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.

 

PEN has always been about building bridges, finding the byways of fellowship among writers whose currency is language and imagination and whose hope is that even with radically different histories and backgrounds, writers might find a way to sit down across a table from each other and share stories and listen to each other and thereby have a beneficent influence on the way they and their societies see themselves and others.

It is an idealistic goal that has been battered in PEN’s hundred year history, and yet the organization continues; the dialogues continue, and writers from over 100 countries continue to meet and talk, even from countries whose governments have not found peace in decades. There have been moments of seeing that optimism realized, at least for a time, and also seeing it smashed.

The next section of these PEN Journeys covering the years 2004 (PEN Journey 33) through 2007 (August) will focus on my years as International Secretary of PEN International. I will travel through events chronologically, the number of events increasing considerably as the role demanded. I will try to knit these together as we continually try to do as an organization.

International PEN Seminar on Cultural Diversity in Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 2005

In January, 2005 we held our first board meeting of the year in Vienna where PEN President Jiří Gruša had recently taken up the position as Director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna which hosted us. The formal board meeting itself took place in the basement of a nearby restaurant. Around the table in the cozy space where we sat on chairs and on a long booth was PEN’s diverse board from Algeria, Colombia, France, USA, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Croatia, Australia, Norway and Japan. The search for an executive director, the new financial and employment systems going into place in the office, an upcoming meeting in Stavanger, Norway with the old Cities of Asylum Network, and an upcoming meeting in Diyarbakir, Turkey with Kurdish and Turkish PEN—all populated the agenda as did the omnipresent discussions on fundraising.

For me, the imminent departure of my Marine son from the combat zone in Iraq hovered in the corner of my mind. We were staying at pension hotel with small rooms—single bed, dresser and nightstand; I could almost touch the walls on both sides. Outside it was snowing. I’d come to Vienna unprepared for the snow and had bought at a sale a large puffy yellow coat that now draped across the bed for warmth. At night in the dark as I fell asleep, I thought about my son and one night dreamed a desperate dream. Then the phone rang; it was 1:30 in the morning. My husband’s voice woke me. “Wheels are up!” he declared. “They are on their way home!” I still remember the moment, lying there in the dark, snow glistening in the light through the small window and feeling as though the walls had suddenly expanded and a weight lifted that I hadn’t been fully aware I was carrying. The memory…the snow, the Cathedral we passed each day in the square and at dusk in the evening, the puffy yellow coat…

I was wearing that same coat as snow fell later that month in Washington, DC the day my son finally pulled into our driveway. I was sitting on the front porch swing in the snow waiting for him, thinking about the hotel room in the dark, the restaurant basement where we helped craft a conference for writers from the hostile parties in Turkey and another to find sanctuary for writers fleeing oppression—all these memories are wrapped together in a moment of return and of the spirit lifting and life opening a corridor to walk down.

Czech PEN 80th Anniversary in Louvre Cafe where PEN members met in 1925. L to R: Playwright Tom Stoppard, PEN Int’l President Jiří Gruša, Czech PEN President Jiří Stránský.

The next meeting I attended that winter on February 15, 2005 celebrated the 80-year anniversary of Czech PEN. In Prague Jiří and I toasted the endurance of his PEN Center which had been founded by Karel Čapek and 37 Czech writers on that day in 1925. Czech PEN had survived the Second World War, the Cold War, the Soviet occupation and finally the liberation. Former prisoner, playwright and PEN member Václav Havel had become President of the country and his good friend and also prisoner Jiří Gruša was now President of International PEN. Under the auspices of the Minister of Culture, we met with Havel and playwright Tom Stoppard, himself Czech, and Jiří Stránský, President of Czech PEN at the Louvre Café where the original PEN gathering had taken place. Later, the Mayor of Prague hosted a reception with Czech PEN members in the Old Town Hall where he opened an exhibition celebrating “Eighty Years of the Czech PEN Club.”

The following week Writers in Prison Director (WIPC) Sara Whyatt and I traveled to the city of Stavanger, Norway which sat on the sea with a harbor and ships at dock. The Stavanger meeting brought together PEN and members of the now disbanded International Parliament of Writers, an organization founded after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The Parliament of Writers had developed a program to house writers in cities of asylum, but the Parliament of Writers no longer functioned. Many of the cities, however, still wanted to continue their hospitality for writers at risk. Stavanger itself hosted writers, including poet and novelist Chenjerai Hove, who’d been president of Zimbabwe PEN until he’d had to flee the government of Robert Mugabe. Hove was a fellow at the House of Culture in Stavanger until he passed away in 2015.

   Stavanger, Norway, February, 2005 setting for birth of International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN)

Helge Lunde, director of the Stavanger International Festival of Literature and Freedom of Speech convened PEN, representatives from the old Parliament of Writers and representatives from some of the cities that wanted to continue the program. In a several day meeting, the outlines of what would become the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) were laid down with PEN as the vetting organization for applications and also a source of hospitality when writers arrived in their new temporary homes. ICORN remains active today in partnership with PEN in over 70 cities which promote and protect freedom of expression and host writers and artists at risk by providing housing, an income, literary arenas, scholarships and grants. PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and ICORN regularly hold biennial meetings together.

