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 perches on a three-legged stool. One leg is literature—the work of writers around the world. The other leg is freedom of expression—the defense of writers, particularly those in authoritarian regimes. The third leg is community—the fellowship among writers from over 100 countries sharing, appreciating, translating. PEN began as a loose network of clubs after World War I and grew quickly. The governance of the organization has evolved and at times set the three legs of the stool at odd angles to each other. One such occasion was at the Guadalajara Congress in 1996 as PEN celebrated its 75th anniversary.

My file for that Congress, whose theme was “Literature and Democracy,” bulges with documents and papers and programs in duplicates and triplicates. I don’t know why it is so much larger than the other files. In retrospect, the 1996 Congress was an inflection point, a turn in the road. Maybe I was collecting evidence.

Program from PEN International 63rd Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico

At the Congress I was handing over the reins of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), having finished my term, at least that was my intent. Ronald Harwood was doing the same as President of PEN International, at least that was his intent. Elizabeth Paterson was retiring after 28 years as Administrative Secretary of PEN, and WiPC researcher Mandy Garner was also moving on. PEN was navigating transitions, some planned, but others with a momentum of their own.

For the global context of that time, I reported as Chair of WiPC to the Congress:

….two political phenomena have emerged, both perhaps linked to the end of the Cold War. First, we have seen conflicts erupting not so much between nations as within nations. This phenomenon, though not new, has offered particular challenges for the writer. Dozens of writers have been killed in conflicts in Algeria, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya. In a number of counties with internal conflicts, including Peru, India, and Turkey, governments have used Anti-Terror Laws to arrest writers who write about the opposing parties.

“Another phenomenon is the increasing number of countries turning to the democratic process for government. The end of the Cold War saw the fall of many totalitarian regimes. Since 1990 over 50 countries have, at least on paper, turned to democracy to select their governments. However, democracy has not always settled so easily into place. One of the indispensable elements of a working democracy is freedom of expression, and this freedom has often been curtailed. Because PEN’s mandate is to protect the free flow of ideas and the freedom of writers to write, to criticize and to protest, PEN’s mission is as compelling today with newly emerging democracies as it was during the Cold War era. In country after country—from Albania, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Romania, Tajikistan, Zambia—writers can be and have been arrested on such charges as “disseminating false propaganda,” “insulting the President,” and “publishing false news.” The Writers in Prison Committee’s protests and work for these writers is fundamental in a larger political process that is unfolding…. 

“…Whenever one might feel despair for the way human beings can treat one another, the despair can be lifted by noting the caring of the writers who work for each other. The members of the new Ghana PEN have adopted a writer in Peru; Mexican members and Swedish members work for Turkish writers; Polish, Slovak, Nepalese, French and many other members work on behalf of imprisoned Vietnamese writers. Canadian writers are working on behalf of their Nigerian colleagues, an American writer writes in Portuguese to an Indonesian imprisoned writer; English and German writers have been in long-term correspondence with an imprisoned writer in South Korea. Danish writers are working for an imprisoned writer in Yemen; Norwegian, Finish, Austrian and Czech writers are protesting on behalf of Chinese writers; Australian and Catalan writers work for imprisoned colleagues in Myanmar/Burma….”

These corridors of concern linked men and women around the world in defense of each other and of freedom of expression. The Writers in Prison Committee was a place everyone came together to focus on PEN’s mission. Discussion on resolutions and actions began there and were taken to the full Assembly of Delegates.

That year resolutions passed and action was taken on cases in: Algeria where seven writers had been killed and many more threatened and arrested; the Dominican Republic where intolerance was growing and a writer had disappeared; Turkey where 50 writers were imprisoned and 100 others sentenced to prison; Indonesia where writers had been arrested and imprisoned and the famed writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer was under town-arrest and where in East Timor writers had been killed and leader and poet Alexandre (Xanana Gusmao) was in prison and sentenced to death; Iran where writers were disappeared, tortured and imprisoned; Central Asian Republics, particularly Tajikistan, where at least 29 journalists had been murdered in the last four years; China where dozens of writers were serving long prison sentences or were sentenced to re-education camps; Cuba where journalists were imprisoned and harassed; Mexico where journalists were killed, disappeared and threatened; Vietnam where writers were serving lengthy prison terms; and Nigeria where Ken Saro Wiwa had been hanged the year before and other writers were in prison.

Writers in Prison Committee  at Guadalajara Congress, 1996. L to R: Alexander  Tkachenko (Russian PEN), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (WiPC Chair), Mandy Garner (WiPC researcher) 

At the WiPC meeting there was a report on PEN’s quiet mission to Cuba where writers were hoping the system would open up after the global changes in 1989. Writers there  said they were in a goldfish bowl but never sure how big the bowl was from day to day, and those arrested  often faced a choice between long prison sentences and exile. The WiPC meeting also  heard from the sister of Myrna Mack, a Guatemalan anthropologist who had been killed and was one of the significant leaders of the worldwide movement against impunity. We also launched the anthology This Prison Where I Live of writings from PEN cases over the years.

In addition to the Writers in Prison Committee, the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, the Peace Committee and the Women’s Committee met in the early days of the Guadalajara Congress. Literary sessions focused on the Congress theme with programs on Literature of Old and New Democracies and Post-Communist Democracies.

      Picasso Club necktie

Also during those first days of the Congress, a group of members were meeting off site to launch a process to reshape the governance of PEN. For as long as anyone could remember, the International Secretary and President had been the sole decision-makers between Congresses where the Assembly of Delegates voted on issues. Many felt this system no longer allowed sufficient democratic expression for a worldwide organization.

I was friends with many of those meeting, but the WiPC staff and I kept out of the off-site gatherings. We felt we needed to keep the WiPC a neutral place where everyone came together. One morning the men in that group entered the Assembly of Delegates all wearing the same Picasso print necktie, “a figure twisted like a pretzel,” one member described later, ties bought at the Picasso restaurant where they had met. The group had felt shut out of discussions, and now were coming forward together. It was like a declaration of revolution. “For heaven sakes, take off the ties!” I recall someone saying, and the ties gradually were folded into pockets, but a revolution had begun.

Two Spontaneous Resolutions were introduced to the Assembly:

Spontaneous Resolution 1 On PEN’s Structure Submitted by the Swedish Centre, seconded by the Canadian Centre, and supported by the American, Bangladeshi, Catalan, Danish, Finnish, Japanese, Kenyan, Melbourne, Nepalese, Norwegian, San Miguel de Allende, Slovakian, Swiss German and USA West Centers.

Resolutions II on P.E.N’s Structure, submitted by the same centres.

Taking into consideration the debate on P.E.N.’s composition, development and structure, held in Guadalajara on Sunday, November 10th, 1996, on the occasion of P.E.N.’s 75th anniversary;

Convinced of the need to enhance its democratic structure and facilitate wider international participation;

Resolves to request one P.E.N. Centre to elaborate the draft of a revised version of the current regulations, in cooperation and consultation with all the other Centres, as well as the International President and Secretary….”

After discussion and debate, it was agreed that PEN centers should send their suggestions for reform of the Constitution to the Japanese Centre, and Japanese PEN would coordinate and forward them to the International Headquarters and to all Centres so that the Centres could consider and vote on them at the 1997 Edinburgh Congress. One of these proposals, which was presented in Guadalajara by the Spanish-speaking Centres, was that Spanish should be made the third official language of PEN if financing could be raised.

Delegates at Writers in Prison Committee meeting PEN 63rd Congress in Guadalajara,  1996

PEN had its own democratic elections on the Congress agenda with a vote for the new International President. There was only one candidate put forward by the International Secretary and his PEN Center, a respected poet from Romania, a woman, who would have been the first woman President of PEN. She herself had lived under a repressive regime, but she had not been very involved in the international organization, and she had not been part of the discussion to reform PEN’s governance. When she spoke to the issue, questioning the need and the process, there was in the lunch conversations and in the corridors afterwards, pushback and a questioning of her suitability as President.

The next morning she withdrew her candidature. She said that it had become clear that the organization was undergoing a transformation and she felt she was the wrong person to be president at such a time of change. It seemed to her that PEN was in process of being transformed from an organization of writers into something less. She had been motivated by her dream of PEN, not as an organization with bureaucratic structures and competing pressure groups, but as a place where the writers of the world came together. She was a writer from Eastern Europe who had had great problems under successive dictatorships. From this perspective she had had an image of PEN as something extraordinary. It was true that she had confused PEN with the Writers in Prison Committee, she said. It was PEN which had spoken out when she was forbidden to publish. The work of the Writers in Prison Committee remained very important to her. What troubled her was the discovery of pressure groups who appeared to be fighting for a power which in her eyes had no existence. The only power which writers possessed was the power of their books and the fear of those in power that the truth told in those books would outlive their tyrannies.

