Arriving in Copenhagen in early September 2006, I walked along the waterfront, dodged bicycles and shared coffee and conversation with longtime colleague Niels Barfoed, former President of Danish PEN who had briefly succeeded me as Writers in Prison Chair and was an eminent Danish journalist and writer. We met at the new waterfront extension of the Royal Danish Library, dubbed the Black Diamond because of its imposing black granite cladding and irregular angles. Niels would be moderating a public meeting on Freedom of Expression in the Arab World.
PEN International’s base was broadening in the Middle East and in Africa, both regions where active centers for writers were fragile, but potentially important havens. Danish PEN was hosting a conference with a dozen writers from the Arab-speaking world, including representatives from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Palestinian PEN, Tunisia, Lebanon and invited writers from Iraq and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), along with Danish and Norwegian PEN members and International PEN represented by Centers Coordinator Peter Firkin and myself.
The Copenhagen conference had been initiated in part as a response to the Danish cartoons controversy earlier in the year and also as an opportunity to develop PEN’s work and presence in the Middle East. PEN had a few centers in the region and interest from writers in Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Bahrain to form additional PEN centers and a desire to revive PEN Lebanon. Developing PEN centers in these areas was challenging given the politics and conflicts on the ground.
The Copenhagen meetings explored common fields of interest among Western and Arab writers, networking among Arab writers and ways in which PEN could assist. Women writers in the Arab world had particular challenges, a discussion led by Egyptian PEN President Ekbal Baraka. Ekbal later became Chair of PEN International’s Women Writers Committee. Algerian PEN and International PEN board member Mohamed Magani offered to host a subsequent meeting in Algiers the following fall, along with a conference on translation. A public event in the evening showcased the work of the visiting writers.
On the final day the public conference on Freedom of Expression in the Arab World moderated by Niels included discussions on Networking in the Cause for Freedom of Media and Opinion and featured renowned Tunisian journalist and human rights campaigner Sihem Bensedrine. A discussion on Access to Information: Implications to Development was addressed by Jordanian journalist Daoud Kuttab and Danish columnist and Danish PEN President Anders Jerichow. Lebanese Writer Elias Khoury and Egyptian journalist and commentator Mona Eltahawy concluded the conference in a discussion on Publication and Powerplay in the Middle East.
The days together resulted in a loose network of these and other Arab writers and eventually led to the opening of additional PEN centers and work in the Middle East. PEN currently has Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestinian centers as well as the Egyptian, Algerian and Moroccan Centers.
A few weeks after the Copenhagen conference, my phone rang early on Saturday morning October 7, 2006 at my home in Washington, DC. Sara Whyatt, PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee Director, was on the line. She called to tell me that Anna Politkovskaya, Russian journalist, PEN member who’d visited PEN Congresses and meetings, who’d worked for years reporting on Chechnya—had been assassinated. The report was that Anna had been shot that morning in the elevator of her apartment building in Moscow.
For seven years Anna had been one of the few reporting on the war in Chechnya despite intimidation and violence. She had been arrested by the Russian military and suffered a mock execution; she’d been poisoned while flying from Moscow to the Beslan school hostage crisis and had to turn back to get medical treatment. She had survived many dangerous encounters. But now she had been killed.
The killing of Anna Politkovskaya swept through the news media around the world as well as through the PEN world. We were stunned and deeply saddened and then began our protests and calls for investigation, along with human rights organizations worldwide. PEN honored Anna at its subsequent Congress and meetings and annually held an Anna Politkovskaya lecture on the anniversary of her death to commemorate her fortitude and inspiration.
The work in PEN was a helix of hope and pain and sorrow and hope again.
At the end of November Senegalese PEN hosted a meeting with African centers engaged with the planning of PEN’s 73rd Congress to be held in 2007 in Dakar. The meeting included representatives from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Guinea, Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. It was standard practice for International PEN to visit the site of an upcoming Congress to review logistics and budgets and programs in advance, to assist and assure the Congress ran smoothly. The 73rd Congress in Dakar would be only the second time a PEN Center in Africa had hosted a World Congress. In addition to reviewing the facilities at the Meridien hotel by the ocean, the delegation met with the Minister at the Ministry of Culture and Classified Historical Heritage which was supporting the Congress.
At that meeting and throughout the Congress to come, I offered the sentiment I had drafted and memorized in French and still endorse:
“Il n’y a que quelques autres pays dans le monde ou l’ecrivain est plus honore qu’au Senegal.
“There are few countries in the world where the writer is more honored than in Senegal.”
Because Senegal’s founding President Leopold Senghor had been a poet and writer of global distinction, also a Vice President of International PEN, Senegal celebrated literature. “As a national leader, Leopold Senghor left a rich heritage and respect for African culture and writing which we hope to honor by International PEN’s upcoming Congress in Dakar,” I told the Minister.
Senegalese PEN hosted our working meetings at its headquarters where the focus was also on regional development. International PEN’s Executive Director Caroline McCormick and Program Officer Karen Efford led a “mapping” or gathering of information with each center on its activities and membership and needs in order to determine how PEN International could assist, especially with fundraising. The Centers also participated in the discussions on the programs and facilities for the July 2007 Congress.
After hours of meetings, we all went to dinner together at the local restaurant. I don’t remember the food, except there were generous plates family style. I remember the atmosphere—the bright blues and reds and yellows in the restaurant, the music, and the laughter after a long day concentrating on budgets, logistics, and translations. The planning meetings were work but also fun with friendships among the writers from the PAN Africa Network with whom I had met on numerous occasions over the past few years.
In my three years as International Secretary, I was impressed by the care of all the host centers for Congresses. The Congress in Senegal would be my last as an officer of International PEN, except for the privilege of attending as a Vice President in the years to come. The operational work and responsibility would be passed on. I had determined not to stand for a second term. I had other responsibilities that had been put on hold for three years, and I had learned it was better to leave a position when everyone wanted you to stay, than to stay too long when people were waiting for you to leave. I needed to return to being a writer and to my family and to the other organizational work I did. So Senegal would be a farewell of sorts for me. It would prove to be a grand occasion, but I am getting ahead of myself…
“Does Freedom of Expression Have a Limit?” “Hospitality without Borders.”—those two panels I participated in and moderated at the 2006 Gothenburg Book Fair, Scandinavia’s largest. The International Publishers Association (IPA) and International PEN had been collaborators in selecting the Fair’s theme of Freedom of Expression that year. The Book Fair reflected the Freedom of Expression theme in many of its over 2000 events for the 100,000 visitors. PEN and IPA, along with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), had an exhibit with a stage where events and seminars took place.
For me, it was a special pleasure to attend the Fair in Sweden where my mentor and predecessor as Writers in Prison Chair Thomas von Vegesack was a respected and now retired publisher. Thomas attended the Book Fair. I noted in my remarks that it was from Thomas I’d learned the difference between having principles and simply talking about principles. Thomas didn’t like “principles,” which meant he didn’t like paradigms of abstractions. Our role—PEN’s role—was pragmatic. It was to help writers in trouble, to be in touch with them and their families so the isolation of imprisonment was broken, to give them support and most of all to figure out where the access was within our PEN centers and within our larger freedom of expression community to pressure governments to spring open the prison doors and also to get protection for writers under death threats. (It was two weeks after the Gothenburg Book Fair that Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated.)
