanghai Chinese Center refused to accept the resolution. The Maastricht Congress was the last PEN Congress they attended for over twenty years.
In the months preceding the gathering in Maastricht International PEN Secretary Alexander Blokh, International President Francis King and WiPC Chair Thomas von Vegesack had visited Moscow where the groundwork was laid to bring Russian writers into PEN with a Center independent of the Soviet Writers Union.
Twenty-two years before, Arthur Miller, International PEN President, had also traveled to Moscow at the invitation of Soviet writers who wanted to start a PEN center.
In 1967 Miller met with the head of the Writers’ Union and recounted in his autobiography:
At last Surkov said flatly, “Soviet writers want to join PEN….”
“I couldn’t be happier,” I said. “We would welcome you in PEN.”
“We have one problem,” Surkov said, “but it can be resolved easily.”
“What is the problem?”
“The PEN Constitution…”
The PEN Constitution and the PEN Charter obliged members to commit to the principles of freedom of expression and to oppose censorship at home and abroad. Miller concluded that the principles of PEN and those of the Soviet writers were too far apart. For the next twenty years PEN instead defended and assisted dissident Soviet writers.
At the Maastricht Congress Russian writers, including Andrei Bitov and Anatoly Rybakov attended as observers in order to propose a Russian PEN Center. Rybakov (author of Children of the Arbat) told the Assembly that writers had “endured half a century of non-democratic government and had lived in a dehumanized and single-minded state.” He said, “Literature could be influential in the fight against bureaucracy and the promotion of the understanding between nations and cultures. Now Russian writers want to join PEN, the principles and ideals of which they fully shared, and the responsibilities of belonging to which they recognized…and hoped for the sympathy of the members of PEN.”
The delegates unanimously elected Russian PEN to join the Assembly. In the 1990’s and until he passed away in 2007, one of the most outspoken advocates for free expression in Russia was poet and General Secretary of Russian PEN, Alexander Tkachenko. (Working with Sascha, as he was called, will be included in future blog posts.)
Polish PEN was also reinstated at the Maastricht Congress. After seven years of “severe restrictions and false accusations by the Government which had resulted in their becoming dormant,” the Polish delegate said they were finally able to resume normal activity in full harmony with PEN’s Charter. “I must stress here that our victory we owe in great part to the firm and unbending attitude of International P.E.N. and to almost unanimous solidarity of the delegates from countries all over the world.”
At the Congress PEN USA West, American PEN, Canadian PEN and Polish PEN presented a resolution on Czechoslovakia, calling for the government to cease the recent campaign against writers and to release Vaclav Havel and all writers imprisoned. The Assembly recommended that the International PEN President and International Secretary get permission from Czech authorities to visit Vaclav Havel in prison. Two weeks after the Congress Vaclav Havel was released. In December of 1989 Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia after the collapse of the communist regime. In 1994, President Havel, along with other freed dissident writers, greeted PEN members at the 61st PEN Congress in Prague.
Also at the Maastricht Congress was an election for the new President of International PEN. Noted Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stood as a candidate, supported by our two American Centers, Scandinavian centers, PEN Canada, English PEN and others, but Achebe was relatively new to PEN, and at the time there were only a limited number of African centers. Achebe lost by a few votes to the French writer Rene Tavernier, who passed away six months later.
Achebe admitted that he was not as familiar with PEN but said that if the organization had wanted him as President he had been persuaded that “it would be exciting.” He noted the world was very large and very complex. He hoped that in the years to come the voices of those other people would be heard more and more in PEN.
Our delegation had the pleasure of having dinner with Achebe in a castle in Maastricht which had a gourmet restaurant that served multiple courses with tiny portions. The small dinner, which also included the East German delegate and I think fellow Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta and an American PEN member, lasted over three hours. I’m told when Achebe left, he asked his cab driver if he had any bread in his house because he was still hungry. When I saw Achebe a few times in the years following, he always remembered that dinner.
At the Maastricht Congress two new Africa Centers were elected: Nigeria, represented by Achebe, and Guinea. The election of these centers signaled a growing presence of PEN in Africa. Today PEN has 27 African centers.
A few weeks after we returned from the Congress to Los Angeles, tanks entered Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of citizens, including writers, were arrested and killed. One of my first thoughts was, what will happen to Bei Dao, but fortunately he hadn’t yet returned to China. Our small PEN office started receiving faxes from London with dozens of names in Chinese, and we and PEN Centers around the globe began writing and translating those names and mounting a global protest. Among those on the lists I am sure, though I didn’t know him at the time, was Liu Xiaobo, who was instrumental in helping protect the students and in clearing the square.
Twenty years later Liu Xiaobo would be a founding member and President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. He would also later help draft and circulate the document Charter 08, patterned after the Czechoslovak writers’ document Charter 77, calling for democratic change in China. In 2009 Liu Xiaobo was again arrested and imprisoned. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010 and died in prison in 2017.
The opening of the world to democracy and freedom which we glimpsed and hoped for and which seemed imminent in 1989 appears less certain now.
Today, June 3-4, 2019 memorializes the thirtieth anniversary of the tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square. During the years after Tiananmen when Liu Xiaobo and others were in prison I chaired PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. But that is a story to come….
Next installment– PEN Journey 4: Freedom on the Move West to East