Writer Liu Binyan, a founder and first President, Independent Chinese PEN Center

The following weekend at Princeton University the relatively new Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), founded in 2001, honored Liu Binyan, one of its founders and first President. ICPC’s members live both in China and abroad. The PEN Center gave them the ability to talk with each other and hold programs together, often in Hong Kong. Because of his writing and criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, especially after Tiananmen Square, Liu Binyan had not been allowed to return to China after an academic stay in the U.S. Though he never saw China again, in the U.S. he wrote and worked as Director of Princeton University’s China Initiative. (Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo was also a founder of ICPC and its second president.) At the dinner at the Princeton Faculty Club, ICPC members and China scholars presented Liu Binyan the book Living in Exile,  written by distinguished essayists in China and abroad and dedicated to Liu who had spent considerable time in detention and in and out of labor camps. Later that year Liu Binyan passed away at his home in New Jersey.

In March “The International PEN Diyarbakir Seminar on Cultural Diversity” convened the largest and most ambitious conference that quarter in the primarily Kurdish southeast of Turkey. For years the Writers in Prison Committee had focused on cases in this dangerous region where fighting between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish military had resulted in multiple imprisonments and killings. However, a rapprochement appeared to be expanding between the government and Kurdish citizens. In this space, PEN International had been working with Kurdish PEN and Turkish PEN to prepare this historic meeting of the two centers, along with PEN’s leadership of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC). For the first time Kurdish writers and Turkish writers would speak side by side from the same stage in Kurdish and Turkish with translations of each language.

Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 2005. L to R: Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (PEN International Secretary), Jane Spender (PEN International Program Director), Carles Torner (Vice Chair Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee).

My predecessor as International Secretary Terry Carlbom had been instrumental in the planning, and we all agreed he should continue as coordinator of the seminar. Seventy delegates from a dozen countries gathered in the ancient city of Diyarbakir/Ahmet for five days. Diyarbakir dated back at least 5000 years, one of the oldest cities in the ancient land of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Later it was dominated by Persia and by Alexander the Great. Because of its strategic position, Diyarbakir’s sovereignty changed many times, was part of the Roman empire, later conquered by the Arabs in 639, by Tamerlane in 1394; the Ottomans conquered in 1515. Diyarbakir continued through cycles of battles for control.

Old Diyarbakir was a standard Roman town circled by a wall, the stones of which still stood. The black basalt wall was said to be second only to the Great Wall of China. Within the walls a labyrinth of cobbled streets and alleyways unfolded, leading to towers where we could see the rivers and gardens and the city’s mosques and street life below, where caravan travelers used to stop on the silk road.

Before the conference began, PEN International Program Director Jane Spender and I explored the twisting paths and shared black tea in a central plaza with Carles Torner, vice chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. As an American whose national history extended back barely 400 years, this accumulation of history in the streets and walls and buildings was mind-bending. In stones, in ideas…where did history reside and how did it evolve?

On the first evening Diyarbakir’s Lord Mayor Osman Baydemir greeted us at the Town Hall for a Newroz (New Year’s) reception. I thanked him on behalf of PEN for all he and the city had done to support this seminar. “It is a treat for us to visit one of the world’s oldest cities, with a history that could occupy the imagination of a community of writers like us for years to come,” I said. “Central to the Charter and ethos of PEN is a celebration of the universal which binds us as human beings and of the diversity which distinguishes each individual—the specific history, language and culture. It is our challenge and our aspiration as writers and members of PEN to provide the forums where cultures don’t clash but communicate. That is what we hope to do here in Diyarbakir.”

The first full day of the seminar we spent at the Newroz Festival.  Our delegation was seated in an honored place in the bleachers which turned out to be behind the mother of Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founders and leaders of the PKK who was currently in prison. On the grounds in front of us spread thousands/ hundreds of thousands—some said a million people—celebrating the Kurdish new year, a time that coincides with the March equinox. Terry Carlbom and I were soon escorted to the main stage where we stood looking out over a sea of people as far as we could see, many in colorful local dress. Because PEN is specifically a nonpartisan/nonpolitical organization, we felt some ambivalence at the appearance of being swept into the Kurdish cause; on the other hand, the experience was one I won’t forget. The day was celebratory without violence. If there were political speeches, they were not translated for us, and we were accompanied by our Turkish colleagues who also attended.

PEN Diyarbakir Conference on Cultural Diversity, 2005. L to R: Mehmed Uzun and Dr. Zaradachet Hajo (Kurdish PEN), Kata Kulavkova, (Chair, PEN Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, (PEN International Secretary), and Üstün Akmen, Turkish PEN

That evening in opening the conference, I noted, “In Diyarbakir/Ahmet this week we’ve come together to celebrate cultural diversity and 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.”

The official program began with the Lord Mayor and the President of Kurdish PEN Dr. Zaradachet Hajo and the President of Turkish PEN Mr. Üstün Akmen and a keynote speech by Kurdish author Mehmed Uzun. The following evening Turkish writer Murathan Mungan delivered an introductory address to a public gathering.