The world had changed since the days Thomas and I had been chair of WiPC. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s we had all been hopeful that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the totalitarian governments would ease the situation for writers worldwide, but there were now as many writers as ever under threat. PEN’s casebook listed over 1000. There were more non-state actors. There was also a level of global communication that was only budding in 1993 when Thomas handed over the reins to me. There were new bad guys, and many of the good guys were not as good as they once were. We were in a world where freedom of expression was no longer accepted as an unqualified value.
Yet “the world is still changed by ideas and books, and writers who write them are still the main vehicle for ideas,” I concluded my opening talk.
On the panel “Does Freedom of Expression Have a Limit?” we had no easy answer. We asked if there was a personal and public responsibility to tell the truth, or at least not to lie. And who determined a lie? The responsibility of the writer was to try to find and tell the truth even if truth seemed relative at times. The question arose, who sets the limits on freedom of expression? The State? Society at large? What were those limits and penalties and were they set by fear of attack or violence or censorship?
It was generally agreed that calls for violence such as the killing of another human being set a limit on freedom of expression, especially when this call came from someone who had the power of the state to exercise the threat. An example was the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. The limit should not be on Rushdie but on the Ayatollah and the state that issued the fatwa calling for his death.
PEN’s Charter contained the elements of the dialectic upon which free societies were based, both the respect for other cultures in an effort to dispel race, class and national hatreds and also a commitment to protect the free and unhampered transmission of thought and ideas.
“And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends,” the PEN Charter concluded.
Democracies flourish only when an exchange of competing, even contradictory, ideas can occur in a battle of ideas, the panel concluded.
The panel “Hospitality Without Borders,” co-sponsored by ICORN, featured Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist who a month later won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and Moris Farhi, also Turkish but long resident in the UK and member of English PEN. Moris had followed me as Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee after Niels Barfoed’s brief tenure.
The previous year, Orhan had faced charges of “insulting the Turkish Army and Turkishness” because of his statement in a Swiss newspaper regarding the Armenian genocide and massacre of a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds in Anatolia in 1919. On the panel Orhan noted how valuable it was for a persecuted writer in his home to know about the possibility of finding refuge in a safe city, even if he didn’t take advantage or was unable to leave his present situation at the time.
Moris, who’d also chaired English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, talked about the challenges facing the host city and the community receiving a guest writer. He focused on how to make sure the writer didn’t just disappear from the literary community and the need to focus on translation and publishing strategies for the writer. It was important to help the writer establish new foundations and relationships in a new city.
I recalled the situation of Bangladeshi novelist Taslima Nasreen who had faced death threats and was given asylum in Sweden and awarded the Tucholsky prize. Taslima Nasreen’s was one of the more dramatic cases in my PEN history as she was whisked out of Dhaka in the dark of night and brought to Stockholm by Swedish PEN. That had turned out to be just one stop on a difficult journey into exile.
At the end of 2006, PEN Guadalajara, San Miguel PEN and the Ibero-American Foundation of PEN established a presence for the first time at the 20th Guadalajara Book Fair. The Guadalajara Book Fair was considered the most important publishing event in the Spanish-speaking world, hosting 450,000 visitors and 15,000 book professionals from over 40 countries. Officials of the Guadalajara Book Fair were eager to have a relationship with PEN in order to collaborate and “create and guarantee space in which literature of different languages cohabit supporting the freedom of opinion with words as vehicle of understanding between different nations and cultures,” according to the Coordinator of the Festival events.
International PEN aspired to have a more robust presence at book fairs globally, but did not yet have the budget or staff. However International PEN supported centers’ activities at book fairs such as at Frankfurt, Gothenburg, and now Guadalajara. I visited the Guadalajara Book Fair as part of this initiative.
PEN Guadalajara and San Miguel and the Ibero-American Foundation of PEN hosted a stand at the Book Fair and offered readings and presentations of books and displayed hundreds of books from PEN members and PEN centers around the globe. On the Book Fair’s program two eminent PEN members, Vice President Nadine Gordimer and former PEN International President Mario Vargas Llosa were featured. Nadine Gordimer participated in a Literary Salon and later had dinner with PEN members. I have no notes from that dinner, but I have fond memories of the outside restaurant in the evening and the hospitality of Guadalajara and San Miguel PEN and the graciousness of Nadine Gordimer.
Martha Cerda, President of Guadalajara PEN, PEN Vice President Lucina Kathmann of San Miguel PEN and I met with Book Fair officials and assured that PEN would have a presence and partnership with the Guadalajara Book Fair in the years to come through its Latin American centers.
The visit to Guadalajara also offered the opportunity to meet with members from several Latin American PEN centers in a preliminary focus on the region and on the “mapping” International PEN would undertake of resources, programs and needs of the Latin American PEN centers before the 2008 Congress in the region.
At the end of 2006 PEN’s long time staff member Jane Spender retired. Jane had worked with Peter Day on the PEN International Magazine as an editor; she’d been administrative assistant to the Administrative Secretary Elizabeth Paterson and then became the Administrative Director when Elisabeth retired. She had taken on the role of International PEN Program Director when PEN hired an Executive Director. We all relied on Jane’s intelligence, good humor and patience. Jane and I had spent hours—too many hours we both agreed—toiling over just the right word on several documents. I was especially going to miss working with Jane; I have kept the friendship to this day. To celebrate the past and send her off with good wishes for the future, we surprised her by giving her a bicycle which I rode across the office and presented to her. Friends from International PEN and English PEN all gathered in PEN’s new offices on High Holborn. PEN is about people, and Jane was one of the stalwart ones.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 43: Turkey and China—One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward
PEN’s work attests to the power of the individual and also to a particular vision of globalization that advocates the global right to free expression, a right that supersedes national restrictions.
In February 2005 Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most noted writers, received threats and had his books burned by nationalist groups objecting to comments he made to a Swiss magazine while he was abroad. He referred to an Armenian “genocide.” While the Armenian community rallied to defend him, their support heightened certain nationalists’ protest in Turkey. Orhan wasn’t in Turkey at the time and hoped the turmoil would die down, but a government official in southern Turkey ordered the seizing of his books from local libraries so that they could be destroyed; it turned out later that there were none of his books in those libraries.
At Pamuk’s request International PEN kept quiet publicly at first. In mid-April Sara Whyatt, International PEN’s Director of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) and I had lunch with Orhan in London to discuss how PEN could help if the threat escalated. I was International Secretary of PEN at the time. We agreed that publicity at this stage could exacerbate the situation; however, we explained that PEN centers could work behind the scenes by direct contacts with their governments, and PEN would be prepared to step into public action should the need arise.
