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.
I was having lunch with my husband at a Georgetown restaurant in Washington, DC on a Saturday in May, 2004. I was due to fly out the next day for Barcelona to attend International PEN Writers in Prison Committee’s 5th biennial conference, part of a larger Cultural Forum Barcelona 2004. My husband and I were talking about our sons—the oldest was getting a PhD in mathematics and was also training for the 2004 Olympics as a wrestler, hoping to make the British team. (He had dual citizenship.) The younger, recently graduated with an advanced degree in International Relations, had just deployed to Iraq as a Marine 2nd Lieutenant and was heading into a region where the war was over but the insurgency had begun. It was an intense time for our family, yet as parents there was not much we could do except to be there, cheering for our oldest at his competitions and writing letters and sending packages and prayers for our youngest. It was a time when as parents we realized our children had grown beyond us and were taking the world on their own terms.
I was planning to be away for the week in Barcelona where PEN members from around the world were gathering for the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) and Exile Network meetings. Carles Torner, PEN International board member, chair of PEN’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee and former President of Catalan PEN, had helped arrange International PEN’s participation and funding as part of the Universal Forum of Cultures—Barcelona 2004. This would be the largest WiPC conference to date with delegates from every continent and multiple speakers and side events.
Carles, a poet, fluent in PEN’s three official languages English, French and Spanish, was one of the highly respected, organized and talented PEN members. He’d also been involved in the years’ long reformation of PEN International. As members looked to who could be a strong replacement for the current International Secretary when Terry Carlbom’s term ended in a few months, there was widespread enthusiasm for Carles to stand for the office. I was among the enthusiasts.
My phone rang at that Saturday lunch. International PEN Board member Eric Lax, already in Barcelona for meetings, said he had news and a question; he told me he was calling on behalf of others as well. The news: the Catalan government had also recognized Carles’ talents and had offered him a position as Director of Literature and Humanities Division at Institut Ramon Llull to promote Catalan literature abroad. A father of three, Carles had accepted this paid position which meant he couldn’t stand for PEN International Secretary, an unpaid position. He wouldn’t have the time for both, and there would be conflicts of interest.
Eric asked if I would allow myself to be nominated. A number of members and centers, including the two American centers, were asking, he said. PEN’s Congress where the election would take place was only a few months away in September and nominations were due soon. I was flattered but said no for a number of reasons. Eric asked that I not answer yet, just come to Barcelona, talk with people and let them talk with me.
The International Secretary who worked with the Board and President to run International PEN was not a position I aspired to, but I agreed to come to Barcelona with an open mind. I’d worked with PEN in various roles, including as Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, for over 20 years. I’d been both inside and outside the reform process that was going on. I understood, at least in part, what PEN was aiming towards and what it would take for this sprawling organization to operate competitively among nongovernmental organizations in the 21st century. I’d sat on boards of several global nonprofit organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Save the Children and the International Crisis Group.
In Barcelona delegates from a number of PEN centers urged me to stand for the office. I asked whether they thought this was the time for an American to take on this leadership role given the controversy over US engagements. “We don’t think of you as American,” some said, perhaps because I’d also lived in Europe for six years during my work with PEN.
I kept my own personal life quiet as I always did, but I did share with Carles, who was urging me to stand, that I had a son in the Marines in Iraq and was committed to him. I didn’t want to get involved in political controversies over the war. “Your focus has always been on freedom of expression,” Carles reminded me. PEN was not an anti-war organization; its focus was on protecting freedom of expression for writers to agree or disagree on issues, not to take political positions unless relating to abuses of human rights.
Mike Roberts, PEN American Center’s Executive Director, was among those encouraging me to stand for the office. He said American PEN would support me however they could with help and advice. We both understood that the organizational models of many American nonprofit organizations could benefit PEN, including the need to have a paid executive director. There was much to be said for the culture of the volunteer which PEN operated in, but given how complex and widespread PEN’s work had grown, it was going to be more and more difficult to compete for funding if there was not a paid professional executive director in the international office in addition to the talented administrative staff and Board of PEN. Certain funders were already telling us as much. Case in point was that Carles, an experienced literary organizer with a family to support, simply could not afford to take on such a demanding position gratis. Eugene Schoulgin, chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, also encouraged me. I left Barcelona thinking deeply about standing for this position which would require significant time and travel.
That question absorbs many of my personal memories about the Barcelona conference. I remember the impressive venue and the conversations with friends and colleagues and the many presentations, including by Anna Politkovskaya and an opening talk by Salman Rushdie, the new President of American PEN who called for the US government to open a wider dialogue with the world.
