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.

English PEN hosted an opening reception at the British Library for PEN International’s replacement Assembly of Delegates, November 2001

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.

November 2001 near Ground Zero in New York City after the 9/11 attacks. People remembering those lost and workers still clearing wreckage.

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.

PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee newsletter summer/fall, 2001. The two stories—of  Tunisia’s Sihem ben Sedrine and of Russia’s Anna Politkovskaya—would play out on a world stage a few years later.

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

Catherine Amy Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PEN DIYARBAKIR CONFERENCE
March 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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