Many members applauded her withdrawal speech. It articulated the pressure and tension in the 75-year-old organization which lived on ideals but also had to increasingly function in the competitive world of nongovernmental organizations with budgets and boards and democratic processes, an organization that needed to calibrate, modernize and keep all its members engaged.

Ronald Harwood agreed to serve another year as President. The International Secretary was reelected. Some members noted quietly that regulations required he face election every year now because of his age.

My replacement as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee was unanimously elected. The former President of Danish PEN, Niels Barfoed was a respected writer and longtime PEN member, who as a young boy had circumvented the Nazis as a courier with banned literature from his older brother who was in the Resistance. The WiPC had chosen a nominating committee to assure qualified candidate(s) were nominated. I left Guadalajara satisfied that the new WiPC process had come up with such a well-qualified Chair. I commiserated with Ronnie, thanking him for taking on another term though it meant his own writing would be curtailed. I was elected as a Vice President of PEN International and  left Guadalajara happy to be returning to my own work. However, a few months later Niels fell ill and resigned, and I too was back as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee. Ronnie and I served a fourth year together.

At the end of the Congress, I went to the airport with Alexandre Blokh, the longtime International Secretary. It had been a difficult Congress for him. He questioned whether  he had stayed on too long. At the Edinburgh Congress in 1997 new governance and regulations were proposed, and at the 1998 Congress in Helsinki Alex stepped down after 16 years. PEN International was on its way to having an international board and more democratic governance which presented its own challenges  as the organization proceeded towards the 21st Century.

  PEN International Writers in Prison Committee bimonthly newsletter, July and September, 1996

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 19:   Prison, Police and Courts in Turkey—Freedom of Expression Initiative

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.

 

What I remember most about the gathering of colleagues from 28 countries—31 PEN centers—51 of us in all at the first Writers in Prison Committee conference in 1996 was the seriousness of purpose and intellect during the day and the fun and talent in the evenings.

Hosted by Danish PEN, writers from every continent gathered at a university in Helsingør—known in English as Elsinore, the home of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—where we met in workshops and ensemble during the day to shape and refine our work on behalf of writers and freedom of expression around the world. But in the evening we were at a small university in a small city without transportation or distraction so we entertained ourselves. Each delegate displayed talents—from poetry reading to song to dance to musical performances.

As Chair of the WiPC gathering, I’d brought none of my own writing to read and was left to exhibit meager other talent which consisted of playing a few opening bars of Für Elise on the piano and whistling tunes with my far more talented Danish and Russian colleagues. Archana Singh Karki from Nepal in flowing red dress entertained with her graceful dance; Siobhan Dowd, our Irish former WiPC director and Freedom of Expression director at American PEN, silenced us with her soulful Irish folk songs, sung acapella; Sascha, Russian PEN’s General Secretary, not only whistled robustly but recited his poetry, which I was told I should be glad I didn’t understand with its bawdy content; Sam Mbure from Kenya and Turkish/English novelist Moris Farhi also read and recited work. PEN International President Ronald Harwood joined the discussions in the day and was audience in the evening. I don’t recall if Ronnie offered his own work, but we all bonded in our mission and in our support for the talent in the room.

Entertainment in the evening: From the top left—Jens Lohman (Danish PEN), Alexander (Sascha) Tkachenko (Russian PEN), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (Chair of WiPC)in a whistling song; Rajvinder Singh (German PEN, East) accompanying Archana Singh Karki (Nepal PEN) in dance; Siobhan Dowd (at piano—English & American PEN) with Moris Farhi (reading—English PEN); Sam Mbure (reciting—Kenyan PEN); Niels Barfoed (reading—Danish PEN)

During the three days, we fine-tuned our methods of working on and campaigning for our main cases, those writers who were imprisoned, attacked or threatened because of their writing, often their nonviolent voice of protest against authoritarian regimes.  We considered PEN’s decision-making on borderline cases such as those which included drug charges, advocacy of violence, pornography, hate speech, terrorism. These were not categories we normally took on as cases. We discussed when we might take up such a case or assign them to investigation or judicial concern. We laid the groundwork for more joint actions among centers and other organizations such as the U.N., OSCE and IFEX, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

Round Table of the WiPC conference which included delegates from PEN centers in Switzerland, Jerusalem, Denmark, England, Mexico, Portugal, America, Norway, Czech Republic, Ghana, Canada, Australia (Melbourne and Sydney), Portugal, Finland, Nepal, Scotland, Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, Croatia, Slovakia, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Japan, Germany, Russia, Poland, Netherlands

With PEN’s WiPC staff Sara Whyatt and Mandy Garner, we set out a campaign calendar for the year, beginning with Turkey in May; China in June; Myanmar in July; Guatemala in September; Vietnam in October; Nigeria in November; Human Rights Day focus in December; Cuba in January; Rushdie and Fatwa and Iran in February; United Nations Commission on Human Rights lobbying in February/March and a return to China during the Chinese New Year in February/March; International Women’s Day in March and World Press Freedom Day in May. This campaign calendar meant that the London office would send information each month related to these foci, and PEN centers would plan programs if the campaign fit their work and the cases they had taken on.

We discussed the elements of successful missions to troubled areas and what future missions should be considered. In 1997 PEN International and Danish PEN sent representatives on a quiet mission to Cuba. We also strategized on the effect of writers observing trials in certain countries, particularly in Turkey.

Working session on Turkey Campaign at at WiPC conference: L to R: Archana Singh Karki (Nepal PEN), Rajvinder Singh (German PEN, East), Robin Jones (WIPC staff), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (WiPC Chair), Ronald Harwood (PEN International President)

During the conference a request came for members of PEN to sign on individually and en mass as publishers of a book in Turkey which republished an article by the famed Turkish novelist Yaşar Kemal, along with articles by other Turkish writers who were in prison because of their writing. Kemal had recently been charged because of an article he’d published in the German magazine Der Spiegel about the Kurds. The organizer in Turkey had gathered hundreds of Turkish writers, publishers, artists, and actors to sign on as publishers. They wanted to present the book and the list of hundreds of publishers to challenge the courts to bring charges against everyone. Many of us agreed to participate. This act launched a campaign in Turkey and a mission later in 1997. (Blog to come.) The independent Turkish Freedom of Expression Initiative has since gathered biennially for the last 23 years. For this kind of joint action PEN was primed to cooperate.

Finally in Helsingør the Writers in Prison Committee took a step towards opening up the election process for the WiPC Chair. My term was due to expire at the fall 1996 Congress in Guadalajara. We decided to select a nominating committee from members to find candidate(s) for the next chair rather than have the post appointed by the Secretariat in London. That process was later replicated in other elections in PEN and is standard procedure today.

Workshop: From left includes: Neils Barfoed (Danish PEN), Lady Diamond (Ghana PEN), Moris Farhi (English PEN), Sara Whyatt (WiPC Programme Director), Mandy Garner (WiPC researcher), Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (WiPC Chair at front)

Helsingør was a fitting venue for the first WiPC Conference, not only because of its literary credentials with the Kronborg Castle where most of Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place, but also because of its historic legacy in World War II. Helsingør was one of the most important transport points for the rescue of Denmark’s Jews. A few days before Hitler had ordered that the Danish Jews were to be arrested and deported to concentration camps October 2, 1943, one of the Nazi diplomatic attaches who’d received word in advance shared the information with the Jewish community leaders. Using the name Elsinore Sewing Club, the Jewish leaders communicated with the population, and the Danes moved the Jews away from Copenhagen to Helsingør, just two miles across the straights to neutral Sweden. The Danish citizens hid their fellow Jewish citizens until they could get onto fishing boats, pleasure boats and ferry boats and escape over a period of three nights. The Danes managed to smuggle the majority of its Jewish citizens–over 7200 Jews and 680 non-Jews–across the water to safety.

Next Installment: PEN Journey 18: Picasso Club and Other Transitions in Guadalajara

 

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.

