- 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.
Over the years I’ve used various metaphors to describe PEN International—a giant wheel with 140+ spokes that reach out into the corners of the globe. A vast orchestra with the string, woodwind, brass and percussion sections scattered across the map, directed by local conductors and the Secretariat in London.
PEN’s core is an idea, codified in its Charter, acted upon by writers around the world organized into PEN centers. These writers and centers gather intensity as they work together.
Writers in a country or region or language are empowered to work as a center of PEN by the whole body of centers—the Assembly of Delegates—which vote on a center’s membership at PEN’s annual Congresses. During the months in between, PEN centers act both individually and collectively—celebrating and presenting literature in the many cultures and languages, mobilizing on issues of freedom of expression, acting to preserve and celebrate languages and translation, in particular minority languages, discussing and debating issues of peace, addressing the situation of women writers, and assisting and protecting writers who find themselves in exile. All of this activity between the annual Congresses occurs in the PEN centers and in the work of PEN International’s standing committees and at regional conferences which convene during the year.
I take a moment here to set out this template because in the PEN Journeys I’ve been focusing in large part on PEN’s annual Congresses. Yet the heart and soul of the organization resides in its centers and the individual members, most of whom never attend a PEN International Congress.
Some centers host the meetings of PEN’s standing committees. Slovene PEN has long hosted the annual Peace Committee meeting in Bled, Slovenia (PEN Journey 14). Until recently Macedonian and Catalan PEN have alternated hosting the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee’s annual meetings either in Ohrid or Barcelona. The Women’s Committee set a new paradigm when it formed in 1991 by rotating its chair to different regions of the world and hosting its meetings there though recently because of costs, the Women’s Committee has held its meetings along with other committees, usually with the Peace Committee in Bled. As I’ve written in earlier posts (Journey 17 and 23) the Writers in Prison Committee began holding a biennial meeting in 1996, hosted by different PEN Centers. In recent years to share costs, the Writers in Prison Committee (WIPC) has teamed up with ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network) to hold its biennial meeting in different countries. The recent 2018 WIPC meeting was held aboard a docked cruise ship in the Rotterdam Harbor.
In November 2002 the fourth WIPC meeting gathered in San Miguel de Allende, hosted by the PEN Center there in the charming old colonial town 170 miles from Mexico City where the 2003 PEN Congress would convene the following year. Forty-three PEN members from 25 centers from six continents gathered at the Bellas Artes center for a three-day conference followed by a meeting of the PEN Americas Regional Conference with the Latin American PEN Centers.
At the Bellas Artes center, originally the cloister of a convent, and in the Teatro del Artes PEN members met in workshops to review sources and methods as related to the threats of terrorism and anti-terror laws to freedom of expression, to review campaign techniques, PEN’s work at the United Nations, missions, regional networks, exile and asylum issues, borderline cases and finally strategies for the future. PEN’s WIPC set out to research a report in consultation with other organizations on the effect of anti-terrorism measures worldwide on freedom of expression, a report that would be presented at the 2003 PEN Congress.
In San Miguel PEN’s WIPC launched a report and a campaign “Freedom of Expression and Impunity Campaign” with an epigraph from Helen Mack, sister of anthropologist Myrna Mack, who was murdered in 1990 on orders carried out by the Guatemalan military. Helen Mack wrote:
Through my experience as co-plaintiff in the on-going trial to resolve the murder of my sister, Myrna Mack, I have seen impunity up close, along every step of this tortuous path in search of justice. I have felt it when essential information has been denied that would determine individual criminal responsibility; when judges and witnesses have been threatened; when the lawyers for the accused military officials use the same constitutional guarantees of due process in order to obstruct judicial procedures; and when my family, my lawyers, my colleagues and I have been threatened or been victims of campaigns to discredit us. In every action that is oriented toward generating impunity, one can clearly see the hand of agents of the State who use the same judicial and security institutions to pervert, once again, the goal of reparation through judicial means as well as the right to the truth and to justice.
