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.
A few days before I flew out to Dakar, Senegal for a PEN conference in November 2004, my youngest son, a Marine in Iraq, called and told my husband and me that we would not hear from him for a while. We knew, without being told, that the U.S. and British troops were likely about to return to Fallujah, the center of the insurgency. Civilians there had been advised to get out of the city, and they were leaving.
On the opening day of the PEN conference in Dakar, November 7, 2004, the battle for Fallujah began. The headlines in the newspapers in Dakar were about the civil war raging in neighboring Ivory Coast so I was not reading about Iraq during the five-day PEN Africa meeting. In 2004 there were no iPhones or phone news feeds and rare coverage of the Middle East was on the evening news. I was quietly attentive each day and prayerful and focused on PEN’s work.
I have modest notes from the first PAN Africa conference, but I have some of my most vivid memories, most particularly of the people I met and of my first trip to Gorée Island just off the Senegalese coast opposite Dakar, a place of its own historic upheaval. Gorée Island was the site of the largest slave-trading center on the African coast from the 15th to the 19th century, ruled successively by the Portuguese, Dutch, English and French. The dungeons and portals to the sea where men and women and children were sent out in chains still stood along with the stucco houses of former slave traders.
A tall Gambian doctoral student assisting Senegalese PEN guided a few of us around Gorée. Fluent in French, English and Spanish, he was writing a doctoral thesis on the secrets of history and myth in the epic of Kaabu according to Mandingo oral traditions—clearly a future PEN member. Thoughtful, knowledgeable, he spent the day sharing history. During and after the Dakar meetings, our paths crossed in subsequent PEN conferences and congresses, and we know each other still. Dr. Mamadou Tangara earned his doctorate at the University of Limoges in France shortly after and eventually became the Gambian Permanent Representative to the United Nations. During Gambia’s constitutional crisis in 2016-17, he and other diplomats called for the president to step down peacefully; he was dismissed, but when power changed hands a few months later, he was reappointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Gambia. The friendship with Mamadou Tangara remains and is one of my many valued friendships from PEN.
Mamadou’s mentor at the time was an older Gambian journalist and editor Deyda Hydara, who joined PEN members from more than a dozen African centers in this conference to prepare for PEN’s first PAN African World Congress in Senegal in 2007. The Congress would be PEN’s first in Africa since the 1967 Congress in the Ivory Coast when American playwright Arthur Miller was International PEN President. Though the Gambia didn’t yet have a PEN Center, Deyda was planning on starting one. At the time Deyda Hydara was co-founder and primary editor of The Point, a major independent Gambian newspaper. He was also correspondent for AFP News Agency and Reporters Without Borders and was an advocate for press freedom and a critic of his government’s hostility to the media.
A month after PEN’s Dakar conference, the Gambian government passed a bill allowing prison terms for defamation and another bill requiring newspaper owners to purchase expensive operating licenses and register their homes as security. Deyda Hydara announced his intent to challenge these laws. Two days later on December 16, 2004 Deyda Hydara was assassinated on his way home from work. To this day his murder remains unsolved. The following year Deyda Hydara won PEN America’s Freedom to Write Award posthumously and later the Hero of African Journalism Award of the African Editors Forum.
Deyda Hydara was a dynamic voice for writers at the PEN Dakar conference and for the need of PEN’s African centers to work together against repressive press laws.
The theme of the Dakar meeting—“New Partnership for African Development and Culture”—involved coordinating work among PEN’s African centers, including the nomination of a candidate for International PEN’s board at the 2005 Congress in Bled, Slovenia, assistance to dormant African centers and support for creating new African centers. (There are now more than 25 PEN centers in Africa.) Several African PEN centers also committed to working together in fundraising for projects. Remi Raji of Nigerian PEN took on the role of PAN coordinator, and Mike Butscher, executive secretary of Sierra Leone PEN, was the administrator.
PAN (PEN African Network) was relatively new. In 2001 Dr. Vincent Magombe, a Ugandan journalist and member of PEN’s African Writers Abroad Center and member of PEN’s first International Board and Terry Carlbom, PEN’s International Secretary, had taken a trip to visit many PEN African centers in order to promote activity and develop greater participation in Africa. At the 2003 Mexico Congress members from seven of PEN’s African centers met to launch the PEN African Network (PAN). At the 2004 Congress in Norway representatives from twelve African centers came together for a PAN meeting. By Dakar PAN had grown to over a dozen of PEN’s African centers who agreed to help plan the 2007 World Congress in Dakar.