 

Fremantle, Australia is far away, at least if you live in the Americas or Europe or West Africa. So is Tokyo, Manila, Nepal, Hong Kong,—all destinations of PEN Congresses and conferences. As a global organization with centers in over 100 countries, PEN tries to cover the world with its meetings and at least once or twice a decade organize a Congress in Asia or Australia with its centers there.

In 1995 for PEN International’s 62nd Congress Perth PEN hosted delegates from around the world in Fremantle, a port city on Australia’s western coast in the Perth metropolitan area, a picturesque city with Victorian architecture and, as I recall at the time, a town out of the 1960’s where time hadn’t quite caught up. The city’s reputation was partially derived from its history as a penal colony from the 1850’s to 1991. The traditional Aboriginal people who lived there called the area Walyalup “the crying place.”

The 65th Congress was one of the smaller for PEN, less formal with many delegates staying in the homes of local writers rather than in a hotel. Instead of formal receptions in  houses of state, at least one evening’s entertainment was a game of literary trivia and bingo. Because the venue was on the harbor, the swimmers among the delegates, particularly Sascha (Alexander Tkachenko) General Secretary of Russian PEN, tried to swim each day despite the warnings that waters were shark-infested. Sascha defied the sharks which he considered a milder threat than what he was dealing with back home in Russia.

The Congress theme Freedom of Expression and Cultural Context translated into an endorsement of the universality of human rights as expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Held in the 50th anniversary year of the United Nations founding, PEN insisted human rights were not a relative notion. “While the concept of a universal right may not have penetrated the mechanisms of all states, the invocation of the universal right to free expression remains one of the essential tools that PEN and other organizations use to apply pressure and insert a wedge into the conscience of nations,” the Writers in Prison Chair’s report noted that year.

While certain human rights were absolute, governance was relative, and PEN itself was beginning to struggle with its structure. The relaxed atmosphere of Fremantle allowed informal discussions among delegates who were urging a more democratic structure for PEN. As PEN International headed towards its 75th anniversary the following year, Boris Novak, Slovene PEN President and Chair of the Peace Committee noted that the inner structure of PEN was no longer adequate for the needs of such a large global organization. This sentiment was echoed by the American PEN delegate and delegates from Scandinavian centers. The International Secretary agreed to hold a special meeting in Perth on this question, and the discussion and the dissent began.

As chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, I shared the concerns, but the WiPC staff and I determined that  the Writers in Prison Committee should remain a place where everyone came together and focused on the mission of getting writers out of prison and securing freedom of expression so we stayed on the edge of the debate. The internal politics of PEN were stirring and erupted a year later at the 1996 Congress in Guadalajara. In Perth, however,  the breezes were balmy and the water warm enough to  dip in if not to cross the distance  between the old and the new. That process would evolve over the next  several years and Congresses to come.

 

Brief summary of work follows in this excerpt from my 1995 Writers in Prison Committee Chair report:

Since [he] was arrested, my relatives and close friends have not dared to speak to me or telephone me for fear of being arrested. They have steered clear of me. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of friends and relatives who have stood by me. Since our problems began, I have had to rely on my family and our friends from abroad…I am very grateful to them…In short, your support will not only help my family, but also the families of others who are in distress. We will never forget your help.”
—Letter to PEN WiPC  from the wife of an imprisoned writer who for reasons of security must remain anonymous.

“The work of the Writers in Prison Committee this year has included appeals on writers’ behalf to 59 countries, around 150 appeals from the London office and hundreds more from centers around the world who responded to PEN’s Rapid Action calls and to the specific cases of the prisoners they have adopted….

“The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II saw celebrations in Europe but also saw a resurgence in racist and hate literature and speech. Anti-fascists writers found themselves threatened, especially in Austria where one writer was almost murdered. Turkey continued to be the most difficult country in the region with over 200 arrests, brief detentions, killings and disappearances, almost all relating to writings on the Kurdish situation.…

“The other issues to watch—the rise of militant fundamentalism, terrorism, separatist movements—but these are generally issues over which PEN has little control even though they affect the fates of individual writers.…

“Progress this year can best be measured in the releases of prisoners and also by the changes in certain countries’ laws. The Writers in Prison Committee lobbied governments and international bodies on general issues such as the death penalty, long term imprisonment and anti-terror laws and has seen some effect. PEN, along with other human rights organizations, urged the Indian government to reform or abandon its anti-terrorist law under which writers were detained, and recently the government has voted not to renew the law. The WiPC has also spent a large effort speaking with representatives of the Turkish government at embassies and at the United Nations to urge the amendment or abolishment of Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law. Just last week the Goverment finally announced its plan to amend the law. We are hopeful this will soon take place in such a way that hundreds of writers detained because of Article 8 will no longer face prison terms, though we are cautious in our optimism.

“The main substance of the Writers in Prison Committee work, however, is not shown in the statistics nor through the reformed government policy, but can best be measured in the lives of individual writers. This year over 90 writers have been released from prison and some individuals facing severe penalties, including death, have instead received clemency. Unfortunately in many countries as one writer walks out of prison, another is being brought in….

“Turkish writer Esber Yagmurdereli, who is blind, recently had his 20-month prison sentence ratified. He was arrested for a speech about the Kurdish situation at a human rights meeting just weeks after his release from 13 years in prison. [I’d like to end with] an excerpt from one of his plays, “Crossing Boundaries” which deals with the experience of a political prisoner:

The moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
You were leaving…the anguish would lift from your heart
…Your unconquered eyes would be mine from now on.
…You went and waking to your absence was to be condemned to a harsh fate
And I felt the damnation again when I heard my forehead crack against these silent walls
…Suddenly I was without a country like so many Palestinians
I even forgot my language: I forgot I was a scream in the river of your voice
(Didn’t we force these walls to memorize our voices
Didn’t we breastfeed these rotten cells our best folk songs?)
We set alight wet stones as we rested our backs against them…
…I kept biting my lips, but never forgot the memory…
And as the moon fell into the night, I saw your smile in its eternal beauty
The rainbow shone on your forehead and its greeting was a declaration
…then that moment lost all sense of time and the door opened
The silenced suddenly arose and spirits soared like rain-birds.”

Next Installment: PEN Journey 17: Gathering in Helsingør

 

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.

                                                                                    Bled, Slovenia

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!”

              Proposal at 61st Congress for PEN to explore setting up an Exile Network. Resolution  passed.

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 15:  Speaking Out: Life and Death 

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.

(l to r) Fawzia and Joanne at UN Human Rights Commission

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.

Page 1 PEN International’s submission on Detention and Imprisonment of Writers and Journalists to the UN Human Rights Commission

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.

   PEN Writers in Prison Committee Centre to Centre newsletter, Aug/Sept. 1994

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 14: Speaking Out: PEN’s Global Forums

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.

 

It was a time of hope, the year when Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk joined in free elections in South Africa, when Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres shook hands and began to live side by side, when the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defense Association laid down their arms after twenty-five years of terrorist conflict. The idea of tolerance quivered in the imagination in 1994 even if the realization of tolerant societies still seemed an imaginative leap.

As theme of the 61st PEN Congress, tolerance also challenged the ethnic, national and religious intolerance that gripped dozens of countries in the last decade of the twentieth century. In retrospect the time was perhaps not so different from times since, but we felt we were standing on an historic threshold. The PEN Congress theme of tolerance expressed this hope and optimism.

Writers from over 75 PEN centers* around the world came together in Prague that fall for literary and working sessions. The Congress was a grand affair with public gatherings in stately ballrooms, including the Liechtenstein Palace, home of the Prague Academy of Music. Writers who had been imprisoned under the old Soviet regime, including Václav Havel, now ran the country.

                                             Liechtenstein Palace, garden view

Guests of honor included novelist and poet Taslima Nasrin, whom PEN had recently helped extract from the threat of death in Bangladesh (see PEN Journey 11). For protection she was driven around in a state car, and because Sara Whyatt, coordinator of the PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), and I agreed to look after her, we at times found ourselves whisked from meeting to meeting with a police escort, not the usual transport at a PEN Congress.

Though PEN had no mechanisms to change societies, to the extent society changed individual by individual, PEN worked for the writer, turning a spotlight on cases of abuse and challenging the laws which legitimized intolerance.

The voice of the individual writer has always been the most compelling testimony. My report to the Assembly of Delegates that year as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee focused on those voices:

Yes, I can hear birds singing. But they are not my friends. They are too far from me. My best friends are spiders and mantis. They are only living things to watch amusedly in my solitary cell. I live and play with them all day long. This excerpt is from a prisoner ten years into a twenty-year sentence written to his PEN minder.