Pamuk intended to stay outside Turkey until late April/early May, but then he would be returning home to Istanbul. Sara stayed in touch with him and shared a plan for action if the threats resumed on his return. Meanwhile we told him PEN would continue to lobby for a change in the Turkish Penal Code that allowed the charges. Key PEN centers, who had good relations with their own governments, and centers from countries with influence in Turkey would make approaches. London’s WiPC would make similar approaches to Turkish officials in Ankara and also through mechanisms at the United Nations, OSCE, and the European Union (EU). At the time Turkey was hoping to become a member of the EU and was attempting to align its judiciary codes with those required by the EU. PEN also worked with the International Publishers Association .
PEN prepared a statement on the situation in Turkey from early 2005 and kept it updated with news and recommended actions for the over dozen PEN centers ready to respond on this case. There was also press guidance should the centers receive queries. Meanwhile PEN continued to work on the other cases of over 70 writers and intellectuals charged or in prison in Turkey, which had long been a country with a revolving door of writers harassed, detained, attacked and sent to prison.
On April 1, 2005 World Peace Day the Turkish press reported:
The investigation against author Orhan Pamuk due to this statement saying, ‘One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed’ [in Turkey] has ended with a case in which he is accused of violating article 301 of the new Penal Code (same as famous article 159 in the former one) “Insulting Turkish nationality” and with the demand of being imprisoned between six months and three years. The first hearing will take place at Istanbul Sisli No. 2 First Instant Criminal Court on December 16, 2005.
The Public Prosecutor claimed that Pamuk’s remarks in Switzerland’s Das Magazin were an infringement of Article 301/1 of the Turkish Penal Code which states that “the public denigration of Turkish identity” is a crime and that those found guilty should be given sentences ranging from 6-36 months.
With threats renewed by the Public Prosecutor and a lawsuit filed against Pamuk that could result in a three-year prison term, Orhan finally gave PEN the green light to launch its campaign. PEN centers mobilized globally, including in Turkey.
“It is a disturbing development when an official of the government brings criminal charges against a writer for a statement made in another country, a country where freedom of expression is allowed and protected by law,” I noted at the time.
Pamuk’s hearing in December, 2005 was approximately ten years after renowned Turkish writer Yaşar Kemal had been called to trial on similar charges in January 1995. Pamuk told a colleague he would underline two things in his statement:
1. What I said is not an insult, but the truth.
2. What if I were wrong? Right or wrong, do not people have the right to express their ideas peacefully in this Turkey?
At the judicial hearing, PEN members came to stand witness to the proceedings, including WiPC Chair Karin Clark, Turkish PEN President Vecdi Sayar, and International PEN board member and former WiPC Chair Eugene Schoulgin. Armored police officers escorted Orhan as protesters hurled a barrage of eggs and jumped on the car, punching the windshield.
PEN’s observers reported at the time: “The scenes around the first appearance of Orhan Pamuk before Sisli No. 2 Court of First Instance on 16 December 2005 at 11:00 were marked by constant shouting and scuffling turning ugly and violent at times. As those attending the proceedings left the court, eggs were hurled along with insults from the nationalists and fascists among the crowd lining the pavement across the street. This in full sight of the national and international media which had turned out in full…
“The courtroom was packed with well over 70 people—among them famous Turkish writers such as Yaşar Kemal and Arif Damar, and representatives of the European Parliament, several diplomats, members of Turkish and international freedom of speech organizations. The aggression and heckling inside and outside the court did not abate…”
The session ended after an hour and 15 minutes with an adjournment because the Ministry of Justice said that it needed more time to decide on the legal basis of the trial.
Hearing the news of postponement, International PEN President Jiří Gruša declared, “It is unbelievable that Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s best known and eminent authors, is in this situation. What it indicates is a complete disregard for the right to freedom of expression not only for Pamuk, but also for the Turkish populace as a whole. This decision bodes ill for other writers who are being tried under similar laws.”
He added, “PEN demands that the trials against all writers, publishers and journalists be halted and that the laws under which they are being tried be removed from the Penal Code. We also call on the Turkish authorities to put a definitive end to the penalization of those who exercise their right to freedom of expression.”
At the time there were 14 other writers, publishers and journalists on trial under the newly revised “insult” law for criticizing the Turkish state and its officials. These included Ragip Zarakolu, publisher of books by Armenian authors and Hrant Dink, editor of an Armenian language newspaper, who was assassinated two years later.
For Pamuk the charges were dropped in January 2006, though on a technicality rather than on legal grounds protecting freedom of expression. The widespread opposition to Pamuk’s prosecution by PEN and other organizations succeeded, but as Turkish PEN President Vecdi Sayar noted in The New York Times: “There are many people abroad who fail to see beyond Orhan Pamuk’s trial. Saving a writer like Orhan Pamuk from prosecution may stand as a symbolic example on its own. But it is not an overall resolution for other intellectuals and writers that still face similar charges in Turkey.”
In March 2006 Orhan was the featured guest at PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee’s biennial conference held in Istanbul, hosted by Turkish PEN.
On October 12, 2006 Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It could be said that the case of Orhan Pamuk signaled a long ride to the end of Turkey’s potential membership in the EU. In September 2006 the European Parliament called for the abolition of laws such as Article 301 “which threaten Europe’s free speech norms.” In 2008, the law was reformed, but according to the reform, it remained a crime to explicitly insult the “Turkish nation” rather than “Turkishness,” and in order to open a court case based on Article 301, a prosecutor was required to have approval of the Justice Minister; a maximum punishment was reduced to two years in jail. In November 2016 the members of the European Parliament voted to suspend negotiations with Turkey over human rights and rule of law concerns. In February 2019 the European Union Parliament committee voted to suspend accession talks with Turkey.
Turkey continues to be one of the most problematic countries for writers, especially on certain topics. While Turkey’s Penal Code relaxed for a while, allowing more space and freedom for writers, in the last years, the code and its execution has grown more onerous than ever.
In that spring of 2005, I attended an event celebrating Press Freedom Day (May 3), hosted by Italian PEN in Venice. There I shared testimonials from writers on whose behalf PEN had worked. I share these again here:
** Cuban journalist and poet Jorge Olivera Castillo was conditionally released from prison in December 2004 after serving 20 months of an 18-year sentence. He wrote:
Your solidarity has been a light in the darkness. Thank you for having elected me as an Honorary Member…[I send] to all of you my gratitude for your messages of support and your unflagging concern.
** Nkwazi Mhango, Tanzanian journalist in exile, wrote:
Believe it or not tears are gushing as I am writing this message. No way in whatsoever manner my family and I can reciprocate your love and commitment to our plight. THANKS AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN MORE.
** On a sadder note the following was received from Tunisian internet writer Zouhair Yahyaoui, who died suddenly in March 2005 from a heart attack after he’d been released from prison:
Your email gave me once again a lot of hope for a better future in my country at a time when the dictatorship uses all illegal and barbaric means to make us give up and abandon all forms of protest…The fact that I continue to struggle to obtain our right to freedom of expression, here in Tunisia, is thanks to support of members of International PEN and other international organizations. Thank you again to you, to the Writers in Prison committee of International PEN and to all the PEN clubs all over the world who have supported me enormously during my imprisonment and who continue to do so.