At the conference itself Kurdish and Turkish writers, poets, publishers and translators shared history and literature across their linguistic borders. Through discussion and readings and performances, they addressed the importance of cultural diversity as a value in a culture of peace.

Renowned Turkish/Kurdish novelist Yaşar Kemal, former president of Turkish PEN, had been invited but was ill and sent a message instead. He noted that the world was going through a difficult period and was faced with terrible destruction. He asked, “What makes human beings? Love, compassion, peace, friendship…Human beings are the only creative beings in the world.” Local cultures are being destroyed and with that is the destruction of languages and art and values, he said. In life and death we have to stand against a terrible destructive force in favor of local and national culture. “I believe your meeting will be successful,” he predicted.

Kata Kulavkova, Chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee emphasized the importance of the capacity to imagine, the importance of cultural memory and openness to dialogue. “Europe needs all identities, including Kurdish identities,” she said, noting that every culture is the center of the world for itself. “Turkish and Kurdish culture depend on each other to promote Turkish/Kurdish universal culture.”

Hüseyin Dozen of Kurdish PEN noted that literary translation helps a language to flourish; languages that are not standardized are enriched by literary translation which is an art rather than a scientific discipline. As far as languages that have no official status or have been prohibited, oral literature plays a central role, and the work of a translator must not neglect this kind of literature in his work.

PEN Vice President Lucina Kathmann led a discussion on “Bridging Borders” among women writers. Müge Sökmen of Turkish PEN moderated a discussion on Diversity and Literary Translation; Kurdish PEN member Berivan Dosky moderated a discussion on Cultural Diversity and Peace; Turkish PEN’s Vecdi Sayar led the discussion on Cultural Diversity and Dialogue, and Aysu Erden of Turkish PEN moderated a panel on Cultural Diversity and Linguistic Diversity.

PEN trip to ancient town of Hasenkeyf, Turkey, 2005 including PEN International and Turkish and Kurdish members 

One of the highlights of the conference was a visit to Hasankeyf, reputed to be the oldest continuing settlement on the planet and a cradle of civilization. Built into the sandstone cliffs in southeast Turkey, Hasankeyf had yielded relics that dated the site even earlier than the 12,000 years recorded, perhaps as old as 15,000 years. This Kurdish town of southeast Anatolia was threatened by a dam the Turkish government planned to build on the Tigris River. The Ilisu Dam would drown the town as the water was diverted and eventually would submerge Hasankeyf under as much as 400 feet of water.

Lunch in a cave in Hasenkeyf, 2005, including PEN International representatives Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Jane Spender and Lucina Kathmann

As we journeyed up the stone steps to the ruins of Hasankeyf Castle and later as we ate lunch in a cave, then bought small souvenirs from children who lived in the town, our delegation fell in love with the setting and the people. Several of us returned home and began writing about Hasankeyf in an effort to preserve its heritage. We were not alone. Worldwide protests to save this ancient site had been lodged, and the dam had been delayed. I set a google alert so that every time there was mention of the Ilisu Dam, I would know. Lucina Kathmann and I began exchanging latest news.

In spite of worldwide protests, the giant Ilisu Dam was completed after many delays in July, 2019. It began to fill its reservoir, tapping water from the Tigris River and diverting it from Iraq. The rising water levels are now slowly submerging the town of Hasankeyf, flooding the area which had been settled for millennia. The population for the most part has had to move. The waters have risen 15 meters and continue to rise around 15 centimeters per day, according to a February report by Reuters.

Hasenkeyf, Turkey, March 2005 during PEN Conference on Cultural Diversity, before the Ilisu Dam flooded the region.

Turkey’s rapprochement with the Kurds has also taken a turn away from the opening and the cultural diversity we celebrated in the 2005 Diyarbakir Seminar. But literature was exchanged there; friendships were made, and the dialogue among PEN members continues. Individual by individual has always been the strength and the modus operandi of PEN.

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 35:

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.

 

PEN is a work in progress. It has always been a work in progress during its 100 years. Governing an organization with centers and members spread across the globe in over 100 countries can be like changing clothes, writing a novel and balancing a complex checkbook all while hang gliding. Perhaps an exaggeration, but not by much.

In 2004 the leadership of President and International Secretary were at the center of the governing structure along with the Treasurer and a relatively new Board. The President represented PEN in international forums. The International Secretary was tasked with overseeing the office and the centers of PEN and with any tasks the President handed over like running board meetings and setting up the agenda for work. The concept was that PEN should be able to elect as President a writer of international stature to represent PEN in global forums but not have the obligation to run the organization. That could be the role of the International Secretary, along with the Board and staff.

When I assumed the role of International Secretary, PEN did not yet have an executive director, though the consensus had built from the strategic planning process that we needed one. Both the President and International Secretary were volunteer, unpaid positions, which meant they were not full time. At the post-Congress board meeting after Tromsø, we agreed to begin a search for an executive director.