“The image of the spider recurs in the writings of prisoners. One former prisoner I met shortly after taking over as Chair of this committee had come to London to receive treatment for the torture he’d endured. He told of being handcuffed to a generator outside during monsoon season, of not being allowed to wash, using a bucket as a toilet, his arms and hands wrapped around the generator for weeks. Then he talked about being inside in solitary confinement. ‘I had a chance to observe nature: rats, cockroaches, spiders,’ he recalled. ‘Ah, spiders, they are brilliant!’

“Cuban writer Yndamiro Restano, who was arrested in 1991 and sentenced to ten years in prison for preparing and distributing counter-revolutionary propaganda, has written a poem entitled Prison:

Mother,
Do you know where your poet is?
Well, they have dragged me into a dark,
Narrow, lonely cell,
And do you know why,
Mother?
For not allowing fear to carry me away.

But I am not completely alone,
Mother.
I have got to know a good friend here.
A small spider visits me every day
And spins in the door of my cell.
When the guard comes,
I let it know so it hides away.
And doesn’t get killed.
I want it to live,
Mother,
Because I know that it has inside it
Something that I also possess.
However,
It seems that the guard does not know this.

Mother,
Do you know where your poet is?
Well, they have dragged me to a cold,
Narrow, lonely cell.
And do you know why,
Mother?
Because the poet is the only person
Who never forgets
The meaning of freedom. 

“The quality the spider has inside so like the writer is the ability to survive, to weave and to work wherever it is. The more difficult the circumstances, the more ingenious the web it weaves. Scientists are in fact currently studying the unique structure of the spider’s silk which gives it the tensile strength of a steel fiber, yet allows it to stretch and rebound from at least ten times its original length, something no metal or synthetic fiber can do.

“The writer’s silk, his tensile yet flexible fiber, is his imagination. It is the imagination and the life of the mind that allows the writers for whom the Writers in Prison Committee works to survive what are sometimes quite desperate physical conditions. One quality that gives the imagination its greatest flexibility and strength is tolerance, the theme of this Congress. It also is that quality and the ability to imagine and empathize with another’s life that prompts those not in prison or under attack to work on behalf of their fellow writers.

“The work of PEN members and Centers in 1994 has been inspiring even if the situation for the writers has been very difficult in many areas of the world. This past year has witnessed some remarkable moves towards tolerance: in South Africa with the first free elections, in Israel and the West Bank with the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. The WiPC case load has declined with release of political prisoners in these areas, but writers remain in the line of fire and are still targets of those who are trying to disrupt the peace process.

“The past year over 120 writers have been released from prison. Unfortunately many times that number have been arrested, threatened and killed.

“Religion, ethnic and nationalistic tolerance has led to attacks and detention of writers in every area of the world. Religious intolerance of one kind or another continues to undermine intellectual freedom in Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Sudan, Egypt, Vietnam and Algeria.

“Often religion is used to justify political interests. No place has the confrontation between “religious” and state power been more devastating than in Algeria, where over 25 writers and journalists have been killed and dozens detained in the past two years.

“Ethnic, national and religious intolerance often merge as in the former Yugoslavia and other areas of the Balkans.

“The most brutal outbreak of ethnic intolerance globally this year has been in Rwanda, where over 37 writers and journalists have been killed, most targeted for their ethnic, and thus political background.

Ethnic conflict, which is also political conflict, currently stirs in Nigeria where Ken Saro Wiwa, advocate for the Ogoni people, is in jail and reportedly tortured and in Kenya where Koigi wa Wamwere exposed “ethnic cleansing” in the Rift Valley and has been detained on charges which carry the death penalty.

“The most difficult country with the largest number of Writers in Prison Committee cases continues to be Turkey where those discussing and debating the Kurdish situation in the Southeast are charged with “disseminating separatist propaganda” under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law and are imprisoned. Killings and torture are reported by both sides of this conflict. PEN records over 250 cases in Turkey.

“The other country which continues to lead our list with the most main cases is China where over 45 writers, a third of these in Tibet, are imprisoned. Though China has released some prominent dissidents this year, the Chinese authorities have also arrested at least twice as many writers as they have released….”

                         From PEN’s Centre to Centre newsletter October/November, 1994.

The  Chair’s report for 1994 notes progress but also shows how little has changed for writers in the past 25 years in many areas of the world such as Turkey and China though there has been progress in Algeria, Rwanda, the Balkans, Nigeria and Kenya. The Day of the Imprisoned Writer  campaign in November, 1994, noted in the newsletter above, focused on five writers. Of these Ma Thida was released and eventually started a Myanmar/Burma PEN Center and now serves on the PEN International Board; Koigi wa Wamwere was released and is a celebrated Kenyan writer. Gunay Aslan and Gustavo Garzon, also released, continue to create. Ali-Akbar Sa’idi Sirjani died in Iranian prison under mysterious circumstances in November 25, 1994.

With attention and advocacy, circumstances  improve for individual writers, but many writers who are released have to go into exile. At the Prague Congress PEN began to expand its thinking and resources to develop services for exiled writers. (Future blog post.)

A highlight of the 61st Congress was the address by Czech President Václav Havel, fellow writer and playwright whose first play “Garden Party” lampooned the communist system in 1963. In 1969 he was barred from his job as a writer/editor after the suppression of the Prague Spring reforms in 1968, and he was forced to work as a manual laborer. In 1977 he became the spokesman for the Charter 77 dissident group that criticized the communist officials and was given a suspended sentence of 14 months. After publishing in 1978 “Power of the Powerless” which was an analysis of how a totalitarian regime kept power by corrupting and manipulating citizens, he was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for “subversion” against the state. During this time PEN worked actively on his case, pressuring diplomats around the world. Havel was released after three and a half years but then imprisoned again after meeting dissidents and the French President in Prague in 1989. Havel was sentenced to nine months, but widespread protests from home and abroad, many generated by PEN, brought his release in May. In November, 1989 the communist regime fell. In December 1989 Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia, which eventually split. At the time of the PEN Congress he was in his first year as President of the newly independent Czech Republic.

                    Left to right: Jiri Stransky, President Czech PEN, and Czech President Václav Havel

Abridged speech of Václav Havel to the Opening of the 61st PEN Congress in Prague November 7, 1994:

“Several times in my life I have had the honour of being invited to a world congress of the International PEN Club. But the regime always made it impossible for me to attend. I had to live to the age of fifty-eight, go through a revolution in my country, become the nation’s president, and see the World Congress held in Prague, to be able to participate in this important event for the first time in my life. I am sure you will understand therefore, that this is a very moving moment for me.…

“Yes, we live in a remarkable time. It is not just that we now learn, almost instantaneously, about all the deeply shocking atrocities that take place in the world; it is also a time when every local conflict has the potential to divide the international community and become the catalyst for a far wider conflict, one that in many cases is even global. Who among us, for instance, can tell where the present war in Bosnia and Herzegovina may lead, to what tragic confrontation of three spheres of civilization, if the democratic world remains as indifferent to that conflict as it has so far?

“I think that in these matters, writers and intellectuals can and must play a role that only they can fill. They are people whose profession, indeed, whose very vocation is to perceive far more profoundly than others the general context of things, to feel a general sense of responsibility for the world, and to articulate publicly this inner experience.

“To achieve this, they have essentially two instruments available to them.

“The first is the very substance of their work—that is, literature, or simply writing. Deep analysis of the tangled roots of intolerance in our individual and collective unconsciousness and consciousness, a merciless examination of all the frustrations of loneliness, personal inadequacies and the loss of metaphysical certainties that is one of the sources of human aggression—quite simply, a sharp light thrown on the misery of the contemporary human soul—this is, I think, the most important thing writers can do. In any case, there is nothing new in this: they have always done that, and there is no reason why they should not go on doing so….

“But there is another instrument, an instrument that intellectuals sometimes avail themselves of here and there, though not nearly often enough in my opinion. This other instrument is the public activity of intellectuals as citizens, when they engage in politics in the broadest sense of the word. Let us admit that most of us writers feel an essential aversion to politics. We see entering politics as a betrayal of our independence, and we reject it on the grounds that the job of the writer is simply to write. By taking such a position, however, we accept the perverted principle of specialization, according to which some are paid to write about the horrors of the world and human responsibility, and others to deal with those horrors and bear the human responsibility for them. It is the principle of a rather doubtful division of labour: some are here to understand the world and morality, without having to intervene in that world and turn morality into action; others are here to intervene in the world and behave morally without being bound in any way to understand any of it.…

“In short, I am convinced that the world of today with so many threats to its civilization and so little capacity to deal with them, is crying out for people who have understood something of that world and know what to do about it to play far more vigorous role in politics. I felt this when I was an independent writer, and my time in politics has only confirmed the rightness of that feeling, because it has showed me how little there is in world politics of the mind-set that makes it possible to look further than the borders of one’s own electoral district and its monetary moods, or beyond the next election.