** And from Chinese writer Jiang Qisheng:
… I am not a remarkable person. I am just an ordinary guy who did something extraordinary because it was the right thing to do…If my own case has any special significance it is only that it forces people to face a highly embarrassing fact—the fact that even now, in the dawn of the 21st century, a Chinese citizen can be imprisoned for what he says.
** I ended with a passage from the book This Prison Where I Live, the collection of prison writings drawn together by International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. In the afterword Malawian poet Jack Mapanje, who himself was in prison during the autocratic rule in his country, tells how bits of news managed to get smuggled into him in his concrete cell filled with spiders and cockroaches, scorpions and bats and bat droppings.
I found the note, unusually fat…I found a bulletin of typed world news and two poems by Brecht…Pat also enclosed two honorary membership cards from International PEN’s English and American centers, issued in London and New York respectively. They each bore my name. I had been made a member of PEN. Well, well, well!…
Then there was a cutting from Britain’s Guardian newspaper. Lord Almighty! A picture of Ronald Harwood, Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser, and other members of English PEN reading from my book of poems in protest at the Malawi High Commission in London! It must sure have an effect, I thought. Ten thousand miles away, among the cockroaches of the prison where I lived I felt utterly humbled. Shattered. Such generosity, such warmth I surely did not deserve. All for one slim volume of poems? Why hadn’t I written more poems? I was dumbstruck. Despair vanquished. ‘I am belonged,’ I heard myself whisper.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 36: Bled: The Tower of Babel—Part One
PEN has always been about building bridges, finding the byways of fellowship among writers whose currency is language and imagination and whose hope is that even with radically different histories and backgrounds, writers might find a way to sit down across a table from each other and share stories and listen to each other and thereby have a beneficent influence on the way they and their societies see themselves and others.
It is an idealistic goal that has been battered in PEN’s hundred year history, and yet the organization continues; the dialogues continue, and writers from over 100 countries continue to meet and talk, even from countries whose governments have not found peace in decades. There have been moments of seeing that optimism realized, at least for a time, and also seeing it smashed.
The next section of these PEN Journeys covering the years 2004 (PEN Journey 33) through 2007 (August) will focus on my years as International Secretary of PEN International. I will travel through events chronologically, the number of events increasing considerably as the role demanded. I will try to knit these together as we continually try to do as an organization.
In January, 2005 we held our first board meeting of the year in Vienna where PEN President Jiří Gruša had recently taken up the position as Director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna which hosted us. The formal board meeting itself took place in the basement of the hotel restaurant where we were staying. Around the table in the cozy space where we sat on chairs and on a long booth was PEN’s diverse board from Algeria, Colombia, France, USA, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Croatia, Australia, Norway and Japan. The search for an executive director, the new financial and employment systems going into place in the office, an upcoming meeting in Stavanger, Norway with the old Cities of Asylum Network, and an upcoming meeting in Diyarbakir, Turkey with Kurdish and Turkish PEN—all populated the agenda as did the omnipresent discussions on fundraising.
For me, the imminent departure of my Marine son from the combat zone in Iraq hovered in the corner of my mind. We were staying at a pension hotel with small rooms—single bed, dresser and nightstand; I could almost touch the walls on both sides. Outside it was snowing. I’d come to Vienna unprepared for the snow and had bought at a sale a large puffy yellow coat that now draped across the bed for warmth. At night in the dark as I fell asleep, I thought about my son and one night dreamed a desperate dream. Then the phone rang; it was 1:30 in the morning. My husband’s voice woke me. “Wheels are up!” he declared. “They are on their way home!” I still remember the moment, lying there in the dark, snow glistening in the light through the small window and feeling as though the walls had suddenly expanded and a weight lifted that I hadn’t been fully aware I was carrying. The memory…the snow, the Cathedral we passed each day in the square and at dusk in the evening, the puffy yellow coat…
I was wearing that same coat as snow fell later that month in Washington, DC the day my son finally pulled into our driveway. I was sitting on the front porch swing in the snow waiting for him, thinking about the hotel room in the dark, the restaurant basement where we helped craft a conference for writers from the hostile parties in Turkey and another to find sanctuary for writers fleeing oppression—all these memories are wrapped together in a moment of return and of the spirit lifting and life opening a corridor to walk down.
The next meeting I attended that winter on February 15, 2005 celebrated the 80-year anniversary of Czech PEN. In Prague Jiří and I toasted the endurance of his PEN Center which had been founded by Karel Čapek and 37 Czech writers on that day in 1925. Czech PEN had survived the Second World War, the Cold War, the Soviet occupation and finally the liberation. Former prisoner, playwright and PEN member Václav Havel had become President of the country and his good friend and also prisoner Jiří Gruša was now President of International PEN. Under the auspices of the Minister of Culture, we met with Havel and playwright Tom Stoppard, himself Czech, and Jiří Stránský, President of Czech PEN at the Louvre Café where the original PEN gathering had taken place. Later, the Mayor of Prague hosted a reception with Czech PEN members in the Old Town Hall where he opened an exhibition celebrating “Eighty Years of the Czech PEN Club.”
The following week Writers in Prison Director (WIPC) Sara Whyatt and I traveled to the city of Stavanger, Norway which sat on the sea with a harbor and ships at dock. The Stavanger meeting brought together PEN and members of the now disbanded International Parliament of Writers, an organization founded after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The Parliament of Writers had developed a program to house writers in cities of asylum, but the Parliament of Writers no longer functioned. Many of the cities, however, still wanted to continue their hospitality for writers at risk. Stavanger itself hosted writers, including poet and novelist Chenjerai Hove, who’d been president of Zimbabwe PEN until he’d had to flee the government of Robert Mugabe. Hove was a fellow at the House of Culture in Stavanger until he passed away in 2015.
Helge Lunde, director of the Stavanger International Festival of Literature and Freedom of Speech convened PEN, representatives from the old Parliament of Writers and representatives from some of the cities that wanted to continue the program. In a several day meeting, the outlines of what would become the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) were laid down with PEN as the vetting organization for applications and also a source of hospitality when writers arrived in their new temporary homes. ICORN remains active today in partnership with PEN in over 70 cities which promote and protect freedom of expression and host writers and artists at risk by providing housing, an income, literary arenas, scholarships and grants. PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and ICORN regularly hold biennial meetings together.
The following weekend at Princeton University the relatively new Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), founded in 2001, honored Liu Binyan, one of its founders and first President. ICPC’s members live both in China and abroad. The PEN Center gave them the ability to talk with each other and hold programs together, often in Hong Kong. Because of his writing and criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, especially after Tiananmen Square, Liu Binyan had not been allowed to return to China after an academic stay in the U.S. Though he never saw China again, in the U.S. he wrote and worked as Director of Princeton University’s China Initiative. (Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo was also a founder of ICPC and its second president.) At the dinner at the Princeton Faculty Club, ICPC members and China scholars presented Liu Binyan the book Living in Exile, written by distinguished essayists in China and abroad and dedicated to Liu who had spent considerable time in detention and in and out of labor camps. Later that year Liu Binyan passed away at his home in New Jersey.