I suggested monthly board meetings, which had not been the practice. We could do these by phone, which meant there were only a few hours a day when everyone would be awake. If Judith Rodriguez in Melbourne, Australia could stay up past 11pm and Eric Lax in Los Angeles didn’t mind waking up at 7am, the rest of us—Takeaki Hori in Japan, Sibila Petlevski in Croatia, Eugene Schoulgin in Norway, Elisabeth Nordgren in Finland, Cecilia Balcazar in Colombia as well as President Jiří Gruša when he joined from Vienna or Prague and me in Washington, DC or London—could find our time zone and call in. The technology was not as sophisticated as today, and we didn’t yet use skype so the calls were not cheap, but we began to manage each month.

International PEN President Jiří Gruša

As International Secretary, I was in charge of overseeing the office and staff, working with centers on conferences and projects and along with Jiří, liaising with our partners like UNESCO. Administrative Director Jane Spender and I drew up the agenda for each board meeting. I always checked with Jiří to see if he had items to add and to see if he wanted to join the board meeting. I chaired most of the board meetings and much of the Assembly of Delegates at the Congresses. English was not Jiří’s first or second language, and he had other large obligations. During his presidency, he took on the Directorship of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, where we held our winter board meetings. This division of tasks between Jiří and me was quite different when the next President John Ralston Saul took on the presidency in 2009, along with Takeaki Hori as International Secretary. John was a much more hands-on President than Jiří. The President and International Secretary were a team and usually agreed between them who would do what.

One of my most important and enjoyable partnerships was with Administrative Director Jane Spender, who was promoted to Program Director for Jane had been instrumental in the thinking and execution of PEN International programs first years. I tried to spend at least a week to 10 days each month in London or on the road for PEN. I was able to finance my travel outside of PEN’s budget. Jane and I worked closely together as we outlined what yet needed to be done in PEN’s move to modernize systems. Each International Secretary had operated in a way that worked for the time. In my tribute to retiring international Secretary Terry Carlbom, I’d noted that early in PEN’s life, around 1924 at a meeting in Vienna, the French representative had turned to the German representative and said, “PEN means Paix Entre Nous (“Peace between us.”).* Members did not always agree with each other and would perhaps even get angry, but the hope was that members would honor and serve that acronym well.

L to R: International PEN Program Director Jane Spender and PEN International Secretary Joanne Leedom-Ackerman at the wall surrounding Diyarbakir, Turkey in March, 2005.

After Terry debriefed me at the PEN Congress in Tromsø, one of my first visits was to Paris to talk with former International Secretary Alexander Blokh, who had held the position for 17 years, to listen to his experience. The times and the demands were changing from Alex’s day as PEN grew and as the world sped up and shrank at the same time with the advent of the internet.

One of my early calls was to George Gawlinski, who had taken PEN through the strategic planning process in Bellagio in 2003 (see PEN Journey 28). George’s advice was that we hire an interim executive director while we did a search for an executive director. He said he happened to know that one of the best in that business was available, a man named Peter Firkin. He could come in, help us get systems in place like employment policies which we didn’t have, a budget which we didn’t have and help set up the systems the office would need to appeal to a first rate executive director and also begin relieving the impossible workload Jane and the staff bore. Jane and I interviewed Peter together. After about twenty minutes (or less), we exchanged relieved glances over the table and knew we had found who we needed for that moment.

A grey-haired New Zealander with wide experience with organizations and a love for books, Peter spoke with the Board and Jiří, and PEN hired him to come in several days a week to begin helping, including assisting in the search process. My notebook of lists had already grown quite full, and now these lists Jane and I allocated among the three of us. One of the big tasks was to develop an overall budget for the organization. The Writers in Prison Committee operated with a budget, but the rest of the organization operated project by project and at the end of the year, a list of expenses and income was recorded. There was not a budget projected forward for the whole organization, rather an accounting of money spent and money received. The only way to draw up PEN’s first budget was to look at what was spent the year before and project forward. The budgeting processes also needed to be set in place. American PEN sent over its financial director to work with the London office for a week with Jane and Peter and the Treasurer Britta Junge Pedersen and bookkeeper Kathy Barazetti. It took a while, but we eventually had a comprehensive, estimated budget for the whole organization.

Another task was to revise our status with the British Charity Commission, which oversaw all charities in Britain. The work of human rights organizations had been regarded as being political in nature, therefore not permitted charitable funds. Some organizations like International PEN had set up charitable trusts—the International PEN Foundation—to raise funds for their  educational work. But with a change in the law, human rights organizations were now accepted as a-political. With Peter’s help we found a law firm that could take us through the process to dissolve the International PEN Foundation so International PEN could operate as one charitable organization.

We also found new and highly respected auditors. All these were the nuts and bolts on the continued journey to improve and modernize International PEN. During Terry Carlbom’s tenure as International Secretary, we had gotten rules and regulations and procedures updated and approved and the strategic planning process underway. The tasks and lists to get International PEN operating more efficiently seemed endless, but each day Jane and I checked more items off the lists.

We hired a highly recommended search firm, which Human Rights Watch had used successfully. Jane and Sara made it clear they did not want to be considered for the position of executive director. Jane was made the Program Director and Sara remained the Director of the Writers in Prison Committee. The board set up a committee to oversee the search, to read resumes given us, help set out the tasks and interview questions for finalists and ultimately to interview final candidates. The committee included Eric Lax, Eugene Schoulgin, myself, and Peter Firkin. We consulted closely with Jane and Sara who also interviewed the finalists.