“I am not suggesting, dear colleagues, that you all become presidents in your own countries, or that each of you go out and start a political party. It would, however, be wonderful if you were to do something else, something less conspicuous, but perhaps more important: that is, if you would gradually begin to create something like a world-wide lobby, a special brotherhood or, if I may use the word, a somewhat conspiratorial mafia whose aim is not just to write marvelous books or occasional manifests, but to have an impact on politics and its human perceptions in a spirit of solidarity, and in a coordinated, deliberate way…”

“Let me conclude with one final plea: do not fail to raise your common voice in defence of our colleague and friend Salman Rushdie, who is still the target of a lethal arrow, and in defence of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, who is unable to join us here because his government prevented him from coming. I also beg you to express our common solidarity with all Bosnian intellectuals who have been waging a courageous and unequal struggle on the cultural front with the criminal fanaticism of the ethnic cleansers, those living examples of the lengths to which human intolerance can eventually go.”

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 13: PEN and the U.NFunding, Friends and a Changing World

*Delegates representing 73 PEN Centers attended the 61st Congress, along with observers from three proposed new centers—Malawi, Guadalajara and Iranian Exiles Abroad. All three were elected as new PEN centers at the Congress, along with new centers in Ghana and Kyrgyzstan and a revived Egyptian PEN center.

 

 

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.

 

In Bangladesh novelist Taslima Nasrin was in hiding. Death threats had been issued, a price put on her life. On the streets of Dhaka and other cities, crowds threatened to hang her because of her words in a newspaper challenging the Koran and Islamic laws and because of her novel Lajja (Shame) which depicted Muslim atrocities on Hindus after a mosque’s destruction in Ayodhya, India.

The time was summer, 1994. In London Sara Whyatt, PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee Coordinator, and I sat in a Kensington hotel restaurant waiting to meet a man who’d called the office and said he was Taslima’s brother and wanted to talk with us. PEN had been actively working on Taslima’s case for the past year, sending out Rapid Action Alerts, meeting with Bangladeshi government officials in London and in the U.S. and Europe, calling on the government to protect her. The case had gained international attention. Given recent violence around fatwas, including those on Salman Rushdie, we were wary. We didn’t know Taslima had a brother. We spoke with MI5 who advised us to have a spotter for the meeting. We arranged a tell so that if the encounter was not legitimate or we perceived trouble, I would take my sunglasses from the top of my head and set them on the table. The spotter—PEN’s bookkeeper—sat at another table and could quickly summon help. We weren’t certain, but we thought MI5 was also in the hotel.

In retrospect the drama around Taslima’s case seems inflated, but during that period of 1993-1994 the situation had escalated to the point that religious leaders were warning that the government would be overthrown if Nasrin was not arrested. In June, 1994 when an arrest warrant was issued, Taslima went into hiding. A nationwide hunt was launched, and snake charmers carrying poisonous snakes marched in Dhaka and warned that thousands of snakes would be let loose if Nasrin was not arrested by June 30.

                     Time, July 11, 1994. Photo by Rafique Rahman-Reuters

In this atmosphere PEN had received the call from Taslima’s older brother. International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and PEN’s Women’s Committee, in particular its chair Meredith Tax in New York, had been in touch with Taslima and her lawyers, but in the time of faxes, (now fading), inconsistent telephone connections, and no internet between writers, no one had yet confirmed a brother coming through London. This kind of high drama was not PEN’s usual modus operandi. In the years I chaired PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (1993-1997), more than 900 writers threatened, detained, in prison, and killed came across PEN’s desk annually. Approximately a quarter of these were designated main cases which meant PEN had sufficient information to verify the situations and had members to work on the writer’s behalf. However, only a few became global causes like Taslima’s, gathering energy, attention and advocates around the world. This usually happened when the threat of death was credible and immanent and when the circumstances of the writer connected to larger issues.

That day in London, a man in his thirties approached our table. He looked so much like pictures of Taslima that we quickly set aside our suspicions. He worked for an airline and was passing through London. He was able to answer questions and confirm details of the case such as what Taslima had actually said to the newspaper which had misquoted her calling for revision of the Koran. I still have my notes from that meeting. Her brother explained that Taslima had said she wanted to modify Sharia laws, not the Koran. “I want men and women to be equal,” she’d said. She was charged with blasphemy under a law left on the books by the British.

Her brother told us that her lawyer was afraid. The lawyer couldn’t move for bail unless Taslima was present, but if the government didn’t give security for her, they couldn’t take the risk of Taslima coming to court. The government said if Nasrin went to court, anything could happen in court or in jail. In jail she could be killed. Her father’s home had been attacked, and he was now under protection.

Her brother confirmed that Taslima had finally agreed that she needed to leave Bangladesh though she was reluctant. “If I go from Bangladesh, who can write about these poor women?” she asked. And yet she wasn’t able to write anything now, he said, and her life was not safe if she stayed.

Her trial date had been set for Aug. 4. If she didn’t appear, the government would seize her things, including her passport, which they had taken away before but had returned when she resigned her post as a doctor. She was a medical doctor as well as writer.

Her brother’s message to us that day was: “Save my sister!”

Through discussions with her lawyer, with selected PEN members and with the Bangladeshi courts, it was finally arranged that Taslima would turn herself in late in the evening. Bail would be set and met, and in disguise she would leave the court. The president of Swedish PEN  flew to Dhaka and  accompanied her in a flight to Sweden, where she lived for years in exile.

It was was lonely in exile. I met with Taslima in early September 1994, a few weeks after her arrival in Stockholm. I have notes from those meetings. “One day I’ll go back,” she said, “but I don’t know if I could live in my country anymore. I don’t know what will happen. I want to live in Bengal, but they will kill me. I couldn’t take my writing out.”

She explained that she was from a Muslim family with Hindus as her neighbors. “From the beginning I went to their houses, played with them. I know their culture, attitudes. I know their happiness and sorrow from childhood. It is not difficult for me to reach them.” After the violent incidents in Ayodhya, India where Hindu women were raped and their homes looted, she said, “I felt them. I have felt the danger and had to write for them….Why can’t I write a book in reverse, but they feel they should write my book in the case like Lajja….In India, Hindus can’t feel Muslim, and Muslims can’t feel Hindu…In Bengal, Hindu and Muslim live separately….People think men are superior to women. Women always get advice from men. Mothers are always kept quiet. It is not allowed for a mother to give advice to a son.”

                                     London Review of Books, September 8, 1994

At the time and in retrospect at PEN we questioned whether any of our actions escalated the situation for Taslima’s case. This was the Bangladeshi government’s argument, but Amnesty and numerous human rights and freedom of expression organizations also highlighted her situation. Through IFEX, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange of which PEN was a founding member, reports circulated worldwide. The fact was, Taslima Nasrin was in real danger. PEN went into action and helped with  her extraction.

In November 1994 Taslima was a special guest at the 61st PEN International Congress in Prague, opened by Vaclav Havel as the keynote speaker. In December that year she received the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, given by the European Parliament.

Though Taslima’s case was the most celebrated at the time, there were numbers of other writers and women under threat because of their writing. In a town in Northern Greece Anastasia Karakasidou had received anonymous letters threatening to rape and kill her in front of her children because of her scholarly dissertation on the ethnic Slav population in that region. In Algeria another woman writer stayed in her house afraid even to go out on the street because her words challenged both government and fundamentalists’ violent policies. She had not received a direct death threat, but she was a well-known and recognized writer in a country where more writers had been killed in that past year than in almost any other, including Somalia, Angola and the former Yugoslavia.

Death was the ultimate censor, and the threat of death was its chilling companion. International PEN’s Writers in Prison casebook at the time listed at least 22 countries where writers were under death threats. In four countries the writers had gone into hiding. Death threats also prompted self-censorship for many writers. Most of the threats did not come directly from governments but from individuals who professed to be offended by the writer’s words. The offense, however, was almost always tied to a political or religious position, and the writer’s life became a political, not a moral, consideration.