In March “The International PEN Diyarbakir Seminar on Cultural Diversity” convened the largest and most ambitious conference that quarter in the primarily Kurdish southeast of Turkey. For years the Writers in Prison Committee had focused on cases in this dangerous region where fighting between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish military had resulted in multiple imprisonments and killings. However, a rapprochement appeared to be expanding between the government and Kurdish citizens. In this space, PEN International had been working with Kurdish PEN and Turkish PEN to prepare this historic meeting of the two centers, along with PEN’s leadership of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC). For the first time Kurdish writers and Turkish writers would speak side by side from the same stage in Kurdish and Turkish with translations of each language.
My predecessor as International Secretary Terry Carlbom had been instrumental in the planning, and we all agreed he should continue as coordinator of the seminar. Seventy delegates from a dozen countries gathered in the ancient city of Diyarbakir/Ahmed for five days. Diyarbakir dated back at least 5000 years, one of the oldest cities in the ancient land of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Later it was dominated by Persia and by Alexander the Great. Because of its strategic position, Diyarbakir’s sovereignty changed many times, was part of the Roman empire, later conquered by the Arabs in 639, by Tamerlane in 1394; the Ottomans conquered in 1515. Diyarbakir continued through cycles of battles for control.
Old Diyarbakir was a standard Roman town circled by a wall, the stones of which still stood. The black basalt wall was said to be second only to the Great Wall of China. Within the walls a labyrinth of cobbled streets and alleyways unfolded, leading to towers where we could see the rivers and gardens and the city’s mosques and street life below, where caravan travelers used to stop on the silk road.
Before the conference began, PEN International Program Director Jane Spender and I explored the twisting paths and shared black tea in a central plaza with Carles Torner, vice chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. As an American whose national history extended back barely 400 years, this accumulation of history in the streets and walls and buildings was mind-bending. In stones, in ideas…where did history reside and how did it evolve?
On the first evening Diyarbakir’s Lord Mayor Osman Baydemir greeted us at the Town Hall for a Newroz (New Year’s) reception. I thanked him on behalf of PEN for all he and the city had done to support this seminar. “It is a treat for us to visit one of the world’s oldest cities, with a history that could occupy the imagination of a community of writers like us for years to come,” I said. “Central to the Charter and ethos of PEN is a celebration of the universal which binds us as human beings and of the diversity which distinguishes each individual—the specific history, language and culture. It is our challenge and our aspiration as writers and members of PEN to provide the forums where cultures don’t clash but communicate. That is what we hope to do here in Diyarbakir.”
The first full day of the seminar we spent at the Newroz Festival. Our delegation was seated in an honored place in the bleachers which turned out to be behind the mother of Abdullah Öcalan, one of the founders and leaders of the PKK who was currently in prison. On the grounds in front of us spread thousands/ hundreds of thousands—some said a million people—celebrating the Kurdish new year, a time that coincides with the March equinox. Terry Carlbom and I were soon escorted to the main stage where we stood looking out over a sea of people as far as we could see, many in colorful local dress. Because PEN is specifically a nonpartisan/nonpolitical organization, we felt some ambivalence at the appearance of being swept into the Kurdish cause; on the other hand, the experience was one I won’t forget. The day was celebratory without violence. If there were political speeches, they were not translated for us, and we were accompanied by our Turkish colleagues who also attended.
That evening in opening the conference, I noted, “In Diyarbakir/Ahmed this week we’ve come together to celebrate cultural diversity and explore the translation of literature from one language to another, especially to and from smaller languages. The seminars will focus on cultural diversity and dialogue, cultural diversity and peace, and language, and translation and the future. This progression implies that as one communicates and shares and translates, understanding may result, peace may become more likely and the future more secure.”
The official program began with the Lord Mayor and the President of Kurdish PEN Dr. Zaradachet Hajo and the President of Turkish PEN Mr. Üstün Akmen and a keynote speech by Kurdish author Mehmed Uzun. The following evening Turkish writer Murathan Mungan delivered an introductory address to a public gathering.
At the conference itself Kurdish and Turkish writers, poets, publishers and translators shared history and literature across their linguistic borders. Through discussion and readings and performances, they addressed the importance of cultural diversity as a value in a culture of peace.
Renowned Turkish/Kurdish novelist Yaşar Kemal, former president of Turkish PEN, had been invited but was ill and sent a message instead. He noted that the world was going through a difficult period and was faced with terrible destruction. He asked, “What makes human beings? Love, compassion, peace, friendship…Human beings are the only creative beings in the world.” Local cultures are being destroyed and with that is the destruction of languages and art and values, he said. In life and death we have to stand against a terrible destructive force in favor of local and national culture. “I believe your meeting will be successful,” he predicted.
Kata Kulavkova, Chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee emphasized the importance of the capacity to imagine, the importance of cultural memory and openness to dialogue. “Europe needs all identities, including Kurdish identities,” she said, noting that every culture is the center of the world for itself. “Turkish and Kurdish culture depend on each other to promote Turkish/Kurdish universal culture.”
Hüseyin Dozen of Kurdish PEN noted that literary translation helps a language to flourish; languages that are not standardized are enriched by literary translation which is an art rather than a scientific discipline. As far as languages that have no official status or have been prohibited, oral literature plays a central role, and the work of a translator must not neglect this kind of literature in his work.
PEN Vice President Lucina Kathmann led a discussion on “Bridging Borders” among women writers. Müge Sökmen of Turkish PEN moderated a discussion on Diversity and Literary Translation; Kurdish PEN member Berivan Dosky moderated a discussion on Cultural Diversity and Peace; Turkish PEN’s Vecdi Sayar led the discussion on Cultural Diversity and Dialogue, and Aysu Erden of Turkish PEN moderated a panel on Cultural Diversity and Linguistic Diversity.
One of the highlights of the conference was a visit to Hasankeyf, reputed to be the oldest continuing settlement on the planet and a cradle of civilization. Built into the sandstone cliffs in southeast Turkey, Hasankeyf had yielded relics that dated the site even earlier than the 12,000 years recorded, perhaps as old as 15,000 years. This Kurdish town of southeast Anatolia was threatened by a dam the Turkish government planned to build on the Tigris River. The Ilisu Dam would drown the town as the water was diverted and eventually would submerge Hasankeyf under as much as 400 feet of water.
As we journeyed up the stone steps to the ruins of Hasankeyf Castle and later as we ate lunch in a cave, then bought small souvenirs from children who lived in the town, our delegation fell in love with the setting and the people. Several of us returned home and began writing about Hasankeyf in an effort to preserve its heritage. We were not alone. Worldwide protests to save this ancient site had been lodged, and the dam had been delayed. I set a google alert so that every time there was mention of the Ilisu Dam, I would know. Lucina Kathmann and I began exchanging latest news.
In spite of worldwide protests, the giant Ilisu Dam was completed after many delays in July, 2019. It began to fill its reservoir, tapping water from the Tigris River and diverting it from Iraq. The rising water levels are now slowly submerging the town of Hasankeyf, flooding the area which had been settled for millennia. The population for the most part has had to move. The waters have risen 15 meters and continue to rise around 15 centimeters per day, according to a February report by Reuters.