Fortunately, I have papers from the 2004 Writers in Prison Committee meetings. We met over five days and also joined public discussions on literature and memory and the responsibility of writers during times of war. The WiPC continued its focus on issues of impunity and the effect of anti-terror legislation on free expression as documented in PEN International’s two reports issued the previous year.
Joan Smith of English PEN reported that anti-terror legislation was having an impact with democratic countries reacting out of fear to the events of September 11 and either tightening existing legislation or implementing new legislation. Countries such as Cuba were taking advantage for as attention deflected from them, they were cracking down on more dissidents. Countries such as Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries were using the war against terrorism to win support from the US and western Europe.
Müge Sökmen of Turkish PEN spoke of the danger of silencing dissident voices, a move that would lead to an increase in state terrorism. Since the 9/11 attacks in the US there had been a 20% increase in the number of imprisoned writers. The lifting of Article 8 of the Turkish Anti-Terror Law was welcomed but was in the context of Turkey’s bid for acceptance into the European Union.
Nigerian writer and journalist Kunle Ajibade, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1995 for “conspiring to overthrow the government,” had been freed in 1998 in part because of PEN’s work. But he told the group, “Many of us have been asking, is this what we went to jail for? What has all our struggle come to? A mere clearing of the path for another set of murderers and looters? Right now, a cloud of despair hangs over us.”
Ali Lmrabet, Moroccan journalist, who had been sentenced to three years for insulting the King, also spoke. However, Cheikh Kone, a journalist from the Ivory Coast who’d fled to Australia, had been denied a visa to Spain and so an empty chair was placed at the speaker’s table. Kone had been detained since 2001 in a refugee camp in Australia and was finally released in July 2003 after PEN’s campaign, but the Australian government had invoiced him for $89,000 for the cost of his detention.
Aaron Berhane, an Eritrean journalist who fled to Canada in 2002 reported his situation and the help International PEN’s WiPC and Canadian PEN had given through the Writers in Exile Network. The Network, started in 1994, was currently chaired by PEN Canada and included PEN centers in Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, England, USA West, and Germany and had helped exiles from Cuba, Sierra Leone and other countries.
A panel with representatives from OSCE, UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Commission, the International Publishers Association (IPA), and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) gathered with PEN to explore cooperation and joint work around issues of freedom of the media, including campaigns on individual cases and pressure on countries to change their laws to conform to democratic standards.
Ambeyi Ligabo, Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in the office of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights said he believed the two new threats to freedom and liberty were terrorism and anti-terrorism legislation. He was concerned that countries such as Denmark which professed to be a beacon of democracy were actually denying liberties to their citizens. He was concerned that legislation introduced in some African countries had undermined the progress human rights campaigners had achieved, and he urged collaborative efforts in fighting new threats to free expression.
The WiPC Steering Committee, which consisted of representatives from ten PEN centers, presented its report with suggestions for WiPC headquarters and for the PEN centers on how to expand PEN’s work, its outreach, its funding and its cooperation. A three-year plan was adopted.
The final work of the WIPC conference was an agreement on a campaign calendar for 2004-2005 with an over-arching theme on the issue of Freedom of Expression and Anti-Terrorism.
In accepting PEN’s WiPC statement on freedom of expression from the conference whose theme was “The Value of the Word,” Catalonia’s Minister of Culture declared: “The word is an inspiration for the imagination, a means for peace and a vehicle for freedom. Literature and the word must always be above conflict. PEN has been in the forefront in the fight to secure the value of the word. The value of the word is a guarantee for a better world and more necessary than ever.”
It was agreed the next WiPC Conference would be held in Istanbul in 2006, hosted by Turkish PEN.
Before I left Barcelona, I went to visit the Gaudi Cathedral (La Sagrada Familia) which I’d first seen at PEN’s 1992 Barcelona Congress where I’d been so impressed by its majesty and complexity, I wanted to return. Architect Antoni Gaudi had originally planned a cathedral with 18 Gothic spires, but he got hit and killed by a trolley before his elaborate design was realized. Over 100 years later, the cathedral was still unfinished. Gaudi had applied for a construction permit in 1885 but no one ever answered. (It took the city 137 years before a building permit was finally issued in 2019, along with a $5.2 million fee.)
Gaudi defined architecture as the “ordering of light” so that the sun shined differently on the cathedral stones at each moment of the day, producing the myriad effects of light. In the intervening years others had worked to complete Gaudi’s design, but the cathedral remained unfinished. It was nonetheless a magnificent architectural achievement, a harmony or even disharmony of hundreds/thousands of artisans over the century who created this living work of art. I stood in an open space and stared up at the sky.
Next installment: PEN Journey 31: Tromso, Norway: Northern Lights