While issues of communal violence and religious and political Islam differed from the rights of ethnic minorities in Northern Greece or from political probity in Argentina, Guatemala, Peru, Paraguay where PEN listed high numbers of death threats, the common need in all these cases was for the government to protect the writers and take action against those who issued the threats.

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 12: Tolerance—International PEN’s 61st Congress in Prague with Vaclav Havel at the podium

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.

 

In the summer of 1993 before taking over the Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee I studied hundreds of individual cases on PEN’s list of over 900 cases which was published twice a year. I studied the regions of the world where conflict was rife, where governments were most oppressive and where writers were most threatened. I also used the time to conceive three long term projects because I knew when the job began, there would be less time for long term thinking.

First, I hoped we could gather the many poems and stories from imprisoned writers over the years and get these published into a book. In studying the cases, I came to understand that those who survived harrowing experiences were often those able to keep their imaginations alive and if possible were able to write. “We lived in Paris in our minds,” one prisoner in dire conditions inside the Western Sahara recounted. A book of these writings would celebrate and inspire and could also be used by PEN centers in their work.

Second, I wanted to convene the Writers in Prison Committees from around the world in a conference to strategize our work. PEN’s other standing committees had such meetings outside of the congresses, but WiPC never had. The PEN congresses were often filled with competing programs and those working on WiPC issues were not always the delegates. We needed to gather and plan together for several days.

Finally, I hoped to expand the roster of Writers in Prison Committees in the PEN Centers so that we could increase the number of members working and the number of writers on whose behalf we worked.

WiPC Coordinator Sara Whyatt and researcher Mandy Garner and I agreed on each of these goals. Every two weeks we met in the large airy WiPC office at the top of the Charterhouse Buildings in London or often at the tea shop across the alley. At the end of our strategy sessions we would discuss how to move forward the longer range goals. I learned an important lesson—first, a goal begins with an idea then is realized by having talented, committed people around. For me that began with Sara and Mandy, who set steps in motion. And then each project found a path forward as people arrived into our circle to help accomplish the tasks.

One day a publisher showed up in our office and asked if we had ever considered doing a book of prisoners’ writings. As a matter of fact…We quickly outlined our idea, put together a team with former WiPC coordinator Siobhan Dowd as editor, and a year and a half later in 1996 This Prison Where I Live was on book stands with selections from more than 65 writers who had been imprisoned, many of whose cases PEN had worked on, from Arthur Koestler to Cesar Vallejo, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jacobo Timerman, Breyten Breytenbach, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Primo Levi, Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Nazim Hikmet, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and many others, current and former writers in prison.

From This Prison Where I Live:

            You took away all the oceans and all the room.
            You gave me my shoe-size with bars around it.
            Where did it get you? Nowhere.
            You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.
                                                 —Osip Mandelstam, former USSR, 1935

When we shared our second hope for a global gathering, Danish PEN offered to host the conference in Helsingor, the home of Hamlet. With representatives of PEN centers on every continent, this first WiPC conference convened in the spring of 1996. The WiPC gathering has been held biennially ever since at locations around the world. (More on this conference in a later post.)

Regarding the third goal, the number of PEN centers with Writers in Prison Committees has grown each year because of PEN members around the globe. Unfortunately, the number of cases of writers threatened, imprisoned or killed has also continued to grow, but individual cases are released.

In that summer preparing to take over the Chair, my predecessor and mentor Thomas von Vegesack gave me advice I found puzzling at first. He invoked: “Beware of principles!” Thomas was an empathetic and principled man so I was perplexed by his counsel, but over the years I’ve come to understand what he meant. He meant that declarations and statements can often keep you from seeing a way forward and from understanding how to work on a case if you get tangled in abstractions.

There are of course principles that govern our work enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are fundamental, but Thomas was warning that it is important to understand each situation and not let rigidity, a kind of authoritarianism of principles or political correctness limit.

PEN’s Charter itself contains contradictory concepts. The Charter asserts that PEN members should “use what influence they have in favour of good understanding and mutual respect between nations and people; they pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel all hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace and equality in one world.”

At the same time the Charter notes that “PEN stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong…”

These two ideas of respect and freedom of expression have been challenged more than once, a decade ago in the case of the Danish cartoons. (More on this in a future post.)

Ultimately each PEN member has to resolve the inherent tension. Those from societies with longer democratic traditions are more accustomed to balancing competing ideas; but there are no certain answers. PEN has had lengthy discussions and debates on such questions as “hate speech”—what constitutes it, are there limits to freedom of expression—on slander and libel, holocaust denial, blasphemy.

These challenges for PEN are manifested in individual cases. Early in my tenure as Writers in Prison Chair, one such case blew up quickly, gathering headlines across the globe—the case of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin. Dr. Nasrin (she was a medical doctor turned writer) had written a novel Lajja (Shame) which described the Muslim backlash against Bangladesh’s Hindu minority after the destruction of a mosque. She was also quoted (misquoted, she said) suggesting that the Koran should be revised in favor of women. An arrest warrant was issued for her; demonstrators called for her death, and at one point snake charmers in Dhaka threatened to release their cobras into the streets if she wasn’t executed. PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and PEN’s Women’s Committee took up the case, which had bizarre twists along the way.

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 11: Case of Taslima Nasrin, PEN Congress in Prague 1994 and Vaclav Havel at the podium.

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.

 

Twelve-foot puppets danced outside the dining room’s second floor windows at our hotel, billed as the “oldest hotel in the world,” set on the central plaza of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, the venue for PEN International’s 60th Congress.

Sara Whyatt, coordinator of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, and I hurried to finish breakfast and our agenda before we joined the crowds outside at the historic Festival of St. James. That evening International PEN’s 60th Congress would convene. Hosted by Galician PEN, the Congress had as its theme Roads of Literature, which seemed appropriate as pilgrims from around the world also gathered on the Obradoiro Plaza in front of the ancient Cathedral, the destination for their Camino.

Parador Hotel, Santiago de Compostela                                               St. James Festival, Obradoiro Plaza, Santiago de Compostela

At this Congress the presidency of PEN was changing hands as was the chairmanship of the Writers in Prison Committee, which I was taking over from Thomas von Vegesack. Ronald Harwood, the British playwright, was assuming the PEN presidency from Hungarian novelist and essayist György Konrád, who had been a philosophical president, often running the Assembly meetings like a stream of consciousness event where the agenda was a guide but not necessarily a governing map. Ronnie ran the final meeting like a director and dramatist, determined to get the gathering from here to there with a path and deadline. Both smart, experienced writers, committed to PEN’s principles, they had very different styles. Known only to a few of the delegates a surprise visitor was also arriving mid-Congress.

The 60th Congress in September 1993 was a watershed of sorts. It was the first since the controversial Dubrovnik gathering six months before which had split PEN’s membership (see PEN Journey 8) because of the war in the Balkans.

Konrád’s opening speech to the Assembly explained that PEN’s leadership had gone ahead with the congress over the many objections from PEN centers because the venue had been approved earlier by the Assembly and the host center had been unwilling to postpone. He acknowledged the widespread criticism and also the concern that some individuals who fomented the Balkan wars and participated in alleged war crimes were writers who had been members of PEN. He said, “That these men of war also include men of letters, indeed that these latter are well represented, painfully confronts our professional community with the notion of our responsibility for the power of the Word. Nationalist rhetoric led to mass graves here, and there. Mutual killings would not have been on such a scale in the absence of words that called on others to fight or that justified the war.”

György Konrád, PEN International President 1990-1993, Credit: Gezett/ullstein bild, via Getty Images

Konrád’s address at the opening session went a way in bringing the delegates together. “What we can do is to try and ensure the survival of the spirit of dialogue between the writers of the communities that now confront each other….International PEN stands for universalism and individualism, an insistence on a conversation between literatures that rises above differences of race, nation, creed or class, for that lack of prejudice which allows writers to read writers without identifying them with a community….

“Ours is an optimistic hypothesis: we believe that we can understand each other and that we can come to an understanding in many respects. The existence of communication between nations, and the operation of International PEN confirm this hypothesis…. PEN defends the freedom of writers all over the world, that is its essence.”

