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.
We sat on one side of the dining table at the embassy in Geneva drinking orange Fanta—Sara Whyatt, Coordinator of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), Fawzia Assaad, member of Suisse Romand PEN and liaison for PEN at the UN Human Rights Commission, and myself, Chair of PEN International’s WiPC. On the other side of the table visibly sweating sat three diplomats from North Korea.
The week before, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had visited the same embassy. The United Nations Human Rights Commission was meeting in Geneva, and PEN, which had consultative status at the U.N., had sent us as representatives to the Commission meetings with targeted cases and country reports, including one on North Korea. The year 1994 was a time of potential thawing in relations with North Korea, and the diplomats on the other side of the table were telling us how they would like to have a PEN Center in North Korea.
Fawzia, who was ready to reach out to people, agreed that could be a possible step, but Sara and I gently nudged her under the table and explained that there were certain important criteria in a country for a PEN center to exist. The criteria included some measure of freedom of expression and an acknowledgement of this value though admittedly the extent of freedom varied in countries with PEN Centers. We asked if writers and their families who have been separated since the war might meet on neutral ground. The Counsellor answered, “Why not?” We asked if North Korea would open itself to visits by writers from abroad to discuss freedom of expression. The Counsellor again answered, “Why not?” We agreed that a first step could include an exchange of writers.
As the dinner and conversation proceeded, we all noticed the visible discomfort and sweat on the brows of the diplomats. We later speculated who might have been listening, perhaps on a device or behind the curtain on the other side of the table. Finally the young daughter of the senior diplomat was introduced to the room and entertained us on a traditional Korean musical instrument which she played as she sang Swiss folksongs.
The meeting was one of the more surreal in my tenure as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. None of our requests came to pass, and it wasn’t until almost two decades later in 2012 that PEN finally welcomed a North Korean PEN Center In Exile, whose members had managed to get out of North Korea with harrowing stories of escape. [Ref. JLA blog Sept. 2012]
For the past 70 years, PEN International has maintained consultative status at the United Nations. This status has meant that PEN International’s reports and activities are both supported through UNESCO funding and are received and considered in UN forums, particularly at the UN Human Right Commission and in UNESCO.
After World War II UNESCO, whose mission was “building peace in the minds of men and women” through education, science and culture, looked to start organizations in these sectors. For theater and the arts it created the International Theatre Institute which creates platforms for the international exchange and engagement in the performing arts. However, when it came to creating an organization for literature, UNESCO recognized that PEN already existed, and so it has worked with and supported PEN congresses, conferences and programs around the world. These programs have also included the work of PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) which developed the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, also known as the Barcelona Declaration, passed by PEN in 1996 when the current Executive Director of PEN International Carles Torner chaired the TLRC.
Though PEN continues its relationship with the U.N., UNESCO’s budget has declined over the years as has its financial support and PEN’s dependency. PEN officials, including myself, have still visited UNESCO headquarters in Paris and UNESCO representatives still attend PEN conferences and congresses. But the change in both funding and governance for PEN International can be traced back to the years of the fin de siècle when governance around the world was challenged to include wider democratic vistas.
At PEN’s subsequent congress in Perth, Australia in 1995, conversations began regarding a change in governance for PEN, and by PEN’s 75th Anniversary in 1996 at the congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, the momentum for change became inexorable.
But first, meetings in Bled, Slovenia with the Peace Committee and further campaigns on writers threatened around the world.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 14: Speaking Out: PEN’s Peace Committee and Exile Network