Turkey’s rapprochement with the Kurds has also taken a turn away from the opening and the cultural diversity we celebrated in the 2005 Diyarbakir Seminar. But literature was exchanged there; friendships were made, and the dialogue among PEN members continues. Individual by individual has always been the strength and the modus operandi of PEN.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 35: Turkey Again: Global Right to Free Expression
As I write these PEN Journeys, memory differs with each one. I sit and think, pulling up whatever memories I have. Some are visual; some are of activities, some of the twists and turns in PEN itself; many are of friends, a few of incidents; others come from concurrent parts of my life such as moving to London with my family and connecting to work at International PEN headquarters (PEN Journey 5), or scaling the Berlin Wall just after Germany reunited (PEN Journey 4), or visiting Russia shortly after the coup attempt (PEN Journey 8).
I have paper documentation for most of PEN’s events, not because I was an archivist in the making but more of a packrat who was too busy to sort through papers after a congress or conference and so set the files in a drawer. I am not even accounting for all the emails and digital files that began to accumulate in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. In my recounting, I am only now entering that period when the internet and email were burgeoning. For some of the Journeys I have photographs, but my picture-taking was random in retrospect, probably reflecting my role at the time. The more work I had, the fewer pictures. There were no iPhones or Android phones during these earlier years so I had to have a camera at hand. In certain years I have no photographic record of PEN though some may yet turn up in the recesses of my basement. There are, however, always pictures in my head.
For the Writers in Prison Committee’s (WiPC) third biannual meeting in Katmandu, Nepal in the spring of 2000, I have lots of pictures. We were celebrating the 40th anniversary of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. As ex-chair, I helped with the conference, but the burden of the meeting wasn’t mine so I was also out with camera in hand. In my head I still carry the landscape of Nepal—the hills outside Katmandu with the haze over mountains in the distance, the woman in a red sari walking up the hill carrying bundles of sticks, the gentle landscape and the harsh conditions.
I arrived a few days early to visit schools and women’s education projects relating to other work I did, some as a board member of Save the Children. By the time I joined the PEN Conference, I had already fallen in a soft love with the country and its people, the old—sometimes centuries old—and the new culture: Katmandu with its rickshaws and bustling streets and vibrant colors and the hills outside where farmers still farmed with oxen plowing the fields and children high in the hills crowded into village schools and women learning to read in makeshift community libraries. And there was the nation’s complicated governing system with a privileged royal family which only a year later would be massacred by one of its own and in the hills a Maoist insurgency developing which threatened the government and population for years to come. Nepal was as dramatic a place as the landscape it occupied.
At PEN’s WiPC conference, 43 writers gathered from 25 countries representing every continent except Africa where the costs had limited attendance. Before the meeting WiPC chair Moris Farhi and I and the WiPC staff met to identify areas of work that needed review and possible restructuring. From a survey of the centers we developed discussion points which were circulated before the meeting. Since the fall of the communist states, PEN had seen a growth in membership, an increase in freedom of expression work by the centers, and an expanded use of email and the internet. The innovation in communications was having an impact on the way PEN did its work and challenged old methodologies such as letter-writing campaigns.
The agenda developed included workshops on the use of the internet, on PEN’s WiPC case list and newsletter, on PEN’s commitment to journalists in peril as compared to writers who had no other organization to protect them. We considered crisis situations and the changing nature of repression, including nongovernment and non-custodial forms of repression, WiPC relations with international organizations, the role of PEN’s Congress, the role of regional centers and networks, the value of PEN missions to other countries, and always, the discussion on how to fund the work and how to assure those finances included funds to bring delegates from every region to future meetings.
Looking back at the program, it appears exhaustive (or exhausting), though I don’t recall it as tedious or overwhelming. With each workshop, the group developed a summary of the situation and recommendations. For example, a recommendation was to post on PEN’s website, accessible to everyone, the information on the RAN special actions. The RAN (Rapid Action Network) itself was a relatively new tool which was sent out over the internet for immediate action on certain PEN cases. It was also agreed and recommended in another workshop that journalists should continue to be part of PEN’s campaigns and that PEN should collaborate more closely with journalists’ organizations.
Reading through the minutes and recommendations of the four-day meeting, I am impressed by the professionalism of the work of the WiPC staff, small as it was, just Sara Whyatt, Program Director and Cathy McCann, Asia researcher.
As well as workshops and discussions, we were entertained by local groups and also entertained ourselves with song and dance in the evening as we had at the first WiPC conference in Helsingør (PEN Journey 17).
On the last day UNESCO sponsored a panel The Culture of Peace: Censorship and the Writer which PEN Nepal President Greta Rana introduced, observing that censorship led to violence and that 47 journalists in South Asia were currently imprisoned for addressing free expression issues. Sara Whyatt in her introduction of the printed talks noted that free expression was inextricably entwined with the promotion of peace for without voices to challenge dictatorships and warmongers, peace would be an even rarer commodity than it was.
Because I don’t need copyright permission to reprint my talk, I take the liberty of sharing it below. Other panelists included Ratna Sarumpaet, an Indonesian script writer whose play about the plight of women laborers led to her imprisonment; Kunda Dixit, a Nepali journalist who spoke about the role of the free media in ensuring objectivity in times of pressure from political and corporate interests; Shahid Nadeem, a Pakistani playwright long exiled in England, who told of returning to Pakistan where critical voices were still seen as a threat; WiPC Chair Moris Farhi who noted that xenophobia and religious fanaticism were increasingly dangerous elements; Rajeev Rajbhandari, a Nepali internet expert, who argued it was not the content of the internet that was problematic but the uses of its new technology; Romesh Gumesekere, a Sri Lankan author and poet, who identified illiteracy as an encumbrance to the promotion of free expression; and myself whose talk below began with the poem of the renowned Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet:
The prisoner Halil
closed his book.
He breathed on his glasses, wiped them clean,
gazed out at the orchards,
“I don’t know if you are like me,
But coming down the Bosporus on the ferry, say
making the turn at Kandilli,
and suddenly seeing Istanbul there,
or one of those sparkling nights
of Kalamish Bay
filled with stars and the rustle of water,
or the boundless daylight
in the fields outside Topkapi
or a woman’s sweet face glimpsed on a streetcar,
or even the yellow geranium I grew in a tin can
in the Sivas prison—
I mean, whenever I meet
with natural beauty,
I know once again
human life today
must be changed . . .”
—Nâzım Hikmet, Human Landscapes
In 1938 Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63) was sent to prison, charged with “inciting the army to revolt,” convicted on the sole evidence that military cadets were reading his poems. He was sentenced to 28 years but was released 12 years later in 1950. His “novel” in verse, Human Landscapes from My Country, was written in prison, featuring Halil, a political prisoner, scholar, and poet who was going blind….
Today in Istanbul journalist Nadire Mater is charged with “insulting the army” for her book Mehmet’s Book, a collection of interviews with soldiers who have served in the conflict with the Kurds in the Southeast of Turkey. Nadire Mater and her publisher will be in court in early May to face charges, which could bring them at least six years in prison.