Ronald Harwood added in his acceptance for the presidency: “The world seems to be fragmenting; PEN must never fragment. We have to do what we can do for our fellow-writers and for literature as a united body; otherwise we perish. And our differences are our strength: our different languages, cultures and literatures are our strength. Nothing gives me more pride than to be part of this organization when I come to a Congress and see the diversity of human beings here and know that we all have at least one thing in common. We write….We are not the United Nations.…We cannot solve the world’s problems….Each time we go beyond our remit, which is literature and language and the freedom of expression of writers, we diminish our integrity and damage our credibility….We don’t’ represent governments; we represent ourselves and our Centres. …We are here to serve writers and writing and literature, and that is enough….And let us remember and take pleasure in this: that when the words International PEN are uttered they become synonymous with the freedom from fear.”

Ronald Harwood, PEN International President 1993-1997. Credit BAFTA

PEN’s work to defend writers and protect space free from fear fell in large part to the Writers in Prison Committee, the largest of PEN’s standing committees with over half the PEN centers operating their own WiP Committees. Members elected the writers who were in prison for their writing as honorary members of their centers, corresponded with them and their families, advocated on their behalf with their own governments and with the governments where the writers lived. PEN’s London office provided the research, selected the cases, planned campaigns and worked with international bodies. The means and methods have modified over the years as the internet and social media have developed, but the focus has remained on the individual writer whose case is pursued until it is resolved. With consultative status at the United Nations, International PEN and its Writers in Prison Committee work through the Human Rights Commission and UNESCO and with other international institutions lobbying on behalf of writers.

At the time of the 60th Congress focus of WiPC’s work included China, Turkey, Algeria, Burma, Syria and Nigeria. In Turkey that summer an arson attack at an arts festival in Sivas had killed at least 37 people, seven writers and poets. One of the writers at the festival Aziz Nesin was translating Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses into Turkish and had started to serialize the book in a newspaper. Nesin’s presence at the festival was said to inflame the local crowds. Though Nesin survived, it was reported he was beaten by the firefighters who saved him, and a subsequent investigation held  the Turkish state responsible.  China continued to have more WiPC cases than any country except Turkey. The threat of death for writers had intensified in Algeria where Islamic extremists had assassinated six writers, including the novelist and journalist Tahar Djaout. In Nigeria the brief imprisonment and possible sedition charges against writer Ken Saro Wiwa, President of the Nigerian Association of Authors, founding member of Nigerian PEN and leader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People was highlighted after his passport was confiscated. A few years later his situation would inspire a global mobilization by PEN and human rights groups after Saro Wiwa was condemned to death by Nigeria’s de facto President Sani Abacha.

The focus of the 60th Congress remained on the Balkans and on growing religious extremism. PEN’s surprise guest appeared at the Assembly in the middle of the Peace Committee report on the Balkans. That morning delegates had entered through a metal detector and security check, the first and only time in my years at PEN. The day before, the guest was to have slipped into the hotel secretly because of security concerns, but the plaza outside was filled with people who had come to see the arrival not of Salman Rushdie but of singer Julio Iglesias who arrived at the same time. Rushdie was quickly whisked inside. That evening a small group gathered for dinner with Rushdie in a private dining room at the hotel. I remember sitting beside Salman and sharing a dessert with him but have no notes from the dinner and remember only a discussion of PEN’s further campaign on his behalf. At the time the fatwa weighed heavily. Translators and publishers of Rushdie had been killed and attacked.

The next morning Rushdie arrived in the hall during the Peace Committee’s report which took a break for Rushdie’s address. The Assembly passed a resolution again condemning the fatwa and urging Iran to rescind it and urging all PEN Centers to continue lobbying their governments on Rushdie’s behalf and to put the case on the agenda of the International Court of Justice and other multilateral fora.

International PEN 60th Congress Assembly of Delegates in Santiago de Compostella 1993. Left to right: Gygory Konrad, Salman Rushdie, Ronald Harwood

To the Assembly Rushdie noted: “…in the Muslim world, in the Arab world when journalists and academics and other visitors ask writers, intellectuals, and other dissident figures in those countries what they think, they repeatedly say: ‘The reason you must defend Rushdie is that by doing so you defend us also.’ For example, Iranian dissident intellectuals, 167 of whom recently signed a very passionate declaration in support of me and of the principles involved in this case, say that the real target of the Khomeini Fatwa and of Iranian state terrorism is not Rushdie, it is them.’ After all I have protection; they don’t. And what the terror campaign means is ‘If we can do this to Rushdie, think how much we can do to you.’”

He said, “There is something I wanted to say about the issue of fear. I do think that a lot of people who mean well and wish to combat this kind of attack are silenced by fear, and think that by remaining silent, somehow things will get better….But the one thing that I’ve learned is that silence is always the biggest mistake, always no matter how great the temptation to silence might be, for a very simple reason. If you are silent, you allow your enemy to speak, and therefore you allow him to set the terms of the debate….I think one of the reasons I’m here is that all of you, and thousands of people around the world have not remained silent.”

Rushdie thanked PEN for its work on his behalf. When asked how this situation affected his writing, he said he’d actually become more optimistic. “I was determined to construct a happy ending and discovered it is very difficult. Happy endings in literature as in life are very difficult to arrange…[but] the answer is that it’s made my writing much more cheerful.”

Rushdie stayed after his address and participated in the discussion on the Balkans. Miloš Mikeln, chair of the Peace Committee, reported that besides help provided to writer refugees and those staying in Sarajevo, the Peace Committee was closely following and analyzing the situation in the war regions, focusing on writers’ involvement in instigating chauvinistic hatred and war propaganda. The most drastic case was that of the Serbian poet from Bosnia, Mr. Radovan Karadzic, who was now the President of the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia. The Peace Committee report noted that he’d used his literary talent and his reputation as a writer to foster ethnic and religious hatred and to promote genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “As writers who deeply believe in freedom of expression we cannot remain silent in the face of such an abuse of the freedom,” Mikeln said. “We find it incumbent upon us to condemn Radovan Karadzic for his violation of all the values that we and International PEN stand for.”

After lengthy debate on whether to name names in resolutions, this condemnation was accepted and taken as a statement of the Writers for Peace Committee. Personal condemnation is highly unusual for PEN, used most notably in the expulsion of Nazi writers in 1933. The debate further focused on the responsibility of PEN members, in particular Serbian PEN members and the Serbian center. It is also very unusual for the PEN Assembly to publicly call out a center. The resolution noted, “Writers in Serbia actively supported chauvinistic propaganda, misusing their influence as writers and thus instigating hatred, destruction and war. These actions including public statements by ___ and _____clearly run against the principles of International PEN. The 60th World Congress….condemns such a blatant abuse of our profession. We expect the Serbian PEN to take a stand against this breach of writers’ ethics as we would expect of any Center confronted by a similar situation.” In this instance the names were included in the original resolution but after debate were left out of the resolution passed by the Assembly.

The Bosnian delegate made a passionate plea protesting what was happening in Bosnia and the characterization of the situation as “civil war” by others. Rushdie said that the delegate from Bosnia was justified and should be heard. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, there was no question that the crimes committed against Bosnia had been the greatest and Sarajevo the most tragic case, Rushdie said, and he hoped the delegate was wrong when he said people outside did not care and did not want to know. The destruction of Sarajevo would haunt Europe for generations, and he added that the people who had wanted to maintain a unified society had been sacrificed, and it was hard not to believe that it was because they were Muslims. Suppose the Serbs had been Muslims. The Bosnian culture was the culture of Europe.

The Assembly of Delegates approved the Peace Committee’s resolution with names removed and also endorsed a recommendation by Russian PEN that was to be annexed to the resolution. That statement declared that PEN “expresses its firm conviction that the duty of writers, and particularly of the writers of those ethnic groups and countries which are directly involved in the armed conflicts is not to espouse national interests but, in the cause of the unity of the world, promote negotiation and compromise so as to obtain the solution of all conflicts.”

PEN Congresses are full of speeches and resolutions, words offered in a world buffeted by much harder power, but PEN members have faith that words matter and can have power for good or ill, that there is a difference between words that aim for truth and words that are used for propaganda. At that time and in times before and since, words have inspired peace but also inflamed towards war. PEN remains a place where words and actions come together in campaigns to preserve the freedom of writers to use their words.

At the 60th PEN Congress in the grand ballroom of the oldest hotel in the world a new Bosnian Center whose members were Serb, Croat and Bosnian was unanimously welcomed as was an ex-Yugoslav Center for writers who no longer lived in the region.

 

Next installment: PEN Journey 10: At the helm of the Writers in Prison Committee and another Fatwa

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.