All of this work related to the systems of the organization and were interesting and enjoyable because of the colleagues I was working with even with long hours and sandwiches for dinner at the office. But the most fun was the programs and going out into the world and working with writers. My first trip was to Dakar, Senegal, where one of our oldest African Centers had committed to host the 2007 PEN Congress and was bringing together all the African centers for a conference. One of PEN’s early Vice Presidents had been poet Leopold Senghor, who was also the first President of Senegal. A sentence I wrote then memorized before going there I remember to this day: Il y a que qelques autre pays dans le monde qui honorent les ecrivains plus que le Senegal. “There are few countries in the world that honor writers more than Senegal.”

In December I left for Jamaica with Canadian PEN’s executive director Isobel Harry. Writers in Jamaica, along with UNESCO’s representative there, wanted to start a PEN Center for the Caribbean.

*P.E.N. acronym stands for Poets Essayists and Novelists; along the way it expanded to Poets Essayist/Editors and Novelists

  

Next Installment: PEN Journey 33: Senegal and Jamaica: PEN’s Reach to Old and New Centers

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.

 

The week before PEN’s 70th World Congress in Tromsø, Norway in the Arctic Circle, my oldest son competed in the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, the only wrestler to qualify for TeamGB (Great Britain). He had dual citizenship and was the first British champion to qualify for the Olympics in wrestling in eight years. In his sport, there was no seeding of competitors; instead, after making weight, each wrestler reached into the equivalence of a hat and drew their first round competitions. True to his history, my son drew the best opponents. As one news commentator noted: “Coming to the mat is Nate Ackerman, born in the US, wrestling for Great Britain, getting his PhD in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…but that won’t help him now as he faces the three-time World Champion from Armenia.” My son lost to the Armenian wrestler. His other opponent was the world bronze medalist from Kazakhstan who went on to win the silver medal at the Olympics. Though my son didn’t win either match, he also didn’t get pinned, and he wrestled nobly. The Olympic Games in Athens was a magical time.

Olympic circles projected in light on the Acropolis at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens 

I was heading to Tromsø with a smile inside, though behind my smile was also a quiet attention that never left me for my youngest son, a Marine, was in Anbar Province, Iraq that summer, patrolling in 120° and alert for IED’s and snipers along the roadside. He had missed his brother in the Olympics and his brother missed being able to talk with him.

As I changed planes in northern Europe, I realized I was going to need a coat in the Arctic Circle and bought a light foldable one at an airport shop which I took to a decade worth of PEN Congresses after. On the plane I reviewed the stack of PEN papers and resolutions.

I was arriving at the Congress having agreed to stand for International Secretary. (See PEN Journey 30). The other PEN member standing was Giorgio Silfer, a poet and playwright and president of Esperanto PEN.

Norwegian PEN hosted over 300 writers, editors, and translators from at least 60 countries for the 70th World Congress whose theme was Writers in Exile—Writers in Minority Languages. The Rica Arctic Hotel where we stayed and met was an easy walk to the small downtown of Tromsø, capital of northern Norway, well above the Arctic Circle and called “the Paris of the North.”

Kjell Olaf Jensen, President of Norwegian PEN, reminded delegates that the Congress themes reflected the literary scene of Tromsø, which would soon join the International Network of Cities of Asylum as the fifth Norwegian city. (This network later developed into the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) in 2006 with PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee as a partner and with the inaugural meeting in Stavanger, Norway.) One of the guiding voices in the exile network Professor Ole Danbolt Mjøs, director of Tromsø University’s Peace Center and President of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, spoke at the Welcome Party Ceremony as did Ole Henrik Magga, President of the Sami Parliament. Half of the estimated 50,000 Sami in the world lived in Norway. Crown Prince Haakon of Norway officially opened the Congress the next day noting, “Freedom of speech is a source of power. If used constructively, it is amazing what speech can do. It can fight corruption, free political prisoners, and make oppressive regimes crumble.”

The two themes of writers in exile and writers in minority languages intertwined throughout the Congress with readings and round tables at cafes and pubs in the midst of Tromsø’s annual International Literary Festival and the International Nana Festival of Aboriginal people. Literary and musical programs included the Sami singer Mari Boine in the Arctic Cathedral and the work of the celebrated but deceased Sami poet, singer, and writer Nils Aslak Valkeapaa. PEN’s programs highlighted some of Norway’s own writers in exile: Mansur Rajih from Yemen, Soudabeh Alishahi from Iran, Islam Elsanov, a film maker from Chechnya, and Chenjerai Hove from Zimbabwe as well as guests Reza Baraheni (Iranian writer living in Canada), Turkish activist Şanar Yurdatapan, and former Russian prisoner and writer Grigory Pasko.

A conference at Tromsø University under the theme “Should Writers Live in Prison?” preceded the Opening Ceremony. Storyteller Easterine Iralu of the  “Nagaland nation” addressed the delegates in the main lecture hall: “Every man is a story and every nation is a bristling galaxy of stories. Every nation should be given the right to tell the story by its own story tellers…We are an oral society. Naga writing is an aboriginal achievement.”