The implementation and heavy lifting for the Congress would depend on PEN Senegal, one of the oldest and best organized of PEN’s centers in Africa. Senegalese PEN had offices, a small theater and even housing for visiting writers, administered by its General Secretary, poet Alioune Badara Bèye. Because the country’s first President (1960-1980) Leopold Sédar Senghor was himself a renowned poet and a Vice President of International PEN, Senegal had a long tradition of support for literature that was unparalleled in most countries.
The Dakar PAN conference opened on the International Day of the African Writer and was coordinated with the Senegalese Writers’ Association and presided over the by the Minister for Culture. The ceremonies included a literary evening along with traditional Senegalese instrumental ensembles and dance.
The planning work for the 2007 Congress got underway the following day in a large meeting room in Senegal PEN’s writers’ compound. As International Secretary, I addressed the gathering and shared a 1922 news report about PEN that began: Le Coeur n’a pas de pays. (The heart has no country) then continued: “Today when many are claiming a clash of civilizations and fear across borders is rising, PEN can continue to demonstrate international fellowship through its literary programs, its work on behalf of imperiled writers, its support of writing in all languages and cultures, its assistance to writers in exile and its development of new centers, particularly in Africa. PEN’s strength is its members, and it is a pleasure to be here with committed writers from some of PEN’s strongest and also PEN’s emerging African centers.”
Given the conflict next door in the Ivory Coast and in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas of the world, it seemed especially important to have these positive actions of fellowship growing. While the PAN conference was serious in purpose, it was also full of comradery. I chaired one session and remember looking out at the table of more than a dozen men and only one woman besides myself. I suggested at PEN’s follow-up conference in Ghana next spring, the centers include their women members. The men looked around the table as though only now noting the imbalance. I smiled. The other woman at the conference Koumanthio Zeinab Diallo from Guinea spoke French, and when the translator repeated my words to her in French, she smiled. C’est vrai! and nodded her approval.
Since I had taken on the position of International Secretary, I’d been studying French to get to a passable conversational level. It turned out Zeinab was studying English with the same goal. Mamadou Tangara set up a competition between us which he judged every time the three of us saw each other over the months and years ahead at PEN meetings. Even with our salad of language, Zeinab and I communicated and often laughed together though I don’t think either of us achieved the fluency we wanted. A poet, Zeinab wrote in Pular as well as French. She also worked as an Agricultural Engineer and was a development consultant for the UN Development Programme.
At the PAN conference Senegalese PEN presented an award and tribute to its member Fatou Ndiaye Sow who had passed away just the month before while attending a meeting abroad. A poet, teacher and children’s writer, Fatou had been a friend to many of us and was an early member of PEN International’s Women’s Committee. I read a tribute to Fatou by Lucina Kathmann, a close friend of hers and early chair of PEN’s Women’s Committee.
When I took on the role of International Secretary a few months before, there was already a full agenda underway, and I was grateful to Terry Carlbom, my predecessor, and to Jane Spender, the Administrative Director; Terry also attended the Dakar conference. The next three PEN Congresses were lined up to be developed—Bled, Slovenia in 2005, Berlin, Germany in 2006, and Dakar, Senegal in 2007. Each of these would be hosted by experienced PEN centers so while much work was yet to be done and funds raised for these Congresses and for other activities ahead, solid groundwork had been laid.
A new initiative in those early days as International Secretary was to revive and develop PEN’s presence in the Caribbean. The request originated with the UNESCO representative in Jamaica who was himself a writer. A proposal to explore the possibility was developed in partnership with Canadian PEN’s Executive Director Isobel Harry, who’d spent time in Jamaica, had known one of its most famous residents, musician Bob Marley, and knew numbers of Caribbean writers living in Toronto, some of whom were members of Canadian PEN.
Historically, the Caribbean had been underrepresented in PEN except for the existing Puerto Rican Center and a Jamaican PEN Center that had been active from 1948 until the early 1980’s but had disbanded in 1987.