 

In fall, 1991 I went to Moscow just months after the August coup attempt in which hardline Communists sought to take control from President Mikhail Gorbachev. I hopped onto the visa of my husband who was traveling to Russia as a Visiting Scholar at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. I went as a writer, interested in meeting other writers. I contacted fellow PEN member and Russian translator Michael Scammell, who had previously chaired International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). Michael gave me a list of writers to contact in Moscow.


Statues toppled of Lenin and Stalin and others in park after failed coup attempt in Moscow, 1991.

My husband and I stayed in what I was told was one of the government hotels where guests were hosted but also watched. We were watched too, I’m fairly certain, though there was little for anyone to see with me. I was cautious as I made contact with the writers lest my reaching out compromise them. Only a few years before, PEN’s case list had included many dissident Soviet writers in prison. Michael and later WiPC Chair Thomas von Vegesack and PEN’s WiPC committees around the world had advocated for the release of dissident Soviet writers, many of whom were imprisoned in the gulags. PEN had also covertly sent aid to them and their families through the channels of the PEN Emergency Fund.

I no longer remember if I called or faxed the writers in advance. (Fall, 1991 was before an active internet.) I likely made contact when I arrived. The writers welcomed me. We met in simple apartments with old holiday cards on the mantles as decorations, a paper mobile hanging from the light fixture over one dining room table I recall, strips of newspaper stacked by the toilets in lieu of tissue. The economy was spare for these writers. They hoped for change and for freedoms to come, but they were cautious. In these meetings and in other random encounters, people were curious about the United States. On the street, vendors not only sold Russian nesting dolls with the rushed visages of Boris Yeltsin, who had defied the tanks of the coup, and of Gorbachev but also stacking dolls of U.S. presidents, including one set that had George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I was asked by numbers of people, including the writers, if I could get them copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Federalist papers. The Berlin Wall had fallen and times were changing, but no one knew how that change would settle out in the Soviet Union.

Stall of street vendor selling Russian Matryoshika dolls, including stacking dolls of Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev and also U.S. Presidents.

I remember one meeting in Moscow with members of a women’s theater cooperative—actresses, director, costume designer, and playwright. Before the member who spoke English arrived, we were left to communicate with each other by hand gestures and a few common words. Finally, the sturdy, broad-chested Russian writer who spoke English entered. I asked her what she did during the coup attempt. She stood, spread out her arms and declared triumphantly, “I stopped the tanks with my breasts!” This image has stayed with me, along with her words and the determined words of her fellow thespians and writers in that apartment, women demanding as their due freedoms they hadn’t yet experienced.

Joanne and members of Russian women’s theater cooperative in Moscow apartment, 1991.

Not only in the USSR but elsewhere, old dictatorships were crumbling, in Africa and Latin America. PEN was a refuge writers often looked to before democracy and political liberalization took hold in their countries. In September 1991 at the Vienna Congress, a month after the coup attempt, the Soviet Russian Center applied and received approval to change its name to Russian PEN. The debate within PEN was when to recognize a center. It was necessary to have enough qualified writers committed to the freedoms embedded in the PEN Charter and to have an environment in which the writers could feasibly operate, at least to some extent.

As the USSR broke apart, writers gathered and petitioned for PEN centers, sometimes before the regions claimed full independence. A PEN Center of the Soviet Asian Republics, including the literatures of the five separate regions of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadzhikistan had been recognized at the Paris gathering in April 1991, but by PEN’s September 1993 Congress in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, writers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan all proposed separate centers of PEN. Russian PEN supported the disbanding of the Soviet Central Asian Center because it had not functioned, because the Soviet Union no longer existed, and because the President of the center had made public statements racially slandering others, and he refused to withdraw these. It is rare for PEN to challenge a member and withdraw membership, but the use of PEN to advocate racially intolerant and provocative positions is a rationale; PEN did so as well with certain members in the Balkans during the war there.

The Kazakhstan Center was accepted as a PEN Center at the Congress in 1993; the vote on Kyrgyzstan’s proposal was delayed until more information about the writers could be gathered, and it was agreed the situation in Turkmenistan, still governed by a dictatorship, remained too problematic for a PEN center to exist.

PEN often mirrored the global landscape. In the early 1990’s PEN added centers in Albania, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and an ex-Yugoslav Center for writers in exile from the former Yugoslavia. Also new centers formed in the Congo, Mozambique, Malawi, Kenya, Guadalajara, Palestine as well as a Chinese Writers Abroad Center, an Iranian Writers in Exile Center, and an African Writers Abroad Center. The abroad and exile centers included members living outside the regions. At the Barcelona Congress in 1992 the acceptance of a Palestinian PEN Center was unanimous, including by the Israeli PEN and represented a hope that writers in the region would engage with each other.  Also a Welsh Center and an Esperanto Center were added in the early 1990s.

PEN was growing quickly. It doubled in size in ten years, from 50 centers to more than 100 centers in 1992. Its finances, however, did not grow at the same rate, and the governing structure was essentially the same—an elected President, International Secretary and Treasurer who comprised the executive of International PEN. Staff also had hardly grown. Elizabeth Paterson, the Administrative Secretary  had to manage the increasing workload with the addition of Jane Spender as her assistant. The Writers in Prison Committee, which operated with a separate budget, in a separate room, consisted of only two researchers—Sara Whyatt ,coordinator, and  Mandy Garner and later a few interns.

During Michael Scammell’s years as Chair of WiPC and later during Thomas von Vegesack’s term, the Writers in Prison Committee focused its work on behalf of imprisoned and threatened writers, and on occasion tension arose between the Secretariat’s goal of promoting literature and comity among writers and the WiPC’s goal of protecting writers in oppressive regimes. The ultimate organizational decisions fell to the Secretariat between Congresses and  in consultation with the Assembly of Delegates which met twice a year at Congress. Because of budgetary restraints and the growing size and expense of the Congresses, PEN reduced its Congresses to only once a year, beginning in 1994.

PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee Report, September 1991 presented to the November 1991 PEN Congress in Vienna. PEN’s complete Case List for this period included 143 pages of cases of writers and journalists around the world reported kidnapped, “disappeared,” executed, having died in custody, imprisoned, banned, under house or town arrest, deported or awaiting trial.

Controversy around the narrow base of decision-making came to a confrontation over the April 1993 Congress in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The Balkan War was raging. At the Rio Congress in December 1992 the American delegate questioned the wisdom of holding the Congress in a war zone not only for reasons of safety but also for the appearance and possible “political misuse” of PEN in one corridor of the riven community and the restrictions on talking freely with the press. Others felt holding the Congress, most of which would be on a ship that would sail from Venice to Dubrovnik, would have a symbolic message of peace and also commemorate PEN’s Dubrovnik Congress 60 years earlier in 1933 when PEN exlcuded official writers of Nazi Germany from the organization. The host center assured that all centers from the region would attend. When delegates asked that the Dubrovnik Congress either be cancelled or postponed, they were told the decision had been made two years before, and there was no need for the Assembly to take a vote. Later as the war escalated, a mail vote was taken and the majority who responded voted for postponement, but the Croatian center, which had put in considerable work, wanted to hold the Congress, and  so the plans went ahead.

On April 12, a week before the PEN gathering, the Army of the Republic of Srpska launched an attack on the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia, 200 miles from Dubrovnik. Many PEN Centers chose not to send delegates, including American and German PEN. The Writers in Prison Committee in the person of Thomas also chose not to attend nor did many of the WiPC members. Because there was not a quorum, the gathering was declared not an official congress, but a meeting.

I did not attend either the Dubrovnik meeting nor the earlier Rio Congress. Before the November 1992 Congress in Rio, Thomas and International Secretary Alexander Blokh without consulting with each other asked if I would take over the Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee when Thomas finished his term in September 1993. The fact that these two individuals both came to me made me consider carefully, but I was among the younger generation of PEN members who was urging more democratic procedures for PEN. I didn’t think the Chair should be an appointive office but should have the input of the PEN members, but in 1992, PEN had no such systems in place. Alex told me that he would canvas people at the Rio Congress to see if they agreed and get back to me. I don’t know what process was used nor how widely he asked, but he and Thomas returned in agreement and urged me to accept. I agreed, though I said that when my term was up, I wanted to assure we had set in place a more democratic system for nominations and election of the WIPC Chair. And so we did and have ever since.

 

Next Installment: PEN Journey 9: Taking the reins of the Writers in Prison Committee