New PEN International Secretary Joanne Leedom-Ackerman and PEN International President Jiří Grusa at 70th PEN Congress in Tromsø, Norway, 2004 

In later panels Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf said, “Poets and writers must reinvent the world. This is not a task to be left to politicians. Is this a century of bombs or poems?” Norwegian bestselling author Jostein Gaarder expanded the questions: “How wide are the ethical horizons of literature and art? The question for writers and artists at the start of the third millennium must be what shift in consciousness do we need? Literature is nothing less than a celebration of mankind’s consciousness. So shouldn’t an author be the first to defend human consciousness against annihilation?”

At his first Congress as PEN International President Jiří Grusa told the delegates, “I myself have experienced persecution and really esteem people who help authors to freedom. I know how vital it is to have somebody outside the prison who cannot be stopped. ” He challenged writers to invent and combine practical and stylistic literary methods “to conquer plagues and pestilence that threaten human, moral and planetary evolutions.” He and the delegates of the Congress condemned recent terrorist attacks on a school in Beslan, Russia which had taken the lives of hundreds of children just a few days before. Jiří also paid respect to poet, Nobel laureate and PEN member Czeslaw Milosz, who had recently passed away. “It is with deep grief that the PEN family sympathizes with the people of Poland. We shall miss him, but his work will continue to inspire people from one end of the world to the other.” Milosz was a member of the Writers in Exile American Branch of PEN.

Writers in Prison Centre to Centre newsletter featuring poem by Grigory Pasko, honored guest at 70th PEN Congress and article about prisoner Nasser Zarafshan.

In addition to attending the rich literary panels and discussions, PEN’s Assembly of Delegates passed a resolution that urged authorities to assist in freeing Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, two French journalists currently held hostage in Iran. Encouraged by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, delegates and participants also signed a petition to the Islamic Republic of Iran demanding that Dr. Nasser Zarafshan’s life be protected and that he be immediately and unconditionally released. Delegates also signed a petition to the President and Government of Russia calling for a multilateral dialogue and an end to the violence in Northern Caucasia and a restoration of civil living conditions in the Chechnyan Republic, including open access so that local and national media could report events in the region. (Chesnot and Malbrunot were released from Iran a few months after the Congress, in late December, 2004. Zarafshan was not released until 2007.)

The Assembly passed resolutions from the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) urging authorities of the Russian Federation to grant cultural rights to all minorities, including use of regional languages, and the same appeal was sent to authorities in Turkey, Iran and Syria regarding Kurdish language and culture.

Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) resolutions which the Assembly passed focused on the repression of free expression for writers seeking asylum in Australia, on harassment of certain journalists in Canada, attacks on writers in Chechnya, imprisonments in China and Cuba, censorship and harassment of writers in Egypt, arrests in Eritrea, hostage-taking in Iraq, detentions in the Maldives, killings in Mexico, detention and ill treatment in Myanmar, murder in Nepal, killing and disappearances in Russia, bombings and assassinations in Spain, imprisonments in Turkey, restrictions on the free flow of international writing in the U.S., imprisonments in Uzbekistan and Vietnam, and restrictions on free expression in Zimbabwe.

Administrative Director Jane Spender and PEN International Secretary Terry Carlbom at 70th PEN Congress in Tromsø, Norway, 2004

The WiPC resolutions had been discussed at the earlier Writers in Prison Committee meeting where a new chair had been elected from four candidates. Karin Clark of German PEN would replace Eugene Schoulgin, who was stepping down after four years and was running for the Board of International PEN.

At the Assembly of Delegates, Eugene introduced guest of honor, former Russian main case and journalist Grigory Pasko, who told the delegates that “although he had not been able to thank all those who had worked on his behalf while he was in prison, he now would like to thank everyone again and again. Unfortunately he could not now say that Russia had become more democratic, but he would continue to fight to make it so, supported by all his friends in the Assembly hall.”

Election for the Board of PEN included eight candidates for three open positions. Eric Lax (PEN USA West), Judith Rodriguez (PEN Melbourne), and Eugene Schoulgin (Norwegian PEN) joined the Board. Three new centers—Basque, Guatemala and Kosovo—were admitted into PEN.

At his last Assembly as International Secretary Terry Carlbom told the delegates, “Our greatest strength is ultimately our capacity for empathy, compassion and solidarity. Ours is not the solidarity of the collective herd; it is the solidarity of the concerned and caring individual, a solidarity with a fragile world and fragile civilization. And the solidarity that sometimes can provide comfort in the rather lonely process of creative writing…I have been proud to serve.”

At the Congress Terry saw the passage of the final amending resolutions on the Regulations and Rules of Procedure he had dedicated a significant portion of time to as International Secretary. Updating rules and regulations to bring them in line with the changes PEN had made to its governance was not a task for many writers. I was grateful to Terry that these documents were now drafted and a working document for strategic planning was in hand.