The Impunity report focused on Colombia, Iran, Mexico, Philippines, and Russia but PEN’s ongoing campaign targeted the issue wherever it occurred in the world.
Addressing the 2002 WIPC Conference and the Latin American Network was Brigadier General José Gallardo Rodriguez. At the Macedonian Congress earlier in the year PEN International President Homero Aridjis had reported on General Gallardo’s release. “Last February, I was invited to testify on behalf of PEN on General José Francisco Gallardo’s case, as one of three witnesses scheduled to appear before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights at a hearing in Costa Rica,” Homero said. “A few days before the hearing at which the Mexican Government was ordered to appear, he [Gallardo] was unexpectedly pardoned and released from jail, nine years after his arrest and imprisonment following the publication in the magazine Forum of an excerpt of his masters’ thesis about the need for a military ombudsman in Mexico. General Gallardo’s release was an important victory for freedom of speech and a significant advance of justice in Mexico. PEN Centers worldwide who defended Gallardo’s cause for eight years now celebrate the liberation of a Mexican Dreyfus.”
General Gallardo thanked International PEN for its invaluable support for having campaigned on his behalf, and he assured that he would continue to press for the creation of a military ombudsman.
The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the Organization of American States also participated on a panel on Corruption and the Writer, focusing on the problem of impunity, its link to corruption, its effect on free speech and the role of the writer in combating these problems.
Noting the increasing workload of the WIPC and the fact that the staff and budget had not grown at the same rate, several members suggested a Steering Committee of five individuals/centers be formed to assist the WIPC headquarters and work directly with committee chair Eugene Schoulgin and the WiPC staff led by Sara Whyatt. This group would formulate a strategy for the next three years, help define priorities and address the resources needed to achieve the goals. The proposal was accepted, and Isobel Harry (Canadian PEN), Archana Singh Karki (Nepal PEN), Jens Lohmann (Danish PEN), Lucy Popescu (English PEN) and Larry Siems (American PEN) formed the Planning Group. Their goal was to produce with the staff a plan that would be vetted by all WiPC members and approved at the Mexico Congress.
At the same time PEN International as a whole was undergoing a major strategic planning process. As the century turned, PEN International was in the midst of restructuring itself both to develop a more democratic governance system and also to address its rapid growth and funding challenges. In this process American PEN was an important actor, along with the Scandinavian and Japanese centers. American PEN, located in New York, was the largest of PEN’s centers and contributed more dues than any other center, but it had not hosted an International Congress since 1986 and did not host any of the international conferences or committee meetings. It had launched a World Voices Festival after 9/11 to bring international writers to the U.S. but this was an American PEN, not an International PEN, activity. However, with the assistance of two former American PEN presidents—Edmund (Mike) Keeley and Michael Scammell and American PEN Executive Director Michael Roberts and former PEN USA West President and International PEN Board member Eric Lax, the American contingent stepped up to raise funds from American foundations, including the Mellon Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation to assist International PEN in a major strategic planning initiative. This consisted of several preliminary conferences in London and a final gathering at the Rockefeller estate in Bellagio, Italy.
The Americans, particularly Mike Roberts, PEN America’s Executive Director, understood that American PEN was only as strong as the whole body of PEN which at the moment had a very small hub or Secretariat for a very large wheel of 140 spokes. The core needed strengthening both structurally and financially. International Secretary Terry Carlbom, International PEN President Homero Aridjis, Deputy Vice Chair of the Board Carles Torner and the whole Board of PEN International, along with members of the board of the PEN International Foundation, Standing Committee Chairs, and several Vice Presidents agreed and committed to the strategic planning process.
During the last decades PEN had depended on funds from its centers and from UNESCO and from SIDA, the Swedish Development Association and a few other funders, but the world was changing and with it the sources of funding. U.N. organizations like UNESCO were under siege. Government funding for European and East European cultural organizations was evaporating; the same was true for other PEN centers. The challenge for PEN was structural and financial. No one knew what the 21st century would bring, but most everyone understood it would not be the same.
Next Installment: Bellagio: Looking Forward—PEN for the 21st Century
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.
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.”
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