I’d like to read a brief passage from one of the interviews in Mehmet’s Book:
These friends coming from the West didn’t really know any Kurds, because they don’t know any they couldn’t really understand very well. What should be said about this? They are not familiar, and not being familiar, they act according to the government’s opinion…They’ve adapted to what they hear and read. I would explain to these friends that the other side is human, that the politics of the government is wrong.
We all of course adapt to what we hear and read. That is why it is so important that we have the opportunity to consider many points of view. The reality we carry in our heads and in our hearts shapes us as individuals and governs us as nations. Writers are the ones who produce what people read. The writer bears both the responsibility and the liability for his words and the realities they evoke. The writer can be a positive instrument for change as Hikmet saw the need, or as we have seen in the past decade in the Balkans, the writer can inflame animosities. The writer is not always the hero, but at his or her best, the writer can build bridges, reporting on and imagining not only himself, but those who are not him, illumining he humanity that connects us.
Peace between people relies on such bridges. The nature of a bridge is to span the space between points. The pilings of a bridge absorb the tension as one crosses over the space. However, censorship undermines, even destroys the pilings. The censor would allow only a limited view of reality, and by disallowing other views, the censor cuts away at the pilings necessary to build the bridge between him and the so-called enemy.
Censorship takes many forms. Whether it be brutal killings as in Iraq, death threats as in Peru and Colombia, long term prison sentences as in Burma and China or shorter terms as in Cuba or endless court cases as in Turkey where writers say the judicial process itself is punishment, the effect of censorship is to weaken or even tear down the bridge and to freeze up the imagination that envisions this bridge.
Fortunately, however, the imagination is a nimble and wily companion. It is also the natural enemy of the tyrant. While a man or woman can be censored, threatened, even put behind bars, his ability to think and imagine other worlds can defy and even eventually triumph over the most ruthless tyranny. I still remember reading and hearing the testimony of writers in prison in the Western Sahara in the early 1990’s when they were forced to live in subhuman conditions. They spoke about how they used their ration of soap to write poetry on their trousers, used coffee grounds to write on any scrap of paper they could find in the prison yard. They then memorized each other’s verses to stay alive and sane. The prison guards told them they might as well forget the outside world for they would die in prison. But they could imagine another world, and they lived in their imaginations, and those outside prison imagined them and worked on their behalf. Ultimately they were freed.
In the work PEN does for writers we have observed tragedies, but we have also witnessed the resiliency of writers and the power of ideas to find their way.
I have always found instructive the story of the Zimbabwean novelist Solomon M Mutswairo. Writing in the 1950’s Mutswairo knew the implication of his message and the sting of the British censor so he cast his story in the ancient kingdom of his people. The political content went unrecognized by the British, who in an expansive mood in 1956 published his novel Feso as the first novel in the Shona language. The Shona people, however, understood the story of protest against oppression. When the British finally realized what they had published, they came to arrest Mutswairo, who happened to be teaching in the U.S. at the time. He protested from afar. But how can you arrest me when you are the ones who published my book! Feso later became a rallying cry for independence.
Today with the move towards democracy around the world, fewer countries routinely throw writers in prison, but PEN still monitors cases of writers in over 80 countries, including Nepal. In many countries the struggle towards democracy has not yet yielded the full freedom of expression, including a free press, that is essential.
Freedom of expression is an engine and a safety valve in strong working democracies for that is how the population both expresses itself and gains information and different points of view in order to make decisions.
Historically democracies have not gone to war with each other. Since we are considering a “culture of peace” in this panel, we do well to pay attention to the freedom of expression on which strong democracies are built. With imagination one may envision the bridge to peace; the writer may articulate the vision but it is up to us all to walk across that bridge. Let us hope its pilings are secure.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 24: Moscow—Face Off /Face Down: Blinis and Bombs—Welcome to 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.
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.
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.
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.
Next Installment: PEN Journey 14: Speaking Out: PEN’s Peace Committee and Exile Network
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.
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:
Do you know where your poet is?
Well, they have dragged me into a dark,
Narrow, lonely cell,
And do you know why,
For not allowing fear to carry me away.
But I am not completely alone,
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,
Because I know that it has inside it
Something that I also possess.
It seems that the guard does not know this.
Do you know where your poet is?
Well, they have dragged me to a cold,
Narrow, lonely cell.
And do you know why,
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…”
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.
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.N in 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.
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 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 on the Horizon?
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: Death and Its Threat: The Ultimate Censor
PEN International celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been active in PEN for more than 30 years in various positions and now as an International Vice President Emeritus. With memories stirring and file drawers of documents and correspondence bulging, I am a walking archive and have been asked by PEN International to write down memories. I hope this personal PEN journey might be of interest.
I moved to London where International PEN is headquartered in January 1990 from Los Angeles. I came with my husband and my 9 and 11-year old sons who rarely wore long sleeves, let alone coats or jackets. A few weeks into our resettlement, London spun in its first major tornado of the decade with hail and winds whipping at hurricane force and cars and trees toppled and a few rooftops airborne. The weather was highly unusual for London. Our family, who was still in temporary housing, took the unwelcome weather as a welcome of sorts, signaling that we might just be in for an adventure. Did you see that roof flying…!
There were still complaints: only four television channels, movies strictly restricted by age and when you did get into a theater, you had assigned seats, milk that went bad in a day, delivered on the stoop in glass bottles, a refrigerator that barely held enough food for a day, appliances that came without plugs…And where was the sun?
Yet the magic of the city quickly affected us all. My youngest son discovered the best skateboarders lived in London, and London (and England) was full of history and castles, and my oldest son, who was soon moved ahead a grade in school because he was highly talented in math, met students from all over the world in his class at the American School, a few of whom talked and imagined in his orbit. He was put on the rugby team to help socialize and the following year on the wrestling team, where he eventually, as an adult and by then dual citizen, wrestled for Great Britain in the Olympics.
For me, finding home in London meant connecting with PEN, both International PEN and English PEN. Writers can be members of more than one PEN center, though can vote with only one center. I’d begun my PEN journey in Los Angeles at PEN Los Angeles Center (changed to PEN USA West). When my second book was published, I also joined PEN American Center, based in New York, and now in London. I joined English PEN, the oldest and the original PEN center since the organization was founded by British writers in 1921. International PEN and English PEN had separate offices, but the Administrative Secretary of International PEN and the General Secretary of English PEN were longtime friends and actually lived next door to each other in Fulham. The two organizations worked independently, yet closely together.
Early on I visited International PEN’s office, headquartered in Covent Garden on King Street in the Africa Centre. To get to the office at the front of the house, you had to go through the Africa Book Shop on the first floor. PEN had two rooms with several desks in the larger room with papers stacked everywhere. There was a filing cabinet and a photocopier and just enough space to squeeze between to get to the desk looking onto the street.