The election for Terry’s replacement as International Secretary was between Giorgio Silfer (Esperanto PEN) and myself. Giorgio’s speech to the Assembly was a poem, an unusual and memorable presentation for office. Giorgio was a linguist and a poet and participated actively on the Peace Committee and Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. I was a novelist and journalist and activist on the Writers in Prison Committee and Women’s Committee. We had both worked with all committees, but we had our corridors and respected each other. My statement was more traditional.

I was elected the new International Secretary of PEN. I glimpsed the work ahead when I sat down with Terry in the hotel lounge after the election. He told me in November I needed to be at Senegal PEN‘s conference with African centers in Dakar in preparation for the 2007 PEN Congress there, and in the spring I was in charge of a conference PEN was holding in Diyarbakir, Turkey with Kurdish and Turkish PEN. Great, I said. Can you show me the budget and program for the Diyarbakir conference? Terry explained that we didn’t have a budget yet, but he offered to continue helping with this conference. I was to learn quickly that unlike the Writers in Prison Committee, the rest of International PEN worked in a more unstructured fashion, without clear budgets but with relationships that usually came through. I began making lists. My tenure as International Secretary would include notebook after notebook of lists of tasks to be done.

A solace as I left that meeting was that I would be working with Jane Spender, Administrative Director, who was smart, a friend, and had gotten PEN through remarkably tight places before. Jane and I both knew that time was not on our side if we didn’t modernize further. I put on my new PEN coat and went for a brisk walk with Jane  in the drizzle towards the next venue. PEN International had been asked for the first time by a major funder to provide an evaluation of a major grant. No one before had asked that of PEN, but it would surely be asked more and more in the future. We walked down the wet Tromsø streets considering what was before both of us. We had to figure out how to do an evaluation and much more…

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 32: London Headquarters: Coming to Grips

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 walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey is of some interest.

 

PEN members played key roles in the shifting landscape of Europe in the early 1990’s as the Berlin Wall fell, and the East moved closer to the West. Playwright and PEN member Vaclav Havel, who spent multiple stays in prison for his opposition and activism against the Communist regime, was elected President of Czechoslovakia in December, 1989. Czech writers Jiri Stransky and Jiri Grusa, both of whom spent time in jail under the Communists, later worked with Havel. Jiri Stransky became President of Czech PEN, and Jiri Grusa worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later was elected President of PEN International in 2003. Dissident Hungarian writer Arpad Goncz, whose name was on the program of the 55th PEN Congress as a member of the Hungarian delegation, was prevented from coming because on the day he was to depart, he was elected President of Hungary.

Czech PEN members playwright Tom Stoppard, Jiri Grusa (President of PEN International) and Jiri Stransky (Czech PEN President) at historic restaurant in Prague in 2005

At PEN’s 55th Congress in Madeira, Portugal May,1990, Hungarian novelist Gyorgy Konrad was elected President of International PEN after the unexpected death of President Rene Tavernier. According to the interim and past President Per Wastberg, Konrad had been “very active in the spiritual liberation not only of his own country, Hungary, but of Eastern and Central Europe.”

Konrad told the Assembly of Delegates, “It had been the spirit of human rights, which corresponded with the main interest of the freedom of the mind and of literature, which had been the motive force in recent events in Eastern Europe so that it had been the spirit, rather the physical force, which had caused the shifts in power.” [But] “liberated from the uneasy situation of the censorship of the one-party system, writers there were facing a new sort of danger, the danger of conflicts between nationalities spurred on by national chauvinism. If it was possible to find understanding between writers in that very disturbed part of Europe, maybe it would also be easier to find understanding between the governments and the peoples. Therefore the PEN Centers and their members could perhaps form the avantgarde of this understanding.”

The East German delegate noted it was “the writers, theatre people and artists of the GDR who had blown that trumpet and done a great deal to bring about the collapse [of the wall.] It was they who had called for a huge demonstration on 4th November, at which two million people had gone out onto the streets of East Berlin, demanding changes.” The GDR PEN Center had also “blown the trumpet much earlier when they had supported Vaclav Havel and demanded his release from prison, which, at that time—more than a year ago—had been a thing not without danger in the GDR,” he said.

Yet the breaking up of the Communist regimes with their centralized authority was also leaving in the wake difficult conditions for many writers. Their publishers were closing, their livelihoods shrinking, and the West was taking over. “This did not mean that the writers of the GDR did not wholeheartedly go out onto the streets when they were called on to demonstrate for freedom of expression of writing, of thought and of travel,” the East German delegate said. But “now they had to take the harder road to freedom as Brecht had put it, with a proud bearing, even if they might lose in the process.”

The delegate from Poland saw two major problems ahead: “The first was political: the danger that the remnants of Stalinism might ally with the proponents of extreme right chauvinism. To overcome this danger it was necessary that the new democracies should be stabilized. The second problem was cultural: to find models for cultural life in their countries. They did have a very serious crisis in the domain of publication.”

Because of the collapse of currencies and income in these countries and the withdrawal of state support for arts and culture, it was increasingly difficult for the writers and PEN centers to pay their dues to International PEN and to find funds to travel to conferences and congresses. This situation also existed for many writers in Africa and Latin America where PEN had expanded its centers. In 1990 there were 96 PEN centers around the world.