The Caribbean was enjoying a literary renaissance with events like the CARIFESTA (Caribbean Festival of the Arts), the Calabash Literary Festival and with St. Lucia’s Derek Walcott winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In early December, 2004 Isobel and I traveled to Jamaica to meet with writers, professors and UNESCO to determine who and how a PEN center might be launched. PEN Canada had an ongoing relationship with Caribbean writers as did Quebecois PEN, which was working with Haitian writers to help develop a PEN center there. Haitian writer Georges Anglade, who lived part time in Montreal and was the founding President of Haitian PEN, had recently attended the PEN Congress in Tromso, Norway. (Ref Haitian Farewell)
At the minimum, to form a new PEN center at least 20 qualified writers have to come together, sign and agree to commit to the Charter of PEN and propose a reason and program for their center.
Isobel and I flew to Kingston, arriving from the early blasts of winter into the Jamaican sun. It was not hard duty. Over the course of three days we met with a dozen writers, professors, festival organizers, human rights activists and the UNESCO representative Alwin Bully, who was also Chair of the CARIFESTA Task Force. UNESCO’s mandate was to integrate the Caribbean, and Alwin Bully saw PEN as a unifying organization and thought a PEN Center might include writers from many of the Caribbean islands.
Isobel and I met with him several times as well as with the founders and producer of the Calabash International Festival and with journalists from the Jamaica Observer, professors at the University of the West Indies, chief curator of the National Art Gallery, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, and the former head of the Human Rights Council. All were enthusiastic about the possibility of a PEN Center.
Colin Channer and Kwame Dawes, founders of the Calabash International Literary Festival, offered to host a planning meeting before the next festival. UNESCO offered to fund the workshop/planning session and include writers from many Caribbean countries. The Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, which had three main campuses in Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica, said the university could perhaps provide institutional support. Professor Carolyn Cooper of the Department of Literature in English and board member of the Calabash Festival and a writer said she’d be glad to be a founding member and help recruit so that the PEN center had an inclusive group of all types of writers.
Florizelle O’Connor, the former head of the Human Rights Council and member of the UN Sub Commission on Human Rights was also enthusiastic about a PEN center. She felt the right to freedom of expression and access to information were issues that needed protecting in Jamaica and the Caribbean.
Questions arose on where a Caribbean PEN center would be located—Jamaica, Trinidad, other? Other writers, including journalists from the Jamaica Observer, emphasized that a center would need equal representation of writers and journalists and no one constituency should be keeper of the PEN flame.
Writers who lived part time in Jamaica and part time in Toronto, New York, London and elsewhere noted that most writers far from home sought ways to keep strong the bonds and identity with the Caribbean; a PEN center could help. Each interview resulted in a list of at least four to six more people to speak with, including later Marlon James, who would eventually win the Man Booker Prize.
At the end of our three-day trip circling Kingston aglow with red, green and gold Christmas lights and swaying palm trees, we concluded a PEN Center would happen. At its best it could bring together writers, journalists and creative people in the islands and provide further access to each other, broaden access to the world of literature and enable writers to present a collective voice for greater impact on issues such as freedom of expression.
The writers would have to decide the questions ahead—who would be eligible, the balance of journalists and creative writers and the diasporic writers whose numbers might exceed the local writers. A large unresolved question was whether the PEN center would be Jamaican PEN as in the past or a pan-Caribbean PEN.
As we left the island to return to our winter, it was agreed the discussions would continue among the writers, including those Caribbean writers in New York, Toronto and London and with UNESCO. A workshop/planning meeting in association with the Calabash Festival and the University would be held, probably in May 2005. Isobel would return.
In 2006 the Jamaica Center was voted into PEN at the Berlin congress and joined over 135 PEN centers worldwide.**
Next Installment: PEN Journey 34: Diyarbakir and Beyond—Finding Byways for Peace
*Current African PEN Centers: Afar, Afrikaans, Algerian, Egyptian, Eritrean in Exile, Ethiopian, Gambian, Guinea-Bissau, Guinean, Ivory Coast, Kenyan, Liberian, Malawian, Malaysian, Mali, Mauritania, Moroccan, Nigerian, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somali-Speaking, South African, Togo, Tunisian, Ugandan, Zambian, Zimbabwe
**Current Caribbean PEN Centers: Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican, Puerto Rican