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
I was recently sent a questionnaire as part of a profile asking me what I was reading:
I find myself reading several books at the same time. I just finished Phil Klay’s Redeployment today, am reading Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen, am re-reading Graham Greene’s The Comedians, re-reading Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this and can’t leave this question without noting Elliot Ackerman’s Green On Blue. Because I read both e-books and paper books, I move around among narratives easily.
The answer was a snapshot in reading time, indicative of the pleasure of dancing among narratives. I find myself enjoying on several platforms the movement between hard-edged, nuanced stories of war and its aftereffects in Klay’s Redeployment and Ackerman’s Green on Blue, the harsh and surprising world of Clement’s indigenous Mexican women in Prayers for the Stolen and the gentle, but no less desperate stories of Southern women trying to find their lives in Kate Blackwell’s you won’t remember this, a collection recently re-published by a new small press—Bacon Press—in paperback. Graham Greene is a master who I am always re-reading, appreciating how he integrates the international world of politics and deceit with compelling narratives set around the world.
Recently I returned from PEN International’s biennial Writers in Prison conference and the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) meeting, a gathering this year in Amsterdam focused on Creative Resistance, a gathering of over 250 individuals from 60 countries around the world who work on behalf of writers threatened, imprisoned and killed for their writing. I remain conscious of these voices too. They occupy a kind of negative space—those we are NOT reading, not able to read because they are not able to write.
The list unfortunately is long, and many individuals stand out for me, but I will highlight two here. Though I couldn’t read either because of language differences, I read with attention their cases and link here to actions that can be taken on their behalf:
—Raif Badawi, a blogger and editor in Saudi Arabia, had his sentence confirmed this past week by the Supreme Court that he must serve 10 years in prison and receive 1,000 lashes for “founding a liberal website,” “adopting liberal thought” and for “insulting Islam.” Raif had planned a conference to mark “a day of liberalism,” and he launched an online forum, Liberal Saudi Network to encourage political and social debate. His lawyer has now also been arrested.
His wife, who fled with their three children, says she received threats from the Saudi embassy when she was in Lebanon that they would kidnap her children and forcibly return them to Saudi Arabia; the court verdict would force her to separate from her husband.
Though now living in Canada, she says, “I believe that there is a will for freedom in the country that will not be deterred.” Of the solidarity movements that support her husband, she adds in an interview with PEN International, “I used to believe it was a fantasy for a person to stand in support of another person regardless of geographical, racial, religious, linguistic and other differences, but what you have done for Raif’s case has taught me that I knew nothing about humanity.”
—Gao Yu–Chinese journalist, former chief editor of Economics Weekly and contributor to the German newspaper Deutsch Wele and a poet–was arrested on charges of illegally obtaining state secrets and sharing them with foreign media and sentenced this spring to seven years in prison. When she was first disappeared, she was writing a column entitled ‘Party Nature vs. Human Nature,’ which is said to have considered the new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and its internal conflicts. Gao Yu, who is 71, has been an intrepid journalist her whole career and an honorary director of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. She has often been at PEN conferences in Hong Kong and contributed to an essay in PEN’s 2013 report “Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China.”
She has served time in prison before, the first time for reporting on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and five years for reporting on political and economic issues in Hong-Kong based publications. She’s known for her critical political analysis of the inner circles of the Chinese Communist Party. Her arrest and sentencing has signaled to many the retreat from hope of wider press freedoms under the new leadership.
For those of us lucky to have met Gao over the years, we’ve seen she has a sharp mind, a smiling face and an unmistakable light in her eyes as though she is slightly amused and looking at a much longer narrative for China. At the recent PEN conference, each meeting had an empty chair on the stage, and a picture of Gao Yu as the honored writer not there.