International PEN was kept functioning by the stalwart and efficient Elizabeth Paterson, who I don’t recall getting angry at anyone even as the work piled on and people around the world in PEN centers asked more and more of her, including the smart, demanding International Secretary Alexander Blokh. Alex flew in every month, usually from Paris, and displaced the Writers in Prison Committee’s small staff from the second office in order to conduct the business of PEN around the world. Alex was a former UNESCO official, and at that time UNESCO was one of International PEN’s major funders. When UNESCO was formed, according to Alex, it established organizations for the various arts, but when it came to literature, it recognized that PEN already existed, and so its outreach and funding funneled through PEN. Over the years PEN has grown more and more independent of UNESCO support.
Elizabeth, with her quiet intelligence and subtle humor, managed to keep International PEN running day to day while Alex developed the literary and cultural programs with the centers and the standing committees—the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee, the Peace Committee, and the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). The WiPC tended to operate more autonomously with its elected chair Swedish publisher Thomas von Vegesack and before him Michael Scammell. When I arrived in London, there was also a petite gray-haired woman Kathleen von Simson, a volunteer who’d helped manage the Writers in Prison Committee work for years. PEN had recently hired a paid Coordinator Siobhan Dowd whose task was to professionalize the human rights work, and Siobhan hired researcher Mandy Garner. The two of them worked in the tiny second room. Siobhan eventually crossed the ocean to head up the Freedom to Write program at American PEN.
Also finding space on King Street was the Assistant Treasurer (and later International Treasurer) Bill Barazetti, who at that time was an unsung hero from World War II. It was later publicized that Bill had smuggled hundreds of Jewish children out of Prague with false identity papers he arranged. He was a wiry gray-haired former intelligence officer who’d also interrogated captured German pilots. Alex Blokh, whose pen name was Jean Blot, was an exiled Russian Jew, a lawyer and had also been active in the French Resistance during World War II, and Elizabeth had endured the bombings in London during the War. Though it was 1990 and the Berlin Wall and other barriers which had gone up after World War II were now falling, in the PEN office there was still a feeling of that post-War period, an abstemiousness and a fortitude of the dedicated amateur who knew what sacrifice was and endured no matter what. I couldn’t articulate the atmosphere at the time, but as an American born after the war, grown up in Texas and moving to London from Los Angeles, I felt the contrasts and the constraints. One small incident I remember was when a donation for a baby gift for the newly hired Sara Whyatt was being gathered. I offered £20 for the pot and was told by Elizabeth, “Oh, no, that amount would embarrass her.” The concept of anyone being embarrassed by a pooled £20 contribution silenced me. I put in £10 instead, still considered a large amount. Because I was new and an American, I tried to listen and learn, but I understood expectations and horizons were different.
A generation of my own joined the office in the persons of Jane Spender, a former editor, smart and literary who worked with Elizabeth and later Gilly Vincent, who took on the part time assignment to help with development work for the eventual International PEN Foundation. (see PEN Journey 4) Later Gilly became General Secretary of English PEN. I quickly learned to respect the differences; the American way was not the British way. I remember a fundraising event in which there must have been 20 major English writers featured and attending, and the ticket price was £25. The PEN Foundation netted perhaps £3000 that evening. In New York with that line up of writers, I am confident American PEN would have added at least one, if not two, zeros to the proceeds, but we were in London, and the event was not a glittery affair but more like a large family gathering of literary friends at someone’s home.
PEN International moved its offices in 1991 from Covent Garden to Charterhouse Buildings in Clerkenwell nearer the City of London. The new offices were on the top floor of a bonded warehouse, and I never met anyone who didn’t arrive breathless after climbing the steep four or five flights of stairs. There was no elevator, but there was an outside hoist where PEN could load supplies and mail out the window and drop or raise these to and from the ground, preferably not in the rain. Elizabeth set the door code as the beginning and ending years of World Wars I and II, an 8-digit code everyone could remember. The offices at Charterhouse Buildings were spacious compared to King Street—two large airy rooms, one for the Writers in Prison Committee and one for all the other work of PEN, a spacious entry room used as a meeting area and a smaller private office where the International Secretary could work or small meetings could be held. All the rooms were painted “magnolia”–a creamy white/yellow color. The full-time staff by then was, I think, three, along with four or five part-time staff and volunteers, including Jane Spender, Peter Day, editor of PEN International magazine, Bill Barazetti and later his daughter Kathy and occasional interns.
When Siobhan prepared to leave for the U.S., Thomas asked me to interview candidates with him for her replacement. Between interviews he explained to me his view of England in the constellation of Europe by a story of when a fog settled over the English Channel and the headline in a British paper announced: Continent Isolated. Later, when the Channel Tunnel finally connected Great Britain to France in 1994, I sent Thomas a note and a copy of the headline from a British paper: “You’ll be glad to know, Thomas: Continent No Longer Isolated, the headline read.
Thomas and I agreed on the best candidate, and PEN hired Sara Whyatt as the new Program Director of the Writers in Prison Committee. Sara came to PEN from Amnesty and set about further professionalizing WiPC’s research and advocacy work. Sara and Mandy split up the globe, with Mandy focusing on Latin America and Africa.
Across London in Chelsea, English PEN rented offices from the London Sketch Club on Dilke Street where it held weekly literary programs, a monthly formal dinner, an annual Writers Day Program honoring one writer—Arthur Miller, Graham Greene, and Larry McMurtry were three I recall—and a mid-Summer Party. The literary programs and dinners, held in the Sketchers studio and bar, featured writers such as Michael Ignatieff, Germaine Greer, Michael Holroyd, Jan Morris, Rachael Billington, A.L. Barker, Penelope Lively, Andrew Motion, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Foster, William Boyd, Margaret Drabble, Iris Murdoch, and frequently Antonia Fraser, Harold Pinter and Ronald Harwood, just to name a few.
When I moved to London and joined English PEN, the General Secretary Josephine Pullein-Thompson, a stalwart writer/member, managed the organization and kept it running with minimal staff and with active members. Author of young adult novels, Josephine wrote books about young girls and horses. When I close my eyes, I can hear her gruff voice and see her square face and think of horses. She was pragmatic and no-nonsense and what I think of as the epitome of a certain era of British resolve. She befriended me early, I think, because I was focused on a task—getting charitable status for PEN International which ultimately allowed English PEN to claim the same. It was Josephine years later who nominated me as a Vice President of International PEN.
Members of English PEN were passionate about PEN’s mission to protect and speak up on behalf of writers under threat in oppressive regimes. Among activities, members, including notable British writers such as Ronald Harwood, Harold Pinter, and Antonia Fraser, who were good friends, and Moris Farhi, a Turkish/British novelist with a great beard, great girth and great heart, who later succeed me as Writers in Prison Chair, and dozens of other English PEN members held vigils, often by candlelight. They protested outside embassies of countries where writers were in prison. They got press coverage and ultimately helped secure the release of writers, particularly those in former Commonwealth countries like Malawi.
Malawian poet Jack Mapanje recalled his spirit lifting when he saw the press clippings of Harold Pinter and others protesting outside the Malawi Embassy in London on his behalf. When he was released, he resettled in England and joined English PEN.
Next Installment: Freedom and Beyond…War on the Horizon