At the Madeira Congress, PEN set up a Solidarity Fund to which countries with stronger currencies and income could contribute to assist their fellow members. The Assembly of Delegates formalized a procedure for a small, but broad-based committee to make these grant decisions. I was asked by the two American Centers to represent them on the committee, which also included representatives from Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Polish, Soviet Russian, Canadian, English and French PEN Centers. Looking back, this new, more democratic process for dispersal of funds foreshadowed major change in PEN International’s own governing structure, change that was to come by the end of the decade.

“The collapse of the Berlin Wall…only provided an entry into the Promised Land…[but did not] overcome all the problems of coping with liberty for the first time,” reflected International Secretary Alexander Blokh to the Assembly of Delegates. “Now was the honeymoon period between East and West, but there was cause to fear that it might not last…While the trumpets of Jericho still sound in our ears, we should take steps to face up to these problems and iron out possible misunderstandings.” For this purpose PEN had held and was holding conferences in Vienna and Budapest with writers in the region.

The Congress discussion around the tectonic changes in Europe and the impact elsewhere occurred in idyllic Funchal, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira archipelago, surrounded by hills, set on an expansive harbor with gardens and flowers everywhere. A cable car took delegates to the top of the island which offered sweeping views of the hillside neighborhoods and the town below. My specific memories are of bougainvilleas and the beauty of the setting, of the combined joy and worry of colleagues who used to emerge from the “Iron Curtain” to attend PEN gatherings, and now felt relief in their freedom but uncertainty about their lives and the future of their countries.

I remember specifically the establishment of the Solidarity Fund which operated in the 1990’s to help bridge the economic differences within PEN so that all centers could participate. PEN’s policy, though with exceptions, was that a center had to pay its dues in order to vote in the Assembly. Gilly Vincent, who later assisted the International PEN Foundation, remembers working  late one winter’s night in the International PEN  office when the doorbell rang. She went downstairs to find the Secretary of Polish PEN standing in the shadows at the front door. He had come to pay his Center’s dues in cash. She took the envelope and invited him in so that she could give him a receipt. He replied: “No. We carry no receipts” and vanished into the darkness, she recalls.

My memory of the Madeira Congress includes sharing meals with colleagues from Eastern Europe and with the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, author of the famed Babi Yar who attended as a delegate from the new Soviet Russian PEN Center. [At the Vienna Congress a year later in November, 1991 the Soviet Russian PEN Center got approval to change its name to Russian PEN after the August coup where the Center had issued a statement “true to the best traditions of PEN”.] Yevtushenko, dressed as I recall in rather flamboyant clothes—all white suits (or were they all red or plaid?) commanded attention wherever he went. In the Assembly he spoke in support of a new Belarusian Center which he said would symbolize the democratization of the Soviet Union. He said its members would be helpful in the common fight on behalf of persecuted writers. He spoke in support of the Kurdish Writers Abroad Center changing its name to the Kurdish Center so that Kurdish Writers in Turkey wouldn’t be accused of “separatism” for joining it. And he supported PEN holding a conference in Alexandria, Egypt, where he said PEN must do everything possible to help Salman Rushdie and must ask Arab colleagues in Alexandria for support.

Richard Bray (PEN USA West Executive Director ), Carolyn See (PEN USA West President), and Joanne Leedom-Ackerman at the 55th PEN Congress in Madeira, Portugal

At the Writers in Prison Committee meetings and at the Assembly, PEN delegates also focused on the continuing crackdown in China, on the persecution of writers, editors and publishers in Turkey, Myanmar, Vietnam, Sudan, Cuba, and El Salvador. They protested the house arrest of the renowned novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer in Indonesia. In May, 1990 PEN recorded 381 cases of writers in prison or banned. In spite of the changes in Eastern Europe, the numbers of persecuted writers had not declined worldwide, and there were still some cases in Central and Eastern Europe. PEN resolved to act in all these areas, but the seismic shift in the political landscape of Europe held the focus for the 55th Congress whose theme for the literary sessions was Language and Literatures: Unity and Diversity. 

The breakdown of the Communist states was already leading to heightened nationalism, in no place more acutely than in the Republic of Yugoslavia. While most PEN members defended the move towards freer and more tolerant societies, there were some who espoused the nationalistic sentiments that led to the war which eventually broke out in the Balkans. A few took leadership roles in that conflict and separated from PEN which had centers in the former Yugoslav republics—Serbian PEN, Croatian PEN, and Slovene PEN. Only Slovene PEN attended the Madeira Congress. Slovene PEN had long been the annual host for PEN’s Peace Committee which met in Bled, Slovenia, an idyllic town on a lake where it was difficult to imagine war.

But war was on the horizon in the Balkans. What no one anticipated was that war was also on the horizon in the Middle East for in less than three months after the Madeira Congress, Iraq invaded Kuwait. By January, 1991 America and 39 other nations were at war with Iraq. The upcoming PEN Congress in Delphi, Greece had to be cancelled; the conference in Alexandria had already been cancelled at the Madeira Congress. Two months later, in March 1991 the first shots were fired in the Balkans in a war that would last four years.

Next installment: PEN in Times of